BBC Essex Radio Debate With Save Our BBC
On Saturday 14th March, Save Our BBC Strategic Director Peter Blackman (PB) joined Maldon District Council MP John Whittingdale (JW) on BBC Essex Radio for a live debate on the Peter Holmes (PH) show. Below is a transcript of that lively debate.
PH: An Essex man has begun a national campaign aimed at what is he says is saving the BBC from plans which could leave it providing just the basics; a handful of TV and radio channels and a website or two. Peter Blackman, from South Woodham Ferrers set up the group Save Our BBC on the day that MP’s on the Culture Media and Sports Select Committee released a report suggesting the licence fee is at risk in the long term. It said that a household levy might be the best way of paying for Public Serving Broadcasting. As the BBC prepares to engage with a new Government about a fresh Charter to broadcast from 2017, the Committee suggested it should reduce provisions in areas that are over served or where the public service characteristics are marginal or where others are better placed to deliver excellence and value for money. The Chair of that Committee is Maldon MP John Whittingdale and I am pleased to say I have both gentlemen with me this morning. So first of all John, are you surprised that Peter Blackman has set this Campaign up? It’s a Campaign to Save the BBC.
JW: There is going to be a big debate about the direction and future of the BBC because we are coming up to the Charter renewal. My Committee has spent a year preparing a report, on making recommendations. I’m very clear that there needs to be a general discussion about the place of the BBC in today’s broadcasting landscape. Therefore the fact that Peter has set up a campaign which will contribute to that debate, I welcome.
PH: In your report you wrote that “the BBC should reduce provisions in areas that are over served or where the public service characteristics are marginal or where others are better placed to deliver excellence and value for money”. I guess that could be the thin end of the wedge. So which areas are over served do you think, where the BBC could and should reduce provision?
JW: You have to bear in mind that since the last Charter review which was 10 years ago, there has been a transformation in the amount of choice available. We have had a huge increase in the number of television channels and you have got new services coming on line like On Demand and streaming services so the idea that the BBC needs to be doing everything is no longer the case because if you have areas that, let’s say game shows for instance, that are already extremely well provided for, then why does the licence fee payers’ money need to be spent on providing shows which you can already get from the commercial sector? The point of the BBC is to provide what’s called Public Service Programming which is the kind of high quality programming which is very desirable to have but isn’t necessary and provided by the commercial sector.
PH: I have Peter Blackman here, good morning Peter. You have set up this campaign; do you think that the BBC should continue to provide everything for always, is that what you are saying?
PB: Good morning Peter and good morning John. It’s quite ironic I suppose that the two of us from the same neck of the woods are involved in this. Yes absolutely, as far as we are concerned the BBC is the market maker not a market intervention and of course the only reason the Commercials are making such good programmes is because they have learned from the BBC. About 50% of the people in the rest of the industry started in the BBC so the Commercials probably wouldn’t be making such good programmes if it wasn’t for the fact that all those people have been trained and learned their trade in the BBC first. It’s a bit like saying the NHS should stop doing everything that is being developed in the meantime by the private sector and just doing the stuff that they don’t. The BBC is part of the culture of the Country; it’s not a consumable. The BBC is not like a can of beans. It is a huge contributor to UK citizenship and to the reputation of the UK throughout the world. It is probably the major brand in creating the world’s trust in the UK; if you think of the number of people around the world who are listening to and watching the BBC and are taking it as their main source of information about what’s going on everywhere.
PH: But why should people who don’t use any of the BBC continue either to pay either a licence fee or a household tax? As an alternative they are talking about bringing out a household tax instead. Why should people who don’t use it have to pay for it?
PB: 97% of people in the UK use part of the BBC each week and they need the infrastructure that’s behind it. It’s a bit like saying people who aren’t using the NHS at the moment shouldn’t have to pay for that either. I think you will find that the vast majority of people, I would say 100% of people would use the BBC during their lifetime and therefore they will get the benefit of it and they may not be using it at the moment but if you look at all the research it shows that people at different times in their life rely on it, for instance we’re talking now and there will be a lot of people listening to us now for whom this programme is their life line and yet you think of what has happened to local radio over the last 10 years, the cuts that you have had to suffer, and this is the problem. We all have our own BBC, our own mix of services that we use and they are very precious to us and the amalgam of all of that is this huge, huge love; see the reaction this week about Top Gear. The BBC has launched a huge education project helping children in schools to bring up their computer skills.
