Time for the BBC to bring down the barriers to public view

A new Green Paper outlines a vision of the future for the BBC. Antony Young, member of the IPA Media Futures Group, proposes a more radical set of far-reaching objectives for the corporation

The Green Paper is essentially a vote in favour of the status quo. It would preserve the finance, texture and culture of the BBC, while regulating it only a little tighter.

The impossible-staircase logic of the corporation remains – expected somehow to deliver market "failure" and market success at the same time. The BBC is damned when it commands too much attention and certainly damned when it gets none.

This paradox is well-illustrated by the thinking behind the rival Public Service Provider – a device which employs competition to produce outcomes the commercial market probably would not. We must rid ourselves of this tiresome equivocation and uncertainty.

This is not about whether the BBC should exist or not.

There are no more votes for abolishing the Beeb than there are to abolish public "libraries" – themselves a multimedia state monopoly at least as effective as the BBC at stifling private activity, yet which we have no difficulty accepting as a public good.

The BBC exists not because of necessity nor popularity, but political will, the same as libraries.

Ultimately, political will is the will of the people.

Licence fee

The Licence Fee is a tax and taxes are brutal, unfair things. So let's get over it.

When did you last use the library you are so happy to pay for? When we've had enough of the licence tax, we can riot in Trafalgar Square. Meanwhile, let's stop agonising.

The problem is not the BBC's existence, or funding (or lack of), or excess of popularity.

It is lack of discipline in saying what we want and getting the BBC to do it; we seem to lack the resolve to demand that responsibility reside alongside the power and privilege we bestow.

We, the public, could start by insisting on a literal definition of the BBC "Trust".

Let it be impartial, informed, and independent – and most of all, in charge of the money. Like a real trust, in fact. Let the trustees alone distil such certainties as they see fit from the vagueness and vacuums of law and convention.

These need not be unduly onerous, nor hedge the BBC's rightful entitlement to creative latitude and need not be expressed in the Gordian knot of reach and ratings.

Nowhere does the Green Paper require the BBC to be popular.

The closest it gets to this is requiring what it does to be of "public value" and "engaging".

These expressions are quite meaningless without a proper trust to interpret them – and under no circumstances must we let the BBC itself interpret them.

For this is how we end up with the unacceptable cynicism of Freeview boxes without smartcard slots to let competition in; "management" of programme time lengths and junctions; BBC1 aping ITV1; idiot bidding-up of sports rights and imported programmes and head-to-head scheduling which inconveniences the viewer and corrupts the BBC's noble purpose.

There is ample talent and goodwill about in order to equip such a trust. Ofcom springs to mind. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport may have been over-quick to boot this particular regulator into touch.

With its sense of fair play, commerce and its general worldliness (notwithstanding the elaborate cleverness of its PSP wheeze), we know Ofcom can regulate well and effectively.

And even if, as the Green Paper states, it might find it difficult to devote itself fully to upholding the "public interest" in BBC services and programmes – at least then we can be sure that it would have a pretty clear idea of what that "public interest" might be.

While the DCMS didn't feel comfortable giving Ofcom the whole gig, it can certainly contribute. Heavens, even my distinguished friends at the IPA have sensible and long-standing opinions to offer, to which Ofcom would, I know, have the sense and grace to listen to.

The most important regulator is, however, the public, for it is they who will mobilise in Trafalgar Square when the time comes. The BBC employs management consultants to carry out its annual staff survey. This narcissism will stop. It can instead consult the licence payers to see what they think.

In the case of the BBC, what the public thinks is more important than what the public does.

For the BBC to become more bread and less circus will be quite a culture shift for the corporation and the audience, therefore the more dialogue, the better.

So we have our fantasy trust, it has the money and it has written the by-laws. Let it now abandon overarching Reithianisms and set out discrete objects for each component of the BBC, from BBC1 to Radio Three and all the collateral online paraphernalia.

These objects might prescribe quantities of genres, when things should be scheduled, independent commissioning – and the more detail the better. We’re talking about £2.78bn of our cash here.

But no reach-and-ratings metrics, please. If we apply market measures to a non-market entity, it will become a market entity.

Unspent surplus

At agreed intervals – three years sounds reasonable – each service will apply for funds by demonstrating its adherence to the letter and spirit of the trust, which will accordingly award or withhold funds for the ensuing interval. Any unspent surplus can be returned to the Treasury.

As well as supervising revenue, trusts must husband capital too.

At the moment we let the BBC invest in pretty much anything it chooses, without regard to utility (BBC4) or the competitive friction it generates in the private sector (Fame Academy).

The trust could set out strategic objectives in technology (such as promulgating HDTV and universal DTT) and impose a disposition to cost/benefit decision-making on all non-content departments which have chequebooks.

On top of the licence cash, the BBC disposes of £1bn-worth of its space and airtime (and our patience) promoting itself.

Let this too be judged, with rewards for seeking to enlarge "public value" rather than simply reminding us Eastenders is on in half an hour. This will encourage collective responsibility among the BBC's many tentacles. We might also think about working the BBC harder as a public utility.

It might become the home for all schools programming and party political broadcasts, for example.

Admittedly not great for ratings, but at least it's providing a service that commercial TV wouldn't normally take up.

The BBC is an immensely complicated media conglomerate.

In the private sector, conglomerates must have an economic reason to be so large or complicated. If there is no such reason, capital is being misallocated. If the management will not correct this, the owners of the capital will replace it with management which will.

AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann and Trinity Mirror are examples where diversity is continuously scrutinised. Synergy is elusive and rarely worth what it costs.

BBC cross-promotion is an excellent means of revealing the wastes and distortions of supposed synergies, especially when tethered to the specific demands of our newly empowered trust. For example, cross-promoting Jonathon Ross's Radio Two show on the BBC channels accords BBC radio an enormous home field advantage versus its commercial rivals in attracting listeners and talent.

Special pleadings

Having decided what sort of BBC we want, this rigour will help reveal how much money it actually needs. The fixed Licence Fee merely encourages spending up to the max and when the max is not enough, we have in the past rashly assented to special pleadings and signed off RPI-plus settlements, a notoriously sloppy and dangerous form of cost-plus public-sector economic thinking.

The Green Paper is intended to provoke discussion. Let us not waste the opportunity by running up the same impossible staircase, frightened to step out of this incoherent loop of purpose versus popularity and endlessly debating what "quality" means.

It must be codified and enforced. When we find the will, we find the way. Only then can we hope to approximate the "stability" optimists across the TV spectrum wish to impose on this inherently unstable digital advent.

Antony Young is a member of the IPA Media Futures Group and chief executive of ZenithOptimedia

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