Tally ho: why Hunt has the scent of BBC blood in his nostrils
The Shadow Culture Secretary details his plans to transform the media landscape.
Monday 08 March 2010
BBC Three and BBC Four might think they've escaped the chop. After all, last week's strategic review saw the director general Mark Thompson spare those networks while taking the knife to other parts of the corporation's empire; the website, digital radio and magazines.
But the two digital television channels should think again because there may have to be further bloody incisions. Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative shadow culture secretary, is unconvinced such "expensive" services offer value for money. "These are channels costing nearly £100m each to run, but with very, very small audiences," he says. "There may be good public service broadcasting reasons why this investment is sensible but I'd like to hear arguments beyond the simple one that everyone pays the licence fee. The reality is that there isn't enough money even in the BBC's generous licence fee pot for it to produce programming for every single niche that exists."
The BBC saw last week's review as a historic occasion, a step-change when it redefined its priorities and made some concessions to those who argue that its expansionism is damaging the wider British media. But this momentous event caused Hunt to do little more than roll his eyes.
"I'm afraid I've just become slightly immune to the idea that any kind of review is going to herald big changes. A month after I became shadow culture secretary in July 2007 Mark gave a speech in which he said he wanted the BBC to be smaller and I don't think we've seen any evidence of that being implemented." If anything, the opposite has occurred and as commercial media has shrunk in an advertising recession, the dominance of the BBC has increased. "It feels bigger than it has probably ever felt," he says.
Private Eye always liked to caricature a complacent BBC top brass – free from commercial pressures – constantly rewarding themselves with "trebles all round" in the bar at Television Centre. But if Hunt has his way it will be pay cuts all round. "People find it very distressing when we have these extraordinary numbers – 382 people paid more than £100,000. It feels like BBC programmes are great but sometimes BBC management is living on a different planet to the rest of the country," he says.
Senior BBC management claim surveys show that executive salaries are of little concern to licence-fee payers, who it says are interested only in the corporation's content. "Saying the public aren't interested in BBC executive pay is like an MP saying that the public aren't interested when they buy a bath plug on expenses," says Hunt. "It's just ridiculous. Unemployment is extremely high and any stories of waste in public spending are things that concern people greatly.
"The BBC needs to make sure that it doesn't make the same mistake that MPs made in Parliament. The public feel that MPs aren't operating in the same world that everyone else is. That needs to be a wake up call to BBC management that they don't fall into the same trap."
To emphasise the point he criticises BBC spending on new buildings, recently exposed in a report by the National Audit Office. "These things are beginning to paint a picture of extravagant use of public resources at a time when licence fee payers are finding life very tough," he says. "I think they've got to be very, very careful. There have been a whole succession of things like this where BBC management has shown itself out of step with the public mood at the moment."
The Tories have seized on the salary and misdemeanours of Jonathan Ross as evidence of the BBC's lack of direction and Hunt is believed to want the corporation to demonstrate its transparency by publicising the amounts it pays to its talent.
Talking in Portcullis House, in a room overlooking Boadicea's statue and Westminster Bridge, Hunt argues that part of the BBC's problem is that its governance structure does not allow anyone to stand up to the director general, who also chairs the executive board of the BBC, which works with the BBC Trust, the corporation's governing body. "I think that the executive board that Mark Thompson chairs needs a separate chairman who has a different role to the director general, I think that would have helped Mark to avoid some of the problems that we've had over the last couple of years," says Hunt. "I think when it comes to an issue like Mark's own salary it's very hard for anyone on the BBC executive board to give Mark advice on how to handle that issue when he's the director general and the chairman of the executive board. If you had a chairman who was at one remove it would be possible to have a different kind of discussion. I think it would be in Mark's interests as much as anyone else. The best leaders need to have structures where they are getting advice from people who don't necessarily owe their jobs to that person."
If the Tories win the election the Trust will be closed down in 2016 when the current charter expires. In the meantime, having "an extra source of advice" on the BBC executive board might avoid the "series of mishaps" that have beset the corporation. Hunt takes a dig at the Trust's recent nest-building activities. "Spending all this money on their brand new headquarters is not I'm afraid a way to send a signal that using money wisely is going to be one of your priorities."
