Mary Dejevsky: Don't be fooled by the BBC's brinkmanship

Restructuring the BBC would easily yield the savings required by the new licence settlement
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The Independent Online

The BBC has been laying out the sackcloth and ashes for today's expected announcement about the licence fee. If the pre-Christmas leaks prove accurate, the BBC faces a six-year settlement that falls (a little) below the projected rate of inflation. We can already hear Auntie complaining that such a cut "in real terms" will necessitate "very tough" decisions.

From the BBC's brinkmanship during the negotiations, we can already divine some of its lines of thinking. And disappointingly predictable they are, too.

The first, which may or may not have been averted, was a threat to shelve or postpone the planned move to Salford. The second was to warn of further staff cuts, especially in programme-making. And the third was to wave the dread prospect of non-stop repeats. A fourth, which has just been sprung upon us, is the proposal that Television Centre - BBC TV's White City headquarters - should go under the auctioneer's hammer.

So how bad, I wonder, would all this be? The non-protest that has greeted the possible sale of TV Centre suggests that this is actually not a bad idea. The place for the headquarters of BBC news - radio or television - should be in the centre of the capital, and it will be when the refurbishment and extension of Broadcasting House is complete. The sale of White City would provide only a one-off sum, and only a drop in the ocean of BBC commitments, but it would bring in some money and it would signify a change in the corporation's expansionist attitude.

Which is also why the Salford move should be reconsidered. The threat to abandon the move was potent in licence negotiations, because ministers support a less "London-centric" BBC. The question that has never really been asked, though, is precisely how such a selective move north will make the corporation more regionally-minded. Sports coverage already reaches into every corner of the British Isles: it is by its very nature regional. As for children's programming, the reason it was chosen for the move was surely that someone had to go, and children's programmes, as a department, lacked the political clout to resist.

The only way the BBC will become less London-centric is if mainstream news coverage is devolved much more than it is at present. My view is that this is not only unlikely, but also undesirable. The flagship national broadcaster should be sited in the capital. Why fight this simple reality? And why spend money on a move that will cost more than it will save - as corporate moves inevitably do?

Staff cuts should be dictated by the same rationale. The BBC should be a national and international broadcaster, with a slimmed-down presence in the regions. If it is to continue running local radio stations, these should be transferred to the commercial sector. Half-hearted attempts to prune the BBC's other commercial activities, such as magazines, should be pursued more energetically. A thorough reconsideration of what the BBC does and how it should be structured would easily yield the savings required by the new licence settlement - and probably leave some to spare.

What, of course, is happening is quite different. Every department is being called upon to make a small sacrifice, while the corporate structure itself remains in place. Thus we learn that at Newsnight, the correspondents are being required to reapply for their jobs; when the music stops, two or perhaps three will find they no longer have a chair.

We news-junkies are supposed to be outraged that the quality of such a serious programme is being threatened. Heads are shaken sadly, as chiefs insist this is the only way. In fact, it only postpones the day when more radical pruning is needed. It has become a mark of prestige for individual news programmes to have their own correspondents. As someone who worked for the BBC in a leaner age, I wonder whether this proliferation of dedicated reporters is not a little too luxurious.

We all know what comes next. Fewer staff, we are told, means that programmes will suffer and that schedules will be stuffed with repeats - as if these two statements followed logically from each another. Why should more repeats necessarily mean lower quality? It all depends what is repeated. The BBC has a wealth of programmes, some produced at enormous expense, which have been shown only once or twice. Another showing would adorn any schedule. Off-peak repeats of programmes shown at peak time would also delight shift workers and others who keep irregular hours. Technology may offer the possibility to view and listen to programmes "on demand", but many of us still comb the schedules to find out "what is on".

Repeats, though, are not the only way the BBC could keep costs down, while fulfilling its public service remit. There is another opportunity just waiting to be seized. The cost would be minimal, and the returns - in goodwill and money - potentially huge.

Recent arrivals in Britain are rightly upset to find long waiting-lists for English-language classes and inflexible timings. A channel devoted to language tuition, from beginners to advanced and broadcast around the clock, would be a boon for the new workforce and marketable around the world. The BBC might even be able to persuade the Home Office to make a small additional contribution: an increase in the licence fee, by other means.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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