Debate – What sort of future do we want for the BBC?
Antibeeb lobbyist Greg starts the debate and posts are in order of response.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) must have key personnel and layers of management removed and the licence fee system should be scrapped or, at the very least, greatly reduced. To understand why this solution is necessary, it’s important to understand why the BBC has become too removed from its roots, too arrogant, too immoral and too bloated for softer solutions to save it.
At thirtysomething years of age, I’m just about old enough to remember the last golden days of the BBC. It was a time of great comedy, such as “Only Fools & Horses” which has spawned eternal comical moments, a time of quality sports coverage and – perhaps most importantly of all – news coverage that was breaking, accurate and admired across the world. The BBC truly was admired by media agencies across the world.
Fast forward to 2014 and that reputation is in tatters. The BBC may still have the occasional show of exceptional quality (‘Sherlock’ and ‘Dr Who’, etc.) but what’s left of its prestige is based on nostalgia and outdated information. The modern BBC is a monolith of arrogance, bias and greed.
To list the problems of the BBC in full would take too long, so let’s take one example that summarises its faults then quickly list other serious faults.
Sir Jimmy Savile was a tremendously popular character to the point of being a national British treasure. The ‘Beeb’ (an epithet for the BBC) were not solely responsible for his rise, but they were utterly instrumental to it. Savile rose to fame and fortune through association with the BBC in radio and televised form. I will assume readers are familiar with his remarkable career.
After Savile passed, serious allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls snowballed into a full-blown scandal. The executives at the Beeb were accused of having prior knowledge of the allegations and failing to act on them. Despite denials, the serious allegations were covered in full in what appeared to be a remarkable act of self-investigation by the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ documentary team, which in turn discussed a previous documentary exposing Savile on another BBC documentary called ‘Newsnight’, which BBC management had decided should not air.
The outcome? Key journalists in both documentary teams have been for daring to discuss Savile. One has been fired, two have been moved to inactive posts and others accused of shoddy journalism. This is the modern face of the BBC. Licence-payers are funding management decisions to axe or isolate journalists who have exposed child abuse.
Other problems are legion. The ‘Beeb’ is governed by a panel trustees at the BBC Trust, by which it is duty-bound to be impartial in its news reporting. Indeed, impartiality has been a huge part of the reason for the BBC’s worldwide. Yet the modern BBC has not only strayed from its moral and professional bounds of impartiality, it has dived headlong into a pool of politcal bias and arrogance that has become so transparent that it is accepted almost universally amongst observers. Its own investigations have confirmed political bias, yet no changes have been made. Independent studies have confirmed the same and this year’s general election coverage by the Beeb was so dismissive of right wing parties that it became in danger of violating instructions from the government’s independent media monitor. The BBC have become so arrogant and self-assured in their political bias that, like FIFA, it could become the black hole that eventually secured their downfall.
The last point I wish to make in this opening round is the licence fee and the manner in which it is “secured”. Licence fee collecting for the BBC is outsourced to a group that have become so infamous for their methods, manner and shoddiness that whole websites have been set up to film, observe and report on them. In short, their letters are aggressive, some (but by no means all) of their collectors are deeply unpleasant or at least uniformed and misleading and the whole licence fee system has decayed from a fee which British citizens took pride in paying for a s great value to something akin to a shoddy cartel, sending out vaguely threatening yet somehow comical and unhelpful letters, backed up by obnoxious commercials.
This is just my first round of complaints with the BBC but the question at hand is: what future do we want?
My answer to the opening question again leads me to make a comparison with the executives at FIFA. We want fairness, value for money, respect for consumers and integrity. We can achieve these aims via two methods, but we need both methods to be implemented. Firstly, we must remove unnecessary or untrustworthy layers of management, including the Trustees panel which, I believe, have failed in their role. Secondly, we must remove the licence fee and allow the BBC to perform like all quality broadcasters: surviving (or not) on their merits, quality and appeal.
I’d like us to take this debate point by point so I’m starting by addressing the questions about removing ‘key personnel and layers of management’.
In fact, the executive and senior management of the BBC has been successfully culled during the last ten years. People and their posts like Mark Byford, Deputy Director General, and Caroline Thomson, Chief Operating Officer, are gone and not replaced.
