THE FUTURE OF THE BBC - Latest Sept 16 2010

FEB 24 2004

All that needs to be said is this. The BBC has laid itself open to certain criticisms which Elstein has picked up. These concern its paradoxical approach to public service and rating chasing, combined with its failure to appreciate certain dangers of its own pre-eminence and reputation world-wide. As a provider of information and now with the interactivity of its web site, a former of opinion and a simultaneous virtual ballot system, the BBC can feed on itself and become unstable.

The solutions that Elstein offers are, however, the very last that should be adopted. The solution is for the BBC to put its house in order and set standards, not follow all the trends that wash through our confused society. There are signs that this is being taken seriously in parts of the BBC, but there are other parts that make it difficult to justify the license fee and certain programmes that justify a refusal to pay it at all.

If all goes well, it will straighten up and fly right, and keep going with the present constitution and the license fee. That might mean a downsizing, but that is not certain. The complaint that it has become a production company, not a broadcaster, is not valid. The technology of broadcasting, of which the BBC was once a pioneer, has passed into the public and global-commercial domain. The BBC is right to concentrate on content, and that means it must have a substantial production role of the highest quality, setting standards and fostering talent.

The BBC is at the moment producing Radio and TV programmes of truly exceptional quality artistically, technically and, how shall I put this - philosophically. When Greg Dyke advised people to 'cut the crap', he meant to get to the beef and unstuff the downside of Birtism (there was an upside, remember). OK, but now it is time to actually cut the crap. There is every reason to think the current management could do that, without calling on any new figurehead DG or Chairman of Governors.

JB Feb 24 2004


OK, I was wrong about not needing a new Chairman of the Board. It seems there are those within the BBC who are still moaning about Hutton and need to be told they are independent, fearless and loved. Interviewed on PM by Eddie Mair, Michael Grade showed that he clearly understands why he has been offered this job and why he has accepted it. I agree. The days when the chairman did not need to have an in depth understanding of the world of broadcasting, in the private and public sector, are gone. BBC staff need to know that the board has people at the most influential level who understand the nature of the task, the problems, the history, the mistakes already made and those likely to occur. Michael Grade has the experience in broadcasting and in the world of business, and in several other areas of life. He also has the 'gift of the gab', though Eddie Mair almost caused him to lose it later in the interview. However, this is more to do with Eddie Mair and his speciality of questioning, which is to pose a question that implies a whole lot of assumptions, some of which can be accepted, others not. Eddie usually has an agenda which is to make his interviewee say something which will force them to mortally offend one or other major section of the audience. I find it rather childish but Eddie obviously thinks he's brilliant. Michael sounded rather disappointed as he struggled to get the interview back onto the job in hand, but ended up back in his usual good humour.

There are those who do not like Michael. They consider him shallow and just an impresario, an after dinner speaker (he is a terrific one - quite good before dinner too) and careless of the effects of the business decisions he pushes through with persuasive eloquence. He has obviously made some enemies along the way, but then he has done rather a lot. This is a completely new job for him. Of course the board has to appoint the next DG (or confirm the acting one in his job) but apart from that, the job is not to run the BBC bit to be there and have their finger on the pulse, ready to safeguard the independence of the corporation. That s not just the independence from Government - there are far more potentially dangerous influences, focus groups and movements outside (and even some inside) the BBC that the BBC must never become dependent on.That is only one reason why the license fee is the right method of BBC finance. The other reason is obvious to anyone with O-Level maths. Since that is hardly anyone these days perhaps I had better spell it out: the license fee can ensure a value for money ratio approximately double any alternative method.

Michael is a Dykist rather than a Birtist. Both Birt and Dyke were necessary, but just now neither are.  Michael is not DG but he will ensure that there is not another dose of Birtism. What is needed is now is professionalism and the BBC is already set up to deliver that. Indeed it is delivering - though there is a need for the BBC to improve its guardianship of the English Language. As was pointed out by distinguished letter writers in the Independent on Thursday (yesterday), the BBC appears to have been unaware of its influence and responsibility in this regard. It has tried to set a good example but at the same time has been guilty of corrupting the vocabulary and syntax and then following the trends started  by its own failures.