There are those at the corporation who will see Hunt's comments as evidence of a Tory desire to exact revenge for what some of the party faithful regard as unsympathetic coverage in the past. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw last week painted the Conservatives as "viscerally hostile" to the corporation. Hunt argues that an oversize BBC is damaging to the British media ecology. "The BBC has to be very careful with the market power that it wields because I don't think it's in anyone's interests, not licence fee payers, not the BBC itself, if it ends up being the only show in town," he says. "Usually the BBC's intentions are good but sometimes, unintentionally, it has a very negative impact on the market."
He claims he doesn't want to neuter the corporation, going out of his way to praise the Radio 4 Today programme as being without parallel in the world and "an extraordinarily powerful and impressive institution holding the political establishment to account".
Hunt says he has no personal battle with Thompson. "On a personal level I have found him easy to work with and his heart is in the right place," he says. "There's no doubt that Mark is very able." Neither would he demand a purge of those with past ties to Labour, such as Ofcom's chief executive Ed Richards, a former advisor to Tony Blair. "We are not if we win the election going to come in with an agenda to clear out everyone who's ever been associated with the Labour party, we will work with anyone who's prepared to work with us."
There is no need, he believes, for major changes in the regulation of the press, in spite of some of the commentary that accompanied the recent Commons Select Committee report, Press Standards, Privacy and Libel. "There are obviously times looking back over the last few years when the Press Complaints Commission could have worked better but I am a big fan of [PCC chairman] Peta Buscombe and I am also a believer in self-regulation," he says. "At the end of the day a free press causes a lot of pain for politicians but that is the way it should be in a healthy democracy and I think that self-regulation on the whole has worked well so we wouldn't want to change that."
But what of Tory relations with other media organisations? Has Rupert Murdoch's empire been lobbying for a relaxation of broadcasting regulations on political neutrality, in return for the support of his newspapers? "I've never been asked by Sky or anyone in News International whether the Conservatives have any plans to relax the impartiality requirements," he barks back. "This dates back to the time when The Sun decided to back David Cameron. There was a big effort by Labour to portray this as some secret deal. There is no deal, it is absolute nonsense. For some reason it was all right for News International to back Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 but as soon as they switch to the Conservatives there's supposedly some secret deal."
He thinks that a Conservative government would be good for local media companies, highlighting the prospects for Trinity Mirror, whose national titles are Labour's most partisan supporters in the media. "What we are proposing is a revolution in local media that would get rid of the cross media ownership rules at a local level and that would mean that if you are [Trinity Mirror chief executive] Sly Bailey you can say that I own the Liverpool Echo, I have got Liverpool.com, I've got Liverpool FM and I've got Liverpool TV, so if you want to reach people in Liverpool there's no better way. I think that would be a very compelling offer for advertisers."
Hunt claims the Tories have a better grasp of new media than their rivals. "We are streets ahead of the other parties when it comes to e-campaigning. We've learned some important lessons from the way that Barack Obama campaigned in the US and the way to meet particularly younger, uncommitted floating voters who are often very e-literate, spelt with an e and not an i." He has a Facebook page (249 friends) and is an enthusiastic user of Twitter. His tweets last week included barracking his opposite number ("Ben Bradshaw managed no less than three straight porkies at oral questions yesterday") and sucking up to the boss ("Sensational speech from DC, echoed DC we voted for in 2005. Party faithful v. happy").
Like David Cameron he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He is the son of a naval officer and was head boy at Charterhouse, though there is no sign of a plum in his voice and he goes out of his way to show he's a fan of mainstream television. When asked once before what programmes he watched, Hunt had picked out ITV's Britain's Got Talent, along with the Channel 4 drama Britz and Sky News. When I ask the same question he nominates the reality shows Wife Swap and Tower Block of Commons (both Channel 4) and ITV's The X Factor, which he prefers to the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing.
There's not much BBC content in there, I tell him. The Shadow Culture Secretary tries to correct this impression but his comments won't please BBC television executives. "I love Little Britain," he blurts out, even though David Walliams has already said that show is finished. And then Jeremy Hunt just makes it worse by paying homage to the most notorious departee of them all. "And I love Jonathan Ross ... despite his occasional lapses."
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