Gerald Main recently retired; originally he was ‘just’ Editor of BBC Essex; by the time he retired he was Editor of a number of BBC Local Radio Stations. This is an example of increasing the roles and responsibilities of posts making them more cost effective.
As a result of these and other increased efficiencies, the BBC has already made savings of £480m and is on track to reach its target for savings of £1.5bn by the end of 2016.
Inevitably there has been a lot of comment about executive pay and pay offs. There is no doubt that the BBC is a curious organisation. On the one hand it is a public organisation governed by a Royal Charter and seen as part of the establishment. On the other, it is the market maker in the media industry, an industrial sector which is highly commercial. It is also a major driver of the creative industries. It tends to be judged as a public body and the nature of the markets in which it operates is overlooked.
We may well look later at why it is that the BBC gets such unbalanced coverage by others.
For the time being I will just point out that the salaries and benefits of BBC executives, senior managers and talent have to be compared with those in the media and creative industries because that is where the BBC has to compete for its staff and performers.
The salaries, packages and pay offs of BBC executives and staff and of its talented performers compare very favourably with those of similar people working for instance in other terrestrial broadcasters such as ITV, Channel 4 and Five, with those at Sky, BT, Virgin and Google and with those working in media groups including national newspapers and other operations. Generally BBC people receive 10%+ less than their peers working elsewhere because of the kudos of working for the BBC.
So the BBC has already removed a lot of key executives and senior managers and has reduced layers of management. This is delivering huge savings and increased efficiencies whilst operating effectively in a highly competitive market. It also continues to provide good value by being able to undercut market remuneration packages.
Firstly, I’d like to apologise for the long delay in replying. I will be quicker next time.
Now, the BBC execs may be earning an average of 10% less than comparable groups, but what is actually comparable? We come back to the unique position of the BBC: Sky, Virgin Media et al. are not funded by what is, essentially, tax-payer funding. Nobody can receive a signal without paying a licence fee that – as discussed already – is farmed by a sub-contractor that, at times, resembles a crude mafia organisation in its methods and tone.
It is not enough to say that generally BBC salaries are slightly lower. In any case the cuts were self-imposed due to licence fee freezes which was not a decision the BBC had control over. The BBC is contractually and morally bound to act in the public interest. There has to be a checks and balance system which the Trust has never really utilised, despite its clear responsibility to do so. Was Jonathan “He fd your granddaughter” Ross worth six million pounds per year? How can we judge? Is it in the public interest to pay a man (Paxman) a “presenter bonus”of twenty thousand pounds per show when he is already paid three quarters of a million per year as a base salary? Again, what factors or checks are employed to decide on this?
Returning to the the initial argument of management fees, some figures are disturbing: 25M to 150 executives in severance pay, including huge sums for unused leave. Nice pay if you can get it.
Now one common counter-argument is that in order to provide a quality product, the BBC must engage in the market and pay appropriate salaries and costs that modern market forces demand. However, this is not a defence of the BBC but a revelation of its core fault. To truly be exposed to market forces and prove its own worth, the BBC must be denied public funding. This is the only way it can be truly judged. If I disagree with the amount of salary paid to a Sky News presenter, I have two choices: cancel Sky or accept that I am not indignant enough to go without it. Likewise, if I feel Discovery Channel documentaries on climate change are biased enough to incense me, I pick up the phone and cancel my payment. What happens, however, if I feel that Mark Byford’s pay off was too high? I can ignore or or wait for a knock at the door ….
In summary then, the BBC may be looking to cut costs at upper management level and elsewhere. However, these cuts are not acts of public interest but self-enforced due to fund-freezing. They are also not representative of efficient management because the corporation are not subject to the natural market forces that judge them. This may be acceptable’, even admirable, if the Beeb’ were truly acting for the public good or delivering a product we Brits could be proud of, as they have in the past, but as my other arguments have shown, this is no longer the case.
(Disclosure: In fairness, I should point out that I read the news of Byford’s salary on the BBC’s own website)
Save Our BBC
It does seem that both of us have busy lives for our various reasons; this is a bit like postal chess! This is a complex topic and so we are both tempted into long arguments. I promise to try to keep my contributions as brief as possible and stick to a single point at a time.