There is one point that needs to be made clear. Several times today I have heard it said, even by government spokespersons, that one of the BBC's functions is to challenge the government. It most certainly is not. It should give a platform to those who wish to challenge the government. It should assess the type of platform and the seriousness with which it is provided and serviced by using the experience and expertise of current staff and the wealth of archived knowledge at their disposal. For example it is right to give at least a limited air-time to those who say that to be a Muslim puts you above the law, and that a Muslim's loyalty should be to other Muslims regardless of how they behave; but it is also the BBC's duty to explain at the same time, to listeners, that this is inconsistent with any known legal basis for the existence of states, government, democracy and a civil society. Our free democracy and freedoms of speech and action depend on preserving certain standards and values.

The BBC does not have have the support of all license payers, but it cannot enforce or request the enforcement of the license fee if it challenges the elected government. We choose our government at general elections.


The BBC internal enquiry has found that the proper procedures were followed in the preparation of the programme but Gilligan did not abide by them. That is probably the truth. However, the Hutton enquiry was into the reasons for Dr Kelly's death and who, apart from or in addition to Dr Kelly, was implicated or responsible for it. The mistakes made by the BBC, which for diplomatic reasons no BBC spokesman will ever discuss, were not at the stage of the Today broadcast but in the multitude of programmes which followed, on TV and Radio, in which the BBC invited the public to choose between the credibility and honesty of the BBC and the Government. This involves serious programmes such as Question Time and Any Questions as well as many so called comedy programmes where gratuitous insults are flung at politicians who have stood for office and been elected. This ego trip was conducted in front of the world as well as the domestic audience. In effect the BBC invited the world to believe and honour the BBC and rubbish the British government. There is another internal enquiry still in progress about this. I hope the BBC is not going to behave like Piers Morgan

Due to the very recent very unpleasant revelations about the US treatment of prisoners in Baghdad, and the evident failure at the highest levels in America to understand how to deal with the postwar phase, the quick-thinking simpletons in the comedy workshops have decided to use the shield of outraged public opinion and their privileged position to claim that Hutton was rubbish and the BBC can ignore its findings. Not so. Butler will report on the intelligence services, the BBC is not entitled to ignore the Hutton. The WMD question is far from finished. I trust the BBC will not make the same mistakes again in their search for popularity or the mistaken belief that the political expertise of BBC staff exceeds that of the Foreign and Home Offices and the Cabinet. That is quite different from acknowledging that civil service failures to communicate (whether by error or intention) have caused immense problems to this government.

JUNE 23rd       THE NEIL REPORT is the definitive document on the BBC's reaction to Hutton. It makes very acceptable reading. Equally acceptable was Richard Sambrook's frank comments on Newsnight yesterday (approx) to the effect that it was not just Gilligan's error but the BBC's subsequent handing of it in a variety of news and discussion programmes that constituted the serious mistakes from which lessons have to be drawn. At the time I held Sambrook as one of those responsible and thought he should be sacked. His very frank remarks now make me change my mind - I hope he stays.

JUNE 29th
The chairman and DG have presented their plans for the BBC in its application for Charter Renewal. No surprises, but a serious presentation that deserves to be taken on face value.

MARCH 04 2005 (Summary from the BBC News Web Site)

At-a-glance: Future of the BBC
The government has outlined its plans for the future running of the BBC. Here are the main points:

BBC charter

  • The BBC's royal charter will run for another ten years, until 2016.

    BBC governors

  • The board of governors will be scrapped.

  • It will replaced by two bodies - the BBC Trust and an Executive Board.

  • Current BBC chairman Michael Grade will be the first chairman of the trust, which will represent the licence fee payer and will be responsible for ensuring the BBC's independence.

  • The trust will have significant levels of approval over BBC budgets and strategies.

  • It will also have the power to approve licences for BBC services, testing them on behalf of the public.

