The BBC, once the nation's favourite broadcaster, is now the bloated institution every politician wants to castrate. Brucie's back (notwithstanding a pay cut) on Strictly, which means blissful autumn nights in front of the box for millions, but his paymasters are coming under increasingly heavy bombardment.
The battle started in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, with a highly critical speech from James Murdoch. No surprises there – the Murdoch empire has always wanted the BBC dismantled. This week, the Government joined the attack: the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw told a media conference he thought that there might be a case for a smaller licence fee, and expressed concern that the BBC had reached "the limits of reasonable expansion". Bradshaw also put the boot into the BBC Trust, complaining that it wasn't up to the job of policing the corporation impartially, hinting at a rethink in the near future. The BBC's director-general Mark Thompson was swift to mount a defence – well, he has to – although he did concede that the BBC website could possibly be trimmed back.
Does it matter what Mr Bradshaw thinks? He's a pleasant enough fellow, but too fluffy to be taken seriously. The fact that he once worked for the BBC (and his partner is a BBC producer) doesn't add much gravitas to his arguments. He was pretty ineffectual at the Department of Health, and not that impressive when we shared a platform on Question Time. Anyway, if the polls are to be believed, he won't be around long enough to have any impact on the BBC's future. BBC bigwigs should be more concerned about what the Tories think – their culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt said last week he would scrap the BBC Trust, cap the salaries of top executives at £200,000, freeze the licence fee, and close down minority channels such as BBC3 and BBC4. Mr Hunt also wants the BBC to rein in their commercial activities, and would restrict BBC Worldwide to simply selling and promoting BBC programmes. He hinted that some BBC assets could be sold off to balance the books. The Tories are worried about the degree to which the BBC seeks to monopolise the marketplace, which would help Mr Murdoch (and other proprietors) prop up their ailing newspaper businesses. Such a move would also win the Tories some powerful friends in the press around election time.
Mr Hunt also expressed astonishment about what the BBC calls its "core" business – citing its purchase of the Lonely Planet travel guides. I couldn't agree more – I devised the successful Rough Guide travel series for the BBC, and although we paid a fee to use the name, there was no move to try and buy the Rough Guides publishing company. I have a bit of inside knowledge – my ex-husband owns Time Out and has spent years building up a list of well-regarded travel guides. Then the BBC came along and purchased Lonely Planet – talk about trying to stifle competition! The sale should never have been allowed. The corporation seems to have forgotten what the letters BBC stand for: British Broadcasting Corporation, not a print publisher. It regularly uses its own channels to promote itself and its website has expanded way beyond a service offering programme replays, news and relevant information and is padded out with blogs and competitions.
It's obvious that top salary levels at the BBC are completely unsustainable. It has made such a big song and dance about cutting the pay packets of talent, announcing the setting up of viewer panels to allow the public to comment on what stars should earn, but it still hasn't tackled the scandal of its own executives' pay. Forty-seven people earn more than the Prime Minister, which is ridiculous – after all, the corporation runs news and entertainment, not a cardiac arrest unit. It manages chat shows, quizzes and The Antiques Roadshow, not the armed services, the National Health Service or our welfare system. It isn't fighting on the front line, just battling for viewers.
Greg Dyke, DG before Mark Thompson, and Will Wyatt, deputy DG under John Birt, have both said that the salaries paid to top BBC execs are far too high. The BBC is a brilliant broadcaster, which enriches my life. But I can't understand its bunker mentality. It has to perform some radical surgery on itself before it finds it's been made to undergo amputation.
London Fashion Week: Let us eat cake and avoid the catwalk
It's not just the models who are underweight – London Fashion Week (based at Somerset House in the Strand) is a pretty slim affair – only in the topsy-turvy world of fashion would an event that starts on a Friday and ends on a Wednesday qualify as a "week". Even more baffling was the fact that the invites initially sent out for the reception hosted by Sarah Brown in Downing Street to celebrate 25 years of emerging talent (you'd think we'd have progressed beyond "emerging" to "established" by now) didn't actually mention the date on which it was being held: Friday 18 September. The Royal College of Psychiatrists isn't a fan either, claiming that events such as this act as a showcase for underweight women, and can promote eating disorders. Britain produces excellent designers, but it's also true that the vast majority of British fashion is made outside the UK, in the Third World, and claiming that it's an important part of our domestic economy is taking a highly selective view. Don't fret if you can't get a ticket to any of the catwalk events – there will be a lot more fun at the pop-up restaurant nearby, set up by the people behind Bistrotheque, one of my top hangouts in the East End. It's offering Victoria sponge cake and tacos, so not a lot of dieting will be going on there, thank goodness.
Product placement makes you fat
In the US, health experts are pressing for a tax on fizzy drinks and sweetened fruit juices. If adopted, it could mean the price of a can of cola would rise by 20 per cent, which could cut consumption and fund the increased medical costs of dealing with an overweight population. The idea is being talked about here, but maybe Ben Bradshaw should ponder a bit, before going any further with plans to sanction product placement on TV, widely expected to happen in the new year. He should look at the US, where large red containers of Coca-Cola feature prominently on American Idol – that's the same fizzy, sugary stuff the doctors want to slap a tax on. The main financing of product placement will be done by fizzy drink manufacturers and junk food chains – hardly in line with the official line on healthy eating.
Your own personal Starbucks
There's been much criticism about the way our high streets have lost their individuality, swamped by chain stores that look the same everywhere. Starbucks has now announced it's rethinking its branding to make it less corporate. The plan is to customise the shops – including such things as noticeboards for customers – with individual colour schemes. Out will go the usual chairs and tables to be replaced by mismatched secondhand furniture. Like McDonald's, Starbucks has been attacked for selling fattening cakes and paninis – so now it plans to try out healthier options like carrot sticks and porridge. But don't think these changes are because of anything other than profit – in a recession, coffee is an expensive luxury, and Starbucks faces a lot of competition. Personally, I try not to patronise chains like this as I'd rather give my money to local small businesses.