Kelvin MacKenzie: White City Whoppers (or, my beef with Five Live)

It's not a level playing field, says our man in radio, who cries foul over the BBC's football tactics
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The Independent Online

The BBC may be in the process of being defeated creatively. It may be going backwards in terms of technology. But there is an area of life in which it is undisputed leader. In lying. In dissembling. In twisting.

It employs 100 PRs within its serried ranks to push the fact that the corporation is now, in my opinion, the Home of the Whopper.

The other day, my attention was drawn to a 48-page document that was submitted by BBC Radio Five Live to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to support its Charter Renewal. There was page after page of self-glorifying bumf about the station, including the little-known fact that Five Live producers try to make its programmes "appealing and interesting to its audiences". More statements of the bleeding obvious shortly.

Tucked away on page 44 comes the rub. Five Live's boss, Bob Shennan, an amiable cove, if not the sharpest tack in the carpet, says that Five Live "had agreed to relax previously held exclusivity" in order to allow talkSPORT, my company, access to some sports.

From my memory, they were sports such as the tortoise-throwing championship, tossing the Camembert, and smacking the radish, ie, the BBC will share any sport that has no audience.

So, let us turn to football. The BBC acknowledges that the Premier League is the "jewel in the crown". Five Live, it says, has kept exclusivity because of the "importance of the contract". Important? In what way? Culturally? No. Intellectually? No. I think that what the Five Live guys actually mean is that the matches bring in massive audiences and they would rather cut off their dicks than share it.

So, how is it that a tax-funded organisation - fundamentally, a radio station run by civil servants - can outbid a commercial venture?

First of all, the BBC (unlike me) can access unlimited amounts of money without any restriction on how it is spent. But to justify its spending, the BBC reveals in its DCMS document that for the last negotiation, in which it paid an astonishing £39m over three years for the Premier League, it used a consultant to decide its bid price. (A consultant, by the way, is a man who borrows your watch and then charges a fortune for telling you the time.) Imagine the scene when the consultant comes back and says: "Let's share the Premier League with talkSPORT, and that way, the cartel will be broken and the price will fall from £39m to a couple of million."

If that was the consultant's big idea, how long would he or she remain employed by the BBC? No, the way the game works is that the consultant crunches a load of numbers that work out the maximum amount talkSPORT could pay, and then they double the fee just to make sure. That way, the Premier League keeps the price high, the BBC maintains its monopoly, and the consultant gets hired the next time the rights come up. As my friend Richard Littlejohn would say, trebles all round.

That is, until now. Whereas the BBC paid £39m, we offered around £2.6m. So how did the consultants get it so wrong? The truth is that, in the wacky and wicked world of the BBC, there is no such thing as a pricing mechanism. The great crime is not to win the prize. You will be demoted a lot quicker at the BBC for underpaying rather than overpaying, which is why BBC Radio owns all the cricket, the FA Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Grand Prix. You name it, you the taxpayer has bought it. It's costing you £50m a year.

At the same time, the disingenuous Mark Thompson, the latest CEO of Whopper Inc, is claiming that the BBC is hard up and may lay people off. Mark, my old son, have you ever thought of saving money by getting rid of your negotiators? Or are they doing a good job away from the public spotlight, hugely overpaying while keeping a monopoly paid for by the taxpayer?

However, this time, the BBC and Premier League have incurred the wrath of Brussels where talkSPORT has complained to the European Commission regulators about the corporation's activities. The problem for the cartel crew and monopolists comes, among other things, at 3pm on Saturday afternoon. There are six 3pm games, and Five Live only broadcasts one (but broadcasts others on the internet, where nobody in a car or van can access them, and who wants to sit in front of a PC all day?). So they are hoarding the other five.

If the Premier League agreed to offer us second-pick rights, the BBC would threaten to offer much less for the whole package. It is illegal to keep products off the market to force up the price. Putting games online is not a substitute for analogue radio. There are 380 games a season, and Five Live has rights to up to 222. If we win in Brussels, I want the chance to broadcast these other 158 games.

If the price tumbles - good. I have no objection if other commercial radio companies fancy the football - if Virgin or Classic want to step up to the plate, great. If they overpay, then their share price and their CEO's career will suffer, and if it turns out to be a winner, good luck to them and more fool me for not having the courage to cough up.

But with the taxpayer-funded BBC, there's no such pain. In fact, there's a breathtaking arrogance among BBC employees as they throw our money around. You meet some of them, and they actually believe it's their money.

A quick study of the current BBC Charter (7b) shows that the corporation must conduct its business "in accordance with fair trading commitments and the highest standards of probity, propriety and value for money". How does Thompson square the circle of overpaying by £37m with these demands for the Charter? I, and other licence-fee payers, would be fascinated to learn.

When you think that life inside Whopper Towers can't get any better for the employees, and worse for those of us funding it, may I invite you to look at their pension scheme.

You can understand policemen, firemen and nurses receiving fantastic retirement benefits. At least they have put their lives on the line. But why do the 27,000 overpaid pen-pushers at the BBC pick up a guaranteed final-salary scheme so large that its pension pot is a now a billion in debt? After all, their major decision is whether to put out EastEnders at 7.30pm or 8pm. It may be hell out there for you, but it's lovely inside the mink-lined coffin for BBC employees. Never forget it.

Finally, I'm seeking further evidence on another disgraceful racket going on at the BBC. In order to comply with the 25 per cent independent production quota, the BBC gives the contracts to indies for the content as long as they use BBC Resources rather than commercial facilities houses for the outside broadcasts. This is killing private contractors while keeping a load of dimwits at BBC Resources in work. If you have any details on this and other rackets, please send an e-mail to bbc@feedback.com, and I will revisit the subject in a month.

Kelvin MacKenzie is chairman and chief executive of the Wireless Group, owner of talkSPORT (1089/1053am)

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