In this contribution I’ll try to avoid opinion and stick with facts. Our campaign remains a simple one: we want to see the BBC’s output (its programmes, production, ‘content’ and services) survive and continue to thrive after the forthcoming Charter and funding reviews. We don’t mind how this is delivered; so we don’t mind what governance system and means of funding apply so long as they allow the BBC to continue developing.
It is interesting to note that the Director General has just granted your wish and announced another reduction in the layers of management.
The Licence Fee pre-dated the BBC by about twenty years. Originally there were three types of licences granted by the Post Office:
• To manufacture broadcasting equipment
• To broadcast over the airwaves; and
• To own a receiver.
Later it was recognised that the BBC was the market maker in all this and the present-day system evolved. Technology has continued to develop. Perhaps it is time to re-visit the whole issue of licences? Perhaps the manufacturers of all media equipment should pay a licence fee? Perhaps all who have any sort of receiving equipment should have a licence? Broadcasters still need a licence; perhaps those who produce all types of media content should be licenced?
However, it seems everyone of significance who is involved directly in the decision-making about all this, agrees that whilst the present licence fee is by definition regressive (and so logically that should not as a necessary consequence therefore be seen as a criticism) it will remain in place for the 2016 round of reviews and a full analysis of the viable options will be left to take place before the following Charter and funding reviews.
Thus it seems that we do have to address the immediate future of the licence fee for the coming reviews and their term of application, say ten years to 2026.
Whilst Save Our BBC recognises that many informed people have objections of principle and practice about ‘top slicing’, we are simply concerned that the BBC has the wherewithal to survive and thrive.
The BBC is the market maker in the UK as a matter of historic fact. All who join the broadcasting sector have done so knowing of the BBC’s prior existence and of the UK policy and ethos of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) which has some implications for other broadcasters. On 2 June 2015 at a Westminster Media Forum event, the executive spokespeople for the rest of the broadcasting industry unanimously supported the continuance of the BBC and licence fee and the status quo. They are happy to be in this market as it is; a mixed market where the commercial and public players mix freely.
The market judges the BBC. Those in it test it on a daily basis and find it fair. The salary of a Premier League footballer is determined by market forces. Likewise that of BBC executives and talent is set in the market as it is in the financial sector, energy and all others. Broadcasting is not a consumer product. It has social, citizenship and community aspects amongst other factors which make it a service, different to a product. Thus it must be regulated because of the part it plays in ‘the Common Good’.
The BBC’s audience and user figures show the vast majority of the UK population value the BBC. The purchasing of BBC content and formats shows the international media’s high regard for the BBC and the audience figures for those programmes when broadcast abroad show their popularity around the world. The World Service audience figures show the appetite of foreigners for the BBC.
There are many services and products for which we pay but do not get the full benefit of them all. We buy a bar of chocolate; we contribute to the organisational structures which produce all the company’s products including those we don’t like. We pay national and local taxes towards many activities from which we do not personally benefit and towards policies we have voted against. Payments are enforced by various legal means.
So having to pay to receive signals is historically based and pre-dates the BBC. Debt collection is followed by all organisations be they commercial, public and voluntary. There are many examples of ex-BBC executives and talent going to/being poached by commercial media organisations for more money. The annual accounts and reports of the commercial broadcasters show the greater amounts they pay. They also produce and deliver much less.
I understand and agree with my opponent’s distinction between personal opinions and facts, but once again, we come to the core of the argument: the “unique way the BBC is funded” (their own words). While my good opponent has clarified the uses of the licence fee and the hardware it covers, I don’t believe this advances any kind of argument for the continuation of the licence fee at its current level.
The BBC was once unique in its quality and reputation. In its contemporary form, it is unique in the low level of risk to its own funding. While other companies borrow and/or invest in production equipment, consultancy fees, etc., ‘’Auntie’’ can be relatively well assured of its funding level. Is it possible this has allowed a level of complacency and – as a natural consequence – inefficiency to set in?