PH: OK, you make a very good point. John what have you got to say about what Peter has just been saying?
JW: I would say that there a various things that nobody else would do but the BBC, which I would regard as core to the purpose of the BBC and two of the examples that Peter gave I would agree with. One, that the BBC World Service is a fantastic benefit to this Country in terms of our reputation and influence and of course nobody else would do that the way the BBC does. There are various BBC Local Radios and we have lots of other Local Radio stations but they are almost entirely music based and they don’t look and sound, in our case like BBC Essex, and that too I regard as fundamental. But I don’t see why, Peter mentioned Top Gear for instance, now Top Gear is an incredibly successful brand. Actually many Commercial stations would jump at the chance to make Top Gear. I’m not saying necessarily that we should give them that chance but there are plenty of things that are being done by the Commercial Sector that given that licence fee payers money was going to be limited by some extent, our argument is that it would be better that the BBC concentrate on things like Local Radio, like World Service, like high quality drama, educational programming rather than seeking to reproduce what is already widely provided by the Commercial Sector.
PH: John can I just say, do you think there is a greater number of people that no longer want the BBC and are happy to stick with just the commercial sector?
JW: I think the vast majority of people do use the BBC. We do think that there is a case over time to move to an element of voluntary subscription so that people wouldn’t necessarily have to pay the whole of the licence fee by law as they do at the moment but could choose whether or not they wanted to watch BBC services.
PH: So you wouldn’t be opposed to that then, voluntary subscription?
JW: I think there are great attractions in that but you can’t do it at the moment. It’s something that I think they need to consider over the longer term when the technology is in place and everything to allow that to be done. I do think that if you look at the support for licence fee, it is declining in the opinion polls and that is to some extent because people are now genuinely accessing different content and not necessarily using the BBC.
PH: So Peter do you think that private subscription as we see with Sky for instance would be the end of the BBC?
PB: That’s very important; our campaign is very simply designed to alert the audience to the threats. I was at a meeting earlier this week where somebody wanted to completely decimate the BBC. We believe that the Reithian concept that the BBC should educate, inform and entertain remains the case and we are simply here to alert the audience to the threats that exist, we can already see BBC Three going, Asian Network was under threat, 6 Music was under threat, we know the Local Radios have been under threat. There has always been the suggestion that Radio’s 1 and 2 should be privatised. John’s been saying that they shouldn’t be making things like Strictly or that sort of thing and these things are the things that are greatly loved and all the evidence we see shows that the audience still wants the BBC as it is. We want to make sure that the audience knows that there is this threat and has a voice in a debate which has been up until now extremely insular just between the industry and the decision makers. We are not worried how to a certain extent, we don’t mind how the governance and finance is arranged but what we want is a continuation of the programmes and the services as they are plus the ability for those to develop over time as they have over the last 80 years, adapting to the changing technological world.
PH: John do you see the BBC celebrating its centenary in 2022?
JW: Absolutely. I think the BBC’s place is guaranteed, the question is how do you pay for the BBC and whether or not to continue to have a compulsory licence fee which for some people is very expensive and actually results in a number of people each year going to prison because they can’t pay the fines imposed on them and for not paying the licence fee. It would also be a question about what exactly the BBC does but I have no doubt that the BBC will continue and I would be strongly supportive of it doing so.
PH: John just one final question, do you think that Jeremy Clarkson should be sacked?
JW: Well it’s very difficult because one doesn’t know exactly the circumstances of what has happened or what provoked him or what he did and therefor I can’t say he should be sacked but I do agree with those who have said nobody is bigger than the BBC and if he has broken his contract or the rules then that is a matter for the management of the BBC. I can’t on the very limited knowledge that I have on what happened say yes he should be sacked but I do think he should be treated in the same way as every BBC employee if he has broken the rules.
PH: Thank you very much indeed to both of you. That’s John Whittingdale and Peter Blackman. Thank you very much indeed for your comments.