Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Two of John Birt's former corporate strategists --who both became political advisers to Tony Blair -- are now working on plans to top-slice the BBC's licence fee as a way of financing other public service broadcasters. Ofcom is reviewing the future of broadcasting following the digital switchover and convergence of tv and the internet. Its chief executive officer Ed Richards has called for the "contestability" on the licence fee. His former colleague, James Purnell, now Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has his doubts as to whether it is sustainable for the licence fee to continue going to a single provider, has promised to be "bold". Nicholas Jones is to chair a session on the future of the BBC at a conference, New Threats to Media Freedom, organised by the National Union of Journalists (26.1.2008). Jones says defending the licence fee would be an essential part of any fight back:

Whenever I am asked to speak about the plight of former colleagues facing ever-increasing uncertainty in the BBC, I feel somewhat guilty. I was one of the lucky ones, a beneficiary of thirty years of almost continuous expansion in radio and television. Having left school at sixteen and started out as an editorial assistant on a weekly trade paper, and then become a reporter on a local newspaper, I doubt whether I would have got established as a national correspondent if it had not been for the BBC’s boom years in the 1970s, the opening of so many local radio stations and the expansion of current affairs on Radio 4, funded by the seemingly-limitless growth in income from the colour television licence fee.

The roller coaster ride of hiring more and more journalists went on and on: breakfast television, the creation of BBC Westminster, the start of News 24 and so forth. But now, as a former BBC correspondent looking in from the outside, what I certainly do not feel guilty about is taking every opportunity to defend the role of the BBC and the importance of public service broadcasting. And I think that is what is missing in the BBC of today. Where is that passionate defence of the BBC that I used to hear thirty years ago and which I found so encouraging? What has happened to that enthusiasm that drove our journalism, that love affair of old with the power of radio and television? Why is the Corporation’s management so reluctant to speak with real conviction about the incalculable value of the licence fee and the need to maintain it? Why are they not shouting from the roof tops about the strengths and virtues of BBC journalism?

I sometimes wonder if the current management really know or even care about Britain’s precious inheritance of BBC standards and values; about a reputation for news judgement and impartiality which is still widely admired around the world. If you ask me to pinpoint the one change in the last thirty years which I find so depressing it is this sense that the top management doesn’t perhaps even understand what is worth preserving, let alone know how to achieve it.

I believe this is one of the legacies of John Birt’s eight years as director general. In getting so close to Tony Blair and the rest of the New Labour elite, he seemed to neuter the BBC as a free spirit, he somehow demolished that great tradition of independence, that great sense of pride in what the BBC did. Instead Birt cultivated a managerial culture within the BBC, stuffed with advisers and strategists. And of course that approach lives on in the corporate thinking of today’s BBC and in other pseudo-public organisations like Ofcom. It all dates back to the early 1990s when Birt began building up a massive separate department for handling corporate and strategic relations.

Rather than proclaim openly and publicly what the BBC stood for -- and what the BBC needed -- Birt and his cohorts preferred to deal directly but privately with the Blair government, adviser to adviser, strategist to strategist. And did not Birt do well in fostering this self-perpetuating web of advisers, lobbyists and the like. Later, of course, he reinvented himself as Blair’s blue skies thinker in Downing Street. But look what happened to some of John Birt’s clones. Ed Richards, Birt’s controller of corporate strategy, is now chief executive officer of Ofcom and James Purnell, Birt’s head of corporate planning, is now Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Richards and Purnell had originally been two of Birt’s brightest stars but once Labour were elected in 1997 they were immediately signed up by Tony Blair as two of his special advisers in the Downing Street policy unit. Indeed that collusion between Birt and Blair is one of the untold stories of the New Labour takeover of No.10. With Birt’s blessing and encouragement, Blair recruited some of the brightest and the best from the BBC, not just political advisers but also BBC journalists who crossed the line to become spin doctors. What they all seem to have been infected with is the Birt way of doing business, not up front, but covertly through strategists, advisers, lobbyists. What we have been left with is an empty void.

There hardly seems to be anyone in the top echelons of management, any heavyweights, punching for the BBC’s independence, singing the praises of the licence fee. I think being upfront like that -- having the guts to defend the licence fee -- has to be the foundation of any future campaigning we do on behalf of the BBC. It is the activists who are going to have to dig in to defend BBC values. I am not ashamed of the licence fee. I think £135.50p a year is tremendous value for money. I say "No": a chunk of the licence fee, to the tune of £14 million, should not be have been filched to pay for the digital switchover and again I say "No" -- although this is currently being considered by Ofcom -- the licence fee should not be top sliced in the future to help finance other providers of public service broadcasting.