There is evidence to suggest so. While Peter has admirably defended the charges of excess management, a recent BBC report was mocked for informing us that maximum layers of management will be reduced from nine to seven! Yes, seven! And while there has been talk of effective cost-cutting (imposed, not optional) , it is interesting to note that with their future under-threat, the BBC has spent liberally on self-promotion as we see with a commercial to “celebrate the unique role that the BBC plays in all of our lives”:
I am surprised my opponent has made reference to public opinion. While the BBC is valued by many – including myself – that does not constitute support for the licence fee or the BBC’s current direction. Recent straw polls put support for the licence fee at the very best at fifty percent, lower in many polls. The Beeb’s cushy number is up, and they know it
Debt collection is indeed standard practice, that was never in dispute. But a British institution should ensure it is carried out professionally, respectably and efficiently. Entire websites show this to be absent in the BBC’s sub-contractor.
I also note that the problem of political bias – surely proven beyond reasonable doubt given the BBC’s own internal investigation – remains unanswered.
So at this stage, let me summarise my position:
– The BBC’s idea of cutting surplus management is to reduce it to seven layers.
– Bias remains almost beyond question and unaddressed.
– The licence fee chasing agency needs to be reformed.
– Public opinion at the very best, is fifty-fifty on the licence fee. Often, it is lower.
– A non-commercial body (BBC) is spending funds from licence payers on self-promotion to the government.
– Redundancy fees at the Beeb fell 30% to the paltry licence-payer’s sum of eighteen million.
I invite the good man to address these issues.
Save Our BBC
It is good for us to increase the speed of our debate, especially now so much has happened in the last ten days or so affecting the arrangements for the forthcoming reviews and decisions about the BBC’s next Charter and funding.
I’m afraid the criticism of the BBC as having been ‘once unique in its quality and reputation’ is an opinion clearly not supported by the overwhelming fact that tens of thousands of people in the UK and from abroad are expressing the view the BBC provides excellent quality today and has an excellent reputation abroad. 300 million foreigners use the BBC every week. 97% of the UK population uses the BBC for 18 hours per week.
I fully accept there is a small but very vociferous minority who don’t like either the BBC or the television licence fee. However, volume of noise is not evidence of volume of support.
Interestingly, the BBC’s commercial competitors have a lot of sympathy for the BBC because it has had certain but flat funding since 2010. This is because in that time all of them have managed to increase their funding and resourcing significantly. So the licence fee has been a cap leading to increasing cuts at a time when the rest of the broadcasting industry has been expanding.
The BBC is to have ‘up to seven layers of management’, down from ten. With 18,647 employees (BBC Annual report 2014-15) plus the thousands of freelancers, agents and contractors it uses this is neither surprising nor out of step with organisations of similar size and complexity, nor with its commercial competitors.
The advertising budget of the BBC is proportionately lower than that of its UK based competitors. All Non-Governmental Agencies have to inform their stakeholders, opinion formers and decision makers about what they do and lobby for their future interests. The NHS and Armed Forces come quickly to mind and are much more directly related to Government than the BBC.
I cannot see where I’m supposed to have said that licence fee is supported by public opinion. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport when debating the launch of the Government’s Green Paper about the future of the BBC on Thursday 16 July 2015, explained why introducing a subscription system to fund the BBC is not technically possible at present (Hansard, 16 July 2015). The broadcasting industry unanimously opposes allowing the BBC to seek any UK advertising because they know the total UK advertising budget is limited and those broadcasted who rely heavily upon that source of funding would be severely damaged. The Green Paper includes the funding of the BBC as a key subject for consultation. Save Our BBC says that we want a funding system which fully protects the BBC’s ability to maintain its present programmes, content and services and that they will thrive in the coming years, including by adapting to all relevant new technologies.
As a younger person I remember spending a summer working for HM Collector of Taxes (as was then) in the East End of London and later having to seek recovery of banking debts which I and colleagues had granted. Civil and statutory debts do have to be collected. Regulation of the policies and practices of debt collecting is a generic issue. In that context, the independent Perry Review, published on Thursday 16 July 2015, concluded that the current system of sanctions for licence fee evasion is “broadly fair and proportionate” and changing it would risk undermining deterrents.
There is no BBC internal investigation of which we are aware that proves beyond reasonable doubt that the BBC as a whole is politically biased as regards UK party politics, as defined in the BBC Editorial Guidelines.
To make £480m savings to date and be on track to achieve year on year savings of £1.5bn by 2016 there are inevitable current expenditure costs including redundancies.
Overall, the events and decisions of the last two weeks have answered some questions about the future of the BBC and put all others firmly on the agenda of the Green Paper