    The new body will have to be accountable to licence fee payers, including broadcasting meetings on the internet.

  • The board will look after the day-to-day running of the BBC, and will be headed by current director general Mark Thompson.

    Licence fee

  • The licence fee will stay in place for the next 10 years.

  • The government will decide on the right level for the fee after 2007, and will look at alternative ways of funding the BBC after 2016, including subscriptions.

  • The possibility of sharing the licence fee with other public broadcasters will be considered during the life of the next charter.

  • The licence fee should be used for creative purposes, using the best talent.

    Programme making

  • The BBC should not chase ratings for ratings' sake, and its output should not clash with its commercial rivals.

  • The number of independent productions should be increased as the corporation has exclusive access to licence fee funding.

  • There should be specific programming for the UK's different communities, and significant output made outside London.

  • The BBC is expected to take a leading role in the development of digital services in the UK, including the proposed analogue switch-off.

  • The BBC will also fund schemes to help fund schemes for vunerable consumers during this period.

    Other regulators

  • Broadcast regulator Ofcom will be given increased powers to assess the performance of the BBC, including assessing the impact of any proposed new services.

  • The important decision, apart from that the license fee is the most efficient way of funding the BBC and therefore in the best interest of all, is that the public service remit is to take precedence over chasing ratings. If we pursue the logic of this further, it follows that viewers should be encouraged to take advantage of the public service broadcasting by other methods than dumbing down the content. Means of doing this will be suggested here presently.

    MARCH 06 2005
    The relationship of the license fee to popularity on the one hand (it must serve a public need) and quality on the other hand (it must not chase ratings through sensationalism or dumbing down) appears to be a paradox. To solve it, the classic method is to find a symmetry that links another requirement to it that carries its own matching but opposed dynamic. So let us do that.

    We are told that there is trouble with the educational syllabus. Children are leaving school unable to read and write good English and this is because they spend too much time watching mindless television. There is plenty of mindful TV of course. The BBC supplies Open University airtime. But if we are to encourage young people to watch high quality informative TV on BBC ONE at peak time, it should be a topic of discussion at school. Pupils should be asked to write essays on The Blue Planet or a Panorama or Horizon special. Political programmes of a high quality should be screened with a view to their being a subject of debate and discussion and essay writing in the classroom. For example today on BBC Radio 4 there was an excellent edition of ANALYSIS which set out clearly the important realities related to the proposed EU Constitution. It was very understandable and could have been enhanced even further with graphics and documentary visual content. Schools could be made aware weeks before that the programme would be suitable as material for examination in the days and weeks after screening. There could, however, also be papers set on high quality comedy and entertainment programmes. Lord Clarke's "Civilisation" would be a good candidate on the cultural front. In the 1940s and 1950s before the days of mass TV culture most boarding schools for children aged 8-12 set a General Knowledge test paper which had to be prepared for in the holidays. Basing a periods of school work on TV programmes watched in free time would work on the same principle.

    In this way we turn TV from being part of the problem in education to being part of the solution. And at the same time we turn the universality of the license fee from a source of complaint due to minority viewing to a double-purpose utility of greater benefit, helping the younger generation to distinguish between fantasy and reality, thereby saving them from severe pain later in life. Of course all this has to be done in a flexible, intelligent and non-didactical way in order for it to be viable.

    JANUARY 18th 2007
    Hmm... Michael Grade has bolted to ITV, though I suppose he spent some time on the negotiations for the license fee
    The negotiations  are now finished and the BBs plans for the next 6 years can now be worlked out. Key elements to consider is where the license fee income is going to be spent:
    1. The amount to be spent on programming
    2. The amount to be spent on digital switchover and technical services
    3. The amount to be spent on moving some core services to Manchester
    4. The amount to be spent on none of the above, but including possible funding of public service broadcasting by other UK broadcasters.

