Ray Snoddy on Broadcasting
The big beasts of the BBC are right to challenge savage budget cuts
Monday 10 September 2007
The fate of the BBC will be announced next month – or, at least, how the lower-than-hoped-for licence fee money is going to be deployed. The only certainty is that many jobs will be lost. The big question is which ones.
There is a great danger that a cosy deal will be done between the BBC Trust and BBC management behind closed doors – just like the old days – and that, as a result, fundamental issues will remain unaddressed.
Some of the big beasts have had their say. John Humphrys the Today presenter is absolutely outraged that the budget of radio in general and the Today programme in particular is about to be savaged. Jeremy Paxman, the Newsnight presenter, is incensed that his programme will be clobbered and yet more reporters' posts will be lost.
Both are right. Fewer reporters means more commodity news and fewer time-consuming, original investigations. And if the BBC is unable to produce world-class news and current affairs, it will become increasingly difficult to justify a universal licence fee.
Yet Paxman himself demonstrated after his MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival recently that there are difficult choices involved. He was asked if he could change one thing about the BBC, what would it be? The questioner just happened to be Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust and the very man with the power to make his wish come true.
The audience held their breath momentarily as they wondered what Paxo would come up with. Kill off BBC3 or BBC4? Give Panorama an hour a week in prime time or rescind any cuts for news and current affairs.
None of the above. The great interrogator could only manage some waffle about cutting out layers of commissioning editors, suggesting that he is better at asking questions than answering them.
So what are we going to end up with? There are three main options. The first is equal misery for all. The second is salami-slicing, where some of the slices are fatter than others. And the last would be to pull out of some activities or services altogether.
There is no history of the BBC pulling out of anything, unless forced to do so, almost irrespective of how low audiences are. As one BBC wag noted: "The BBC is like a short-sighted butcher – a finger in every pie."
The director-general Mark Thompson virtually ruled out closures by telling the in-house newspaper, Ariel, last week that having built up a portfolio of digital channels such as BBC3 "it would be a pretty big step to shut one down."
It looks, therefore, as if the lumpy salami slice model is going to win.
There may be a middle way that would transfer serious sums to news and current affairs and frontline BBC1 shows and drama. Perhaps BBC3 and BBC4 could be kept but their function amended. No doubt serious millions could be saved by greatly increasing the number of relevant repeats on both minority channels.
The real problem with the current process is the near complete lack of openness. For months, the Trust and senior management have been batting ideas back and forward in what is described as an "iterative" process. Apart from occasional, possibly self-serving leaks, little is known of the overall direction the BBC is about to take or how it is going to deal with the serious problems it faces.
One day next month, or maybe in November if the arm-wrestling gets too intense, the fait accompli will be unveiled. No proper consultation. No proper discussion with either staff or the most important people of all, the listeners and viewers who pay the licence fee.
Perhaps the BBC trustees could prove finally that they really are different from the governors who preceded them by having the courage to publish at least outline proposals of what they are minded to do before final decisions are taken.
At least then there could be some sort of appeal – and discussion – before the axes begin to fall.
* Everyone has been getting very excited this year about the prospects of delivering video material via broadband into the home. The enthusiasts have ranged from new players such as Joost and Babelgum to the old guard BBC and Channel 4, all of them licking their lips over new potential streams of revenue.
There has always been a potential cloud on the horizon – the cost of distributing premium content such as movies and hit television programmes is high when lots of people want to access the same thing at the same time.
Ages ago, Abe Peled, the chairman and chief executive of the television technology company NDS, was sending warnings. You could send music, voice and data via broadband "essentially free" but the space needed to ship moving pictures around the place added up to a different order of magnitude.
"My argument is that the assumption that you can send video for free and hide it within a £14.99 a month broadband subscription to millions of people is simply wrong," argued Peled, predicting that those who owned the "pipes" would have to charge extra.
That's exactly what now seems to be on the way. It is to be hoped that the fans of broadband TV have included this little contingency in their business plans.
TV Taliban have gone a step too far
It's confession time. I quite deliberately deceived BBC viewers last week, and quite a few other weeks too. Such activity is no longer fashionable.
First, I nodded insanely at the camera when the person I was supposedly listening to was no longer there – the infamous "noddies" that are widely used in the editing of television interviews.
Then, to make matters worse, we shamelessly went for the "reverses" – asking the questions again to make it look as if more of a conversation took place than actually did. "Cutaways" – picture clips inserted to make things more visually interesting – were also deployed.
Such artifice will be taboo if the new breed of Television Taliban, led by David Kermode, the head of Five News, gets its way. But why would Ian Jolly, my editor at NewsWatch, want to play fast and loose with his audience? Answer: it happened for good reasons.
The topic for the item in question was complex: Is there an anti-business bias in the BBC, and if so, what should the Corporation do about it? The interviewee, the BBC's business editor, Robert Peston, was eloquent and loquacious. The problem was how to fit 10 minutes of answers into a three-minute hole. That is where the noddies came in.
Fraudulent phone lines and phoney prizes have to be rooted out of broadcasting, but this trust business is starting to go too far. The cry should be openness, balance and fairness – combined with reasonable artifice.
Raymond Snoddy presents the BBC Television access programme, 'NewsWatch'
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