2 November, 2007
Having been a beneficiary of a roller-coaster ride of continuous expansion during my thirty-year career as a BBC industrial and political correspondent, I can only look on in horror from the sidelines as the Corporation prepares to implement a slash-and-burn retreat into an uncertain future.
Since leaving the BBC in 2002 I have argued consistently that what the management needs to do is define and defend what is best in the BBC’s public service broadcasting.
Even now, on the eve of negotiations with the joint unions over a another massive round of job losses, there has still been no audit to identify the news and current affairs programming which must be protected at all cost. I consider that a dereliction of duty on the part of the management and the new BBC Trust.
In 2005 the BBC won a ten year reprieve on the licence fee but it was obvious then that this might well be the last throw of guaranteed financing. Two of those ten years have now been wasted without the Corporation establishing a clear vision for the future of public service broadcasting and then communicating it to staff and public.
Instead there has been the start of what could well be a death by a thousand cuts and the eventual sidelining of the BBC along the lines of public broadcasting in America, an under-resourced, marginal service. Exactly the same process has been underway in Australia and Canada, two Commonwealth countries which modelled their public service broadcasting on the BBC.
Bit by bit we are seeing the demolition of Britain’s great heritage of a regulated television and radio industry. Public service broadcasting by the BBC is now beginning to look as sickly as ITV, which thanks to the Broadcasting Act has undergone a devastating re-structuring which is paving the way for the destruction of commercial regional television.
So the nightmare scenario begins to have a sense of reality: a marginalized BBC on subscription, serving a minority audience.
My three decades with the BBC were the golden years, endless expansion and the arrival of one new service after another, all financed from the bonanza of extra money from the higher licence fee for colour television.
Way back in the 1970s, breakfast television, rolling news, news on-line etc were just distant dreams. As a radio reporter my last outlet of the day was the midnight newsroom on Radio 2.
By the 1990s the party was nearly over and the management were having to take stock: there would have to be flexible working if the BBC was to stand any chance of sustaining all the services it had established or was planning to start.
Bi-media working was the price that would have to be paid; radio correspondents would have to double up as television reporters and vice versa. But did bi-medial working really free up resources or was it just cost cutting to meet overstretch? It was obvious to me that the management was still failing to prioritise.
In November 1994 I was one of a hundred BBC workers plucked out of a hat and told to attend an "Extending Choice" seminar and pep talk by John Birt, then director general. Birt spewed out glossy reporters, position papers and so on at a formidable rate.
I have a pile of them in the loft, including my two "Extending Choice" workshop brochures. When Birt appeared I asked if there would have come a day when the BBC might have to concentrate on defending and sustaining what we do best. Could we go on expanding our services, spreading ever more thinly our expertise and resources?
Birt gave me a withering look: "Of course we must, we can’t ever afford to stand still in broadcasting. We have to embrace each new service, each new channel. We can’t stop…"
Birt went on to become Tony Blair’s blue skies thinker, no doubt producing just as many position papers.
What happened at the BBC? Well we lurched into the era of Greg Dyke, What was his response to all the verbiage of the Birt era? It was a yellow piece of plastic, a bit bigger than a credit card, emblazoned with the line: "Cut the Crap - Make it Happen".
But while Dyke chased the ratings and did so very successfully, he failed in my view to define the BBC’s public service role, to start the vital task of focussing on what the BBC does best, because it was obvious future licence fee settlements would be nowhere near as generous as in the past.
There was already talk of top slicing, using part of the licence fee to finance Channel 4 and, as already has transpired, to pay for the cost of the digital switchover.
I started as a news producer on BBC Radio Leicester, one of the many local stations which have become part of the bedrock of the BBC. They are the starting point for many of today’s young journalists. Like me they are receiving an introduction to the high standards of BBC journalism and the aim to be fair, balanced and politically impartial.
These local stations have their own websites on BBC News Online and could easily form the hub of a network of new, inexpensive and very local television stations, producing the kind of audio-visual material which is now appearing on the websites of some local newspapers.
Most Mps have a BBC local station serving their constituencies. Their support could be mobilised and that could be one way of demonstrating the continuing need for a universal licence fee, which is the only way to pay for the kind of local reporting which no commercial station can afford to offer.
If future governments honour the undertakings which have been given, the BBC’s independence, under its charter, should be assured until 2017. That will be five years short of its centenary.
But if public service broadcasting is to stand any chance of surviving until 2022, so that the centenary can be celebrated, it is going to need vision and commitment. What the BBC needs now is some idea of where it is going and what must be defended.
So I look ahead with great apprehension and often ask myself what can an ex-BBC journalist do to help. My priority has to be to speak with conviction about the value of public service broadcasting; to explain how the BBC’s editorial standards do have an impact on other journalists, how we can help to moderate the extremism and sensationalism of our newspapers.
For example, the BBC’s culture of avoiding gratuitous references to people’s colour, sex and religion has had an impact over the years. So too has the BBC’s stand in refusing to show on television the most gruesome scenes from the videos of tortured hostages in Iraq.
Although a general election now seems unlikely until 2009 or 2010, I have already begun defending the BBC’s great tradition of politically impartial broadcasting.
With unregulated broadcasting on the internet and rapid media convergence, I believe newspaper websites, political pressure groups and bloggers could become the Trojan horse which erodes the rules requiring television and radio stations to ensure a balance in air time between the parties, especially during election campaigns.
Politically partisan broadcasting is already out there in the blogosphere and currently the dominating voice is provided by political blogs on the right rather than left.
The Blair decade left a weakened BBC in its wake and bequeathed a media regime which could make it harder for the opposition of the day and minority parties to get their fair share of air time, thus threatening one of Britain’s greatest democratic safeguards.
(This article first appeared in Tribune, 2.11.2007.)