Stephen Glover: Economies are a reality even the BBC must face
Media Studies: The economies the BBC is belatedly having to contemplate were accepted long ago by other media organisations
Monday 28 March 2011
The BBC is fretting about having to cut its costs by some 20 per cent over five years. Last week its director-general, Mark Thompson, mentioned 21 areas where cutbacks might be made. There seem likely to be (even) more repeats. BBC2 may shut down at midnight. Dear God, even Graham Norton's Friday night chat show is reportedly not safe. Meanwhile the Corporation's world news editor, Jon Williams, bleats that his budget for covering foreign news ran out "some time ago". He has already exceeded his "agreed overspend" (a strange concept, that) and would like Mr Thompson to bail him out. He says he has no cash because of an unprecedented spate of long-running foreign stories.
Does it occur to Mr Williams that other news organisations, from Sky News to ITN to many national newspapers, have also been required to cover the same stories? It is as though he is the sole unfortunate victim. I might feel sorrier for him if I had not been told that the BBC had 40 people on the ground covering last autumn's Chilean mining drama, on which it spent nearly £200,000.
Welcome to the real world. The economies the BBC is belatedly having to contemplate were accepted long ago by other media organisations, including all newspapers, which have to fend for themselves in the commercial sector. It was only when the Coalition unveiled its spending review last autumn, and George Osborne announced that the licence fee would be frozen for six years, that the penny finally began to drop.
But, my, what a time they had during the long binge years! The executives paid themselves whopping salaries. Even now, 135 of them receive more than the Prime Minister. Their expenses even rose during a recession that was described by the BBC as the most serious economic crisis for 80 years. Five-star hotels have been de rigeur for executives' trips abroad. One chap called Erik Huggers spent £627 and £538 on two taxi trips during a single visit to California.
As for the "stars", we all remember Jonathan Ross's three-year, £18 million deal. The man who negotiated that contract was Peter Fincham, who ran BBC1 for two years. In a radio interview on Radio 5 Live last week, he said that when he started his job he was told that he would "struggle to spend" his channel's budget, which is over £1.1 billion a year. Mr Fincham now works for ITV, and may be trying to win points by emphasising the BBC's prodigality. But don't the facts speak for themselves?
I believe the BBC can undergo cuts of 20 per cent without harming itself. Sack some executives, and reduce the salaries of those who remain. Halve expenses. (The BBC spent £13.3 million on taxis last year, including £2,000 a week ferrying Match of the Day pundits back to their homes.) Merge BBC4 with BBC2 – the former is much better, and does what the latter should be doing. It won't matter if BBC2 closes down during the afternoon or after midnight. Reduce the number of journalists sent abroad. (Some 430 staff were sent to cover the Beijing Olympics in 2008!) Just do some of the things that other media organisations have been doing for years.
Yet there is one part of the Corporation that has not enjoyed these bumper salaries and expenses for executives and "stars": the BBC World Service. It used to be funded by the Foreign Office but the Coalition has foolishly transferred it to the BBC – foolishly because the World Service is a long way down the food chain at the Corporation, and there is in any case no reason why the licence payer should fund a service which he or she does not listen to.
The relatively frugal World Service is being treated more harshly than the rest of the BBC, which has so much more fat to shed. A quarter of World Service jobs are due to be lost over the next three years, yet Mr Thompson said last week that reports that the BBC itself was planning to lay off 25 per cent of its staff were "complete bollocks". The BBC, which has blithely estimated that the number of people listening to the World Service every week will decline from 180 million to 150 million once the cuts bite, would never countenance a fall in its domestic audience of such proportions.
So far as I am concerned, the World Service is the best thing about the Corporation, a vestige of the high and noble ideals that once animated the entire organisation. We needn't worry about the cuts being visited on the bloated BBC – it will survive and thrive – but we should be concerned about the shrinking of the World Service, which is a force for good in many parts of the world, including some very dark corners, and the best advertisement there could be for British fair-mindedness and scrupulousness. Don't count on Mark Thompson to defend it.
Who would want to buy the 'Express'?
Barclays Capital has reportedly approached Richard Desmond to discover whether he might be prepared to sell his newspapers and magazines. According to Media Guardian last week, it was not sent away with a flea in its ear.
Mr Desmond might seem an unlikely seller of OK!, which is profitable, or the Daily Star, which is less so. But it seems perfectly plausible that he might want to offload the Daily Express, which continues to lose sales despite price cutting and promotion, and may never make decent profits again. There have been unproductive discussions with at least one newspaper group about the Express.
But who would buy it? It is unlikely to appeal to a billionaire trophy-hunter since it has lost the kudos it once had. The Daily Mail might conceivably be interested but why would it pay good money for something that could one day fall into its hands for much less? My guess is that Mr Desmond, who acquired Channel 5 last year, may be tiring of print, but, if he has, he may not find it easy to find a buyer for the Daily Express.
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