Biting back at Birtism
Just how will Chris Smith repay BBC goodwill?
Monday 26 May 1997
Yet there is one area of BBC endeavour where, so far, reports and effectiveness audits have been noticeable in their absence. It is patronage. At its disposal the BBC has boxes at the Albert Hall, seats at Wimbledon and the Cup Final. John Birt scrutinises his guest lists with care. Far be it from him to think in terms as crude as pay-back but he must sometimes be tempted to wonder if corporate largesse can be considered effective and efficient; if it's part of the marketing effort, does it actually work?
Consider - as he currently does - two fairly heavy recent consumers of BBC goodwill. One is the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, and the other is the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Chris Smith. Both are keen party-goers. Have all those visits to the Chelsea Flower Show and the Proms been in vain? Are they going to be friendly towards the Corporation and/or John Birt or are they - like Gordon Brown - going to turn all radical and exciting as they think about Murdoch, the media and specifically the future of public service broadcasting?
But, first, who are "they"? Broadcasting is formally Chris Smith's but everything to do with Rupert Murdoch is high-table stuff for Number 10: broadcasting is clearly one of ex-London Weekend Television producer Peter Mandelson's special subjects. In the short term John Birt can probably rest easy. Gerald Kaufman's fulminations about privatisation can be forgotten. The director-general knows, as Chris Smith will learn, that in practice there is very little a minister can quickly do to the BBC short of starving it of funds, and that - given Chris Smith's vocal and sincere affirmations of his regard for public service broadcasting - Labour is unlikely to do.
Last week Chris Smith met the BBC board of management and its governors as they got together for their formal review of the past year. When they broke up on Friday they did not stagger reeling from the conference chamber. Sweetness and light on all sides, by all accounts. Ministerial talk about reform looks unlikely to be matched by ministerial action, at least for a while.
What Chris Smith has said, pretty strongly, is that he dislikes Birtism and thinks the governance of the BBC needs reform. He knows at first hand how empty are the grandiose claims made for "internal markets" in the Health Service. The threat to introduce them secured useful changes, yes, and health has benefited from stronger management of the professionals - but that is not the same as endorsing the theoretical apparatus of purchaser/provider splits and internal contracting. It has not produced better medicine in health and there is little evidence it has produced better programmes on radio and television.
BBC staff say that despite such clear signals of ministerial thinking there have been no signs that managerialism is on the retreat. Short of using drastic reserve powers - the kind used by the former home secretary Douglas Hurd to slap a ban on IRA on-air voices - there is little he can actually do to force John Birt's hand.
One reading of the BBC's Venetian constitution would imply that the governors, having listened to him last week, would convey the Secretary of State's thinking to BBC management. That is unlikely. The governors are largely ciphers as far as management is concerned. As for their composition, it would at least be consistent if Chris Smith sought to do to them what Gordon Brown is proposing to do for the Court of the Bank of England - to make them less stuffy and, well, more expert.
Here Chris Smith does have the power - all he needs is an order in council - but does he have the political will? Sir Christopher Bland, appointed as chairman by the Tories, has years left in his contract. The new Secretary of State, a genuinely nice man, may well be reluctant to host a night of the long knives. His officials have already signalled as much, even as they admit the governance of the BBC is antediluvian and really ought to be reviewed as part of a rationalisation of the regulation of broadcasting.
Mr Smith is saying interesting things about over-emphasis on youth programming and the symbiosis between broadcasters and the domestic film industry. But the Department of National Heritage may turn out only to be a "bully pulpit" from which ministers pontificate.
At least in the short term. His room for manoeuvre, if he stays in office, is much greater. Based on what he has said not just about the BBC but about access to opera, charges for the British Library and the film industry, Chris Smith strongly believes in widening the culture, in getting different bums on more seats.
How does that point of political principle square with BBC moves into commercial broadcasting - making people pay for new services? The BBC says new "niche" services are entirely supplementary to its main purposes and indeed will facilitate expansion of its educational offer. Chris Smith may prefer a less diluted version of public service.
The broadcast world awaits the decision of the Independent Television Commission of which consortium gets the nod to go ahead with a digital terrestrial service. The BBC is in bed with Rupert Murdoch and will, if they win, need political backing if it is to avoid being pitched overboard, that is to say into the outer darkness of channel 232 on the keypad.
On the future of digital broadcasting, a politician whose life's work is the extension of access and opportunity is unlikely to end up on the opposite side to the BBC. But (see above) this matter touches Rupert Murdoch and will be for Tony Blair and the most intimate strategists of New Labour alone to settlen
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