To his credit, Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, did meet this threat head on in a speech to the Oxford Media Convention (17.1.2008). Although I thought he could have been far more explicit about the dangers of what Ofcom is considering, he did raise questions about the possible risks of top slicing. Was it likely that cutting back the BBC’s licence fee income might weaken the BBC’s ability to deliver its public service remit? Would it undermine accountability by putting at risk the "vividly straightforward relationship" between audiences and the BBC. Well we all know the answer to those two questions is "Yes". Can we rely on Sir Michael to fight his corner. No, he said: "I do not see myself as a gladiator for the licence fee".

And what was the response of the Culture Secretary, James Purnell, to the review being masterminded by the Ofcom boss Ed Richards? Well, as you might have guessed the BBC’s former head of corporate planning was in full support of the BBC’s former controller of corporate strategy. Purnell said it would be perverse if Ofcom did not ask whether or not some of the BBC’s licence fee should go to other providers and it was his job as Culture Secretary to be "bold" in devising a post- digital structure. Purnell also had two questions of his own for the Convention. I am afraid only a "Yes" or "No" will do as answer. Purnell asked: "Do we think it’s sustainable for every penny of the licence fee to go to a single organisation in an industry which now has very many providers rather than just a handful? Would some form of contestability for licence-fee funding help to sustain quality, innovation and efficiency?"

Let us hope that we can generate a real debate about the future of the licence fee but what seems most likely is that, as in the era of John Birt, the important decisions will be taken adviser to adviser, strategist to strategist. Ed Richards and James Purnell have a key ally in Downing Street, none other than Stephen Carter, the former Ofcom chief executive, who originally put up the idea of top slicing the BBC's licence income and who is now Gordon Brown's chief stragetist and key fixer. Given the fact that this cosy threesome holds such sway, what really concerns me is that the current director general Mark Thompson seems to be very muted, I would say half-hearted, on this vital question of funding. Under the last charter renewal, which expires in 2016, the licence fee has only been guaranteed until 2013 and I get the sense that the latest generation of the BBC’s corporate planners and strategists have already thrown in the towel and conceded that the licence fee of the future will have to be divvied up among other public service broadcasters.

I would go further: the licence fee has already been excluded from much of the BBC’s public discourse, as though it is the founding principle that dare not speak its name. When I listen to Mark Thompson -- or read his interviews -- he seems content to talk loosely about the government of the day having to "provide more money for public service broadcasting". But breaking that link between the licence fee and the BBC would be like cutting an umbilical chord with viewers and listeners. The BBC would no longer have financial independence and would no longer be accountable to the public in quite the same way. We know what is meant by "government funding."

There would be an annual review, the funding settlement would be subject to sudden and drastic change, and it would come with strings attached. We saw how the World Service had to retreat over taking advertisements. Once it was decided that advertisements had to be accepted on BBC World television -- and that became the condition on which world tv got the go ahead -- there was no going back. Last year came the decision to accept advertisements on the overseas services of BBC News on Line. Again, it was the government which had said the service could not continue without this extra revenue stream. The next step is already being talked about at Ofcom and among the digital planners: taking advertisements on the BBC’s mainstream domestic television services.

Once that line is crossed, who knows what will happen to the BBC. That is why an activists’ campaign in support of the licence fee is so necessary. It would put the bosses of the BBC on the spot. How would they respond? What is their line? Are they ready to defend the licence fee to the hilt? I wish I could say "Yes" but I fear the answer is "No".

The other terrible legacy of the Birt years is a disconnect between the BBC’s corporate management and the programme makers. This is my other fundamental concern: there seems to have been no audit within the BBC of which services must be defended at all costs. Instead of facing up to some critical decisions about whether the BBC is trying to do too much, the policy is rather one sharing out the most recent cuts across all services.

So the effect will be that standards and quality will be reduced across the board. We all know as journalists how dangerous that can be. What I think we need is some clear leadership in identifying and then defending what the BBC does best. Staffing is being reduced in core services like the main newsroom at television centre; cuts in the number of staff per shift doing news bulletins and summaries will undermine the collective news judgement on which the BBC depends and which nourishes and supports the BBC’s wider news and current affairs output. I have suggested that groups like the CPBF should identify what we believe is best in the BBC’s output, what we think should be preserved at all cost. That would become a powerful weapon. But the immediate priority has to be a defence of the licence fee.

The future is bleak enough in the hands of Richards, Purnell et al. Just think what could happen, say in 2010, if David Cameron is elected Prime Minister and John Whittingdale becomes the first Culture Secretary in a new Conservative government. He is an avid supporter of top slicing and believes that some of the licence fee should be used to help commercial broadcasters fund children’s programmes and regional programmes. My fear is that by 2010 the Tories will be so gratified to find that the demolition job is all but complete and that the BBC is only too happy to retreat into the marginal world of the kind of public service broadcasting which just about survives in the USA.

Illustration: Daily Telegraph, 10 January, 2005