Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Beeb facelift doesn't improve media landscape

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The Independent Online

Like most Brits of my generation, I'm a huge fan of the BBC, but that doesn't stop me thinking it a mass of contradictions and flaws. The world the BBC was set up to cater for no longer exists and I'm not sure the Beeb commands anything like the same affection, loyalty and respect among younger audiences as it does with us baby boomers.

Like most Brits of my generation, I'm a huge fan of the BBC, but that doesn't stop me thinking it a mass of contradictions and flaws. The world the BBC was set up to cater for no longer exists and I'm not sure the Beeb commands anything like the same affection, loyalty and respect among younger audiences as it does with us baby boomers.

The BBC's tax-funded status in an age of growing aversion to state subsidy makes it seem more of an anomaly by the day. On the one hand it is the closest thing there is to a global brand in broadcasting - at least in terms of recognition and trust - but on the other the licence fee bars it from properly exploiting this extraordinary advantage by extending its reach into international markets.

The BBC produces some of the best TV and radio in the world, yet by occupying such a prominent position in the British media, it crowds out competition and prevents the proper development of more commercially orientated broadcasters and producers. Even ITV, with its powerful grip on the TV advertising market, has found itself ill equipped to compete on programming with the licence-fee-funded heavy artillery of the BBC. The effect of this 10-ton gorilla sitting there at the heart of the British media is to distort the market and to stifle enterprise and innovation.

Though we have some choice on whether to take pay TV, or can vote with our feet if we don't like what the commercial broadcasters are giving us, we have no option but to keep paying the licence fee and consume whatever it buys us, however much we might object to Auntie's view of the world, her prejudices, and her judgements of what we ought to see and hear.

Most of the time, this dictatorship of taste, news and culture is benign in nature, but it can also be dull, patronising and old fashioned. Few would want the BBC dismantled, outside its competitors that is, yet it is hard to think of the Beeb as anything other than a faintly eccentric throwback to a bygone age of state control of the airwaves. It is there because it is there. Few politicians with an eye to achieving a government position would advocate slaying such a sacred cow. There are plenty of consultations and reviews going on ahead of charter renewal in 2006, but the result is a foregone conclusion.

By slashing bureaucracy so that the money can instead be spent on programming, the BBC's new director general, Mark Thompson, is very much following the fashion of the moment. This is what the Government is trying to do with the civil service so that there will be more money for front-line services, and it is what the Tories say they'll do even more of should they ever get their hands on the levers of power again. To justify the licence fee, Mr Thompson has to demonstrate that the money is being spent wisely and effectively. He wants to spend "less on process and more on content".

Yet though he is doubtless doing the right thing, it won't improve the lot of rival broadcasters, or help generate a properly competitive landscape for the British media industry. On the contrary, if the purpose of Mr Thompson's cuts is to grab even more audience share, then it will only make a bad situation worse. In an age of multichannel TV, Mr Thompson wants to so flood the land with BBC-commissioned product and channels that nobody else gets a look in.

This might not have seemed such a bad idea if the BBC were able to use its dominance of its home market to go out and conquer the world. The reality is that the Beeb must remain a largely land-locked organisation of limited international ambition. Not for the BBC the headlong expansion into America and Asia which has so consumed Rupert Murdoch these past 15 years. Its charter and its tax-funded status wouldn't allow it. Instead, the BBC is condemned to remain a parochial backwater of British broadcast endeavour. For the time being, its brand name is strong and trusted internationally, but in a fast globalising multi-media landscape, it cannot hope to remain so.

Dot.com fever again

CBSMarketWatch is one of those relatively professional but otherwise undistinguished "free" financial news websites of which there used to be a proliferation. Remarkably, quite a lot of them survived the dot.com bust, especially in the US, to eke out a low rent living in these more sober times of unremarkable business news coverage and analysis. Yesterday's "front page" was a predictable mix of stories about job losses at Colgate, the BBC and CSFB. No surprises there then.

But hold on. What's this? "Have investors learned nothing?" thunders a man called Herb Greenberg in the section labelled "Commentary". Bubble mentality is again running rampant on Wall Street, he observes, and he plainly thinks no good will come of it.

He can say that again, for CBSMarketWatch has just been sold for an astonishing $519m after an auction involving Dow Jones, Viacom, The New York Times, Yahoo! and the Financial Times, owned by Pearson. The FT which already owns 22 per cent of the site, briefly toyed with the idea of buying the rest, but when Marjorie Scardino, Pearson's chief executive, saw the way the price was moving she sensibly decided to take her share, $114m, and run. Like "Herb", she's plainly learned something from the last time around, when she lost a king's ransom on FT.com.

Dot.com fever has indeed returned to Wall Street, and although those glorious days when it was possible to raise millions for almost any old internet venture, however hare-brained or illusory, have gone for good, in some respects it is just as bad as the last time. Google has nearly doubled in value since it was floated in August on what even then looked an heroic valuation. The moment the lock-up ended, the company's youthful founders offloaded as much stock as they could decently get away with, which if you needed a sell signal at all at these rarefied levels with the lights flashing amber all around, is about as unmistakable as they come.

The buyer of CBSMarketWatch is Dow Jones, for which there may be some value in purchasing the website merely for the purpose of snuffing out the competition. Even so, Dow Jones will struggle to make its money back. Just in case you were wondering, Herb Greenberg is a shareholder in the company he writes for. Maybe there's something to be said for the bubble's second coming after all.

Women directors

According to a new survey from Cranfield School of Management, big companies that have women on their boards of directors tend to be better managed than those that don't. The fact that proportionately more of J Sainsbury's board is female than any other FTSE 100 company apart from Centrica rather disproves the point. Indeed, the inference drawn is complete tosh, even statistically, where it is found to be true only by an insignificant margin on a series of highly subjective measures of corporate governance.

None of this excuses the fact that the British boardroom remains largely a male preserve. Nearly a third of FTSE 100 companies have no women on their boards at all, which is decidedly odd. Indeed, women average out at just one female director for each FTSE 100 company, which is even odder. Less puzzling is the fact that female executive directors among our top companies are even rarer at just 17, or that there is still only one FTSE 100 CEO. It's called babies and young families, which most women would find incompatible with the 12-hour days and constant travelling of a top chief executive.

Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, is right to resist calls for quotas. Directors should be selected on their merits, not their sex or colour, but one cannot help but think the boardroom that remains womenless is missing out, not just on the talents of half the human race, but also on an usually civilising and highly practical influence.

jeremy.warner@independent.co.uk

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