Letter From London: The BBC takes some punches

In her latest Letter from London, Carol Nahra looks at the criticism launched at the BBC over the past month, whether it's deserved and how Auntie will survive the battle.
September 23, 2009

It was, it seemed, an extraordinary case of the pot calling the kettle back. When News Corporation CEO and chairman James Murdoch took to the pulpit at the Edinburgh International Television Festival three weeks ago, he railed against the ‘authoritarianism’ of British broadcasting regulation, and the ‘chilling’ growth of the BBC, arguing passionately for a market driven system to be allowed to rule, in a country that from the outset has considered broadcasting a medium to be reined in.

But despite distaste amongst many for the messenger – who after all is arguing for a model that allowed his own empire to dominate – many have admitted since that he made some good points.

In the intervening days, as his comments have renewed focus on the BBC’s extraordinary £3.6 billion purse, Auntie has once again found herself beaten up in the press. Most of the punches thrown are aimed at the BBC’s aggressive expansion in recent years, not least its formidable online presence, and the over-reaching of BBC Worldwide into such ventures as its acquisition of the Lonely Planet brand.

But criticism has come from all quarters, and most surprisingly from culture secretary Ben Bradshaw. At last week’s RTS convention he laid into BBC Trust head Michael Lyons, maintaining that not only did the BBC need to scale back, but the BBC Trust – at all of three years – didn’t seem to be working in its role as both regulator and cheerleader. Coming from an ex-BBC employee, and a Labour minister, his attack was surprising and ominous.

But he isn’t the only MP that the BBC need worry about. With all the headlines the debate about the license fee and BBC’s future has been generating, you’d be forgiven for thinking change was imminent. But the license fee renewal is not until 2013, with a charter renewal for the BBC slotted for 2016. And long before that time comes, there will be a new Sheriff in town. If polls are to be believed, in all likelihood the Tories will again be in power, and they have already made clear the license fee will, at a minimum, be frozen. Late last week Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt made clear in his own RTS appearance that he had other targets at the BBC: ‘I think for some of the new channels, BBC3 and BBC4, they have very small audiences but still cost a lot of money. The case needs to be made for this kind of thing.’ Having a potential future minister laying out such ideas does not bode well for a peaceful post-election relationship.

So what tactic now for the BBC? To date, Mark Thompson and BBC Trust head Michael Lyons have aggressively challenged any attempts to ‘top-slice’ the license fee by sharing it out to other public service providers – which has not helped their popularity with both government and the media industry. It remains to be seen whether those fighting to preserve the BBC status quo will find a new way to survive in the ring.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.