Stephen Glover: I fear that this BBC benevolence is a cynical act of self-promotion
Monday 03 August 2009
There have always been critics of the BBC on the Right, but in recent months the Corporation has come under a sustained fusillade from many quarters. I admit that the odd bazooka has been fired from my bunker. Some complaints are about taste and alleged political bias. There is also a general grumble that the BBC is simply too big.
Its bosses are understandably alarmed by these attacks, and they realise a Tory government may be less sympathetic. This explains why they agreed last week to share online video news content with newspaper websites. The Corporation knows its very successful free website is seen by papers as unfair competition – the most egregious example of the recession-proof BBC sticking its greedy fingers into other people's crumbling pies.
So it has cunningly come up with a plan that suggests it cares about hard-pressed publishing groups. Four of them – Daily Mail and General Trust, Guardian News and Media, Telegraph Media Group and Independent News and Media – will carry BBC news videos. And why not, you may say? None of these publishers provide much, if any, homegrown visual content, and the Corporation's clips will enhance their websites.
But let's not pretend the BBC is motivated by altruism. There is no better way of legitimising its much criticised website – and protecting it from brickbats elsewhere in the media – than to share parts of it with its critics. Newspapers will find it more difficult to attack the BBC for having a free website if they regularly draw on it themselves.
Nor is the BBC giving anything way. Far from being an exercise in altruism, the agreement could be interpreted as a cynical act of self-promotion. If I am browsing, say, The Guardian's website, and open a BBC video clip, it will be branded as the BBC's. And, if I follow the links, lo and behold I will be swept along to the Corporation's own website. The BBC will probably end up attracting more traffic to its website as a result of what is presented as a generous act of sharing.
In a way I take my hat off to Mark Thompson, the director general, and his overpaid sidekicks. At one and the same time they are undermining the case of their critics and promoting the BBC's interests, while hoping to come up smelling of roses. It is particularly difficult to understand why Telegraph Media Group and Guardian News and Media, both of which have a limited capacity (and greater ambition) to produce their own video content, should be so eager to use the BBC's.
There is a further worrying aspect to this affair. News International, which owns The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and News of the World, has rebuffed the BBC's overtures. So too has Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Daily Mirror, and Express Newspapers. The press is split over an issue – its future on the internet – where it needs to be united.
Newspapers will only be able to charge for access to their websites if they act together. It makes no sense for The Times to charge while The Daily Telegraph remains free. Needless to say, I am not in favour of newspapers asking readers to pay because I want them to fill their coffers with gold. Unless they succeed in monetising the internet, some titles face decline or even closure – which is not in the public interest.
I realise the issue of BBC video clips is a separate one, but I regret that the Corporation should have succeeded in dividing, and apparently ruling, our national newspapers.
Guardian has taken Mirror's trolley in intensive care
There is a general rule in life that one often spends time fretting about the wrong people. I had long assumed that before the end of the year we would be sending food parcels to Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror. Last October the company's shares stood at just over 5p, valuing it at about £13m.
Now it seems that investors may have panicked. Last week, Trinity unveiled an operating profit of £49m, admittedly a decline of 31.4 per cent, but hardly catastrophic in the circumstances. There are even signs, according to Bailey, that the worst of the advertising downturn is over.
Of course, the company faces enormous editorial challenges with its national titles, all of which are haemorrhaging sales, but it isn't finished yet. As I write, the shares stand at 81.5p.
But just as I am mentally wheeling Trinity Mirror out of intensive care, a patient on another trolley hoves into view. It is Guardian Media Group (GMG), which last Friday announced a pre-tax loss of £89.8m in the year to 29 March. These appalling figures include a loss of £36.8m on The Guardian and The Observer, which we already knew about. The rest is accounted for by losses on the group's other newspaper as well as its radio operations.
It is one thing to poke a stick at The Guardian when it seems in rude good health. When it lies on the floor heaving for breath, one's natural instinct is to empty one's pockets.
On the brighter side, GMG's separately accounted for venture with Apax Partners in Trader Media Group produced profits of £40.2m, though it lost £23.9m in its joint venture in Emap. I doubt whether £20m of identified savings across GMG will now be sufficient, and I fear the company's plans for world domination will have to be put on hold.
Newsnight took a dim view of the Great War
One of my recurring thoughts is that even the trashiest newspapers provide a far more serious forum for debate and discussion than supposedly upmarket television programmes.
The final item on last Friday's Newsnight on BBC2 used the funeral of Henry Allingham, the veteran of the Battle of Jutland who died recently, as a launchpad for a discussion about some of the effects of the Great War. My spirits perked up a little bit when I saw that my friend Andrew Roberts, the distinguished historian, had been matched with Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate.
Alas, all hopes were dashed. On a not particularly busy evening for news, only five minutes or so were given over to issues that have preoccupied hundreds of historians. Martha Kearney asked Mr Roberts and Mr Motion four rather predictable questions each. All that was established was what every GCSE student knows – that the Great War led to a breakdown of deference and a transformation of society. What was the point of it all? Such a process would make Shakespeare or Plato appear dim.
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