In 2022 the BBC will turn 100. It is a major birthday for what most of us now consider to be an ever-present member of our extended family. However, judging by its recent engagement with government and everyone else who cares about her, the Beeb is fast becoming less of our Auntie and more our slightly mad, deaf great-uncle: responding to a point late, participating in a different conversation, combining it all with a tendency to go on a bit.
Yesterday’s announcement – part one of a long-winded response to the government Green Paper on the future of the BBC – is a case in point. Two months ago, BBC management caved in to a Government demand to take on the subsidy to provide TV licences for the over-75s. With a rapidly ageing population, that is an epically large and scarily uncapped liability. Unless of course the BBC and the government know something we don’t about how long the benefit will last.
With that single decision, the BBC expanded its public purpose to the provision of a state benefit. It’s one that comes at a massive cost in terms of funds diverted from making programmes to allowing your grandmother (whether she be a state pensioner or on a whopping final salary pension) to enjoy the panoply of BBC content for free.
Was it a surprise that the government wanted to strike out this cost from their books? No, because George Osborne’s Treasury tried to do it back in 2010 when I was there. Was the BBC prepared for it this time? On the face of it, it would appear they were not. Because no sooner than Lord Hall took to the airwaves to characterise the deal as a good one for the BBC, he had to pull off a full reverse ferret following the publication a week later of an aggressively reductive Government green paper on the future of the BBC.
And so to yesterday’s announcement and the BBC putting it best foot forward following an ‘aestas horribilis’. The horrible summer has passed and the organisation has taken its time in realising just what happened. This is the moment that you want to deliver a rallying cry, ascend above the politics, take the highest available ground and appeal to the vast majority of the public who value and want a strong BBC.
You stir them with your rhetoric, galvanise them to come out in support of a strong well-funded BBC, you paint a picture of the next 100 years, picking up the baton from Armando Iannucci’s brilliant table-rousing McTaggart Lecture last month.
What we get instead is a list of stuff that will be cut because of the cost of providing free TV for pensioners, and new stuff that will be launched (though with no detail of what will be cut to pay for it). Part 1 of the announcement is high on the detailed strategic triangulation of audiences and alternative services to maintain high ratings and reach, but worryingly low on the simple delivery of some key messages about why the BBC exists and why it should be well-funded.
The aim of the announcement was to respond to the arguments that the BBC is too big – it did that by suggesting some more services, but then adding: “Oh, but we aren’t expansionist.”
Earlier in the year, I argued that politicians and the BBC should stop arguing about what was at the end of their nose and instead recognise, as Iannucci’s MacTaggart pointed out as well, that there is a global fight taking place for media supremacy. While we debate whether the Licence Fee should be £145.50, or £146 – or even slashed to £50, big businesses like Google, Facebook, Netflix, Apple and huge network media companies are pouring investment into shows, perfecting the technology to get it to viewers and figuring out how to maximise what we will pay for it.
The BBC’s response to the 20% reduction it has signed up for? Well, as far as we know, it’s the World Service broadcasting to North Korea and some more children’s telly. When you are promising four goes at responding to a Government Green Paper you want Part One to be knock-out. As someone who loves the BBC, I am sad to conclude it wasn’t really.
Is it any surprise, when the global titans of social media and television look at us, and at the mess we are making of the world’s most envied broadcasting market, that they quite frankly think we have gone mad? Here was the opportunity to inspire popular resistance to any attempt to downsize the BBC. Let’s hope presentations, 2, 3 and 4 are more successful.
Ed Williams is CEO of Edelman UK and Ireland, and between 2008 and 2011 was the Director of Communications at the BBC.