    The last should not be seen as a form of BBC outsourcing but as a direct attribution of a slice of the license fee to allow independent TV some editorial responsibility, duties, freedom and funding. This has yet to be considered. In (2) there are questions of subsidised hardware for certain users. All in all quite a lot still to be settled but certain things already accepted - e.g the amount spent on programming is capped. In the 1970s my view was that for the BBC, programming was everything and should be kept as the main priority. Compared to the pioneering days when the BBC was rightly the builder of the technological framework, I came to the conclusion that this would and should be taken over by many others, shooting satellites into orbit and laying new types of cables. The BBC should concentrate on the quality of its contributors of content and its experts in world affairs and in programme making, editing and presenting. I had never envisaged someone like Jonathan Ross, enormlously talented and frequently tasteless as he is, being paid even a tenth of his presnt salary out of what I pay for a TV license. So I am all for MORE being spent on programming but LESS on celebrities, however smart-talking.

    The move to digital is certainly not going to help us reduce energy consuption or global warming until new technology is replaced by even newer before the new gets used by too many. The energy consumed by my digital radio is ten times the one it replaced.

    OCTOBER 18th 2007
    The BBC has committed itself to an immediate future that is slightly outside the finance the Government has allowed it. This has caused a requirement for efficiency savings. There is no doubt some can and should be found. There will be as a result some job losses. Now everyone claims to have a better idea how to manage these than the BBC's current management. I am not so sure. It would indeed be wrong if news, current affairs, factual and educational programmes were to suffer - but it is not yet clear that this will be the case. David Davidson claims the BBC management is 'soft' and will not allow government auditors to fully investigate its books.  The journalist's union says it is acting so ruthlessly it is breaking the law by even asking for voluntary redundancies. The public is divided on everything including whether the public should be given what it wants or what is good for it!  I still have confidence in the BBC management, and that management includes many producers and editors of programmes. The BBC can and should sort itself out without outside interference. It is not sick., has not yet lost its way even if it has gone a bit astray under the pressures of digital developments, platforms and politics.

    OCTOBER 31st 2008

    It is clear from listening to this morning's edition of Feedback that the BBC (in for example the person of Mark Thompson) has learned nothing at all from the Ross-Brand-Sachs affair.

    1. Thompson still thinks the BBC is in trouble through an event. An 'envelope' being 'pushed too far'. But Brand and Ross wouldn't know an envelope if they saw it and if they were in one (which ironically they are) couldn't find their way out if they tried.

    Pushers of envelopes are for instance Jimmy Carr and Al Murray, both of them brilliant, very funny and never, never, ever offensive to anybody individually, nationally, culturally, ethnically or philosophically. I suggest Mr Thompson watches Jimmy Carr: Stand Up (after watching Alan Clarke's Civilization; Heroic Materialism episode all through, not just the beginning). They are both envelope pushing to make people laugh and also think.

    In their day the Two Ronnies pushed the odd envelope very well, and some American comedians. Some of those are still funny when replayed now, others not as they confused pushing envelopes in humour with using offensive language and making fun of people who are modest  and polite in their behaviour. Those with limited comedic ability are likely to do that when they are under pressure to fulfill audience expectations and an inflated salary.

    2. It does not matter in the least if Sachs' granddaughter is offended or upset - if you sleep with Russel Brand you take the consequences. Only good can come out of that. Nor does it matter if Sachs is upset - he can sue if he wants to.

    3. Confusion over political correctness has been responsible for so called envelope pushing in other directions.

    4. What is at issue is the apparent importance our society attributes to Ross, Brand and many others. A measure of this is indicated by their salaries and their exposure. One listener was outraged by the fact that Gordon Brown and Cameron were moved to speak publicly about this when there are problems all over the world needing their attention. I agree entirely. But what this listener and the BBC both fail to understand is the connection between the reign of Ross and Brand in the UK as public icons and the problems all over the world. Neither that listener or Mr Thompson sees the connection and that is where the real problem lies.

    The reason for the disintegration of order in societies all over the world is the total collapse of respect for authority and standards. Certain nations used to be looked up to as examples of discipline and authority based on long term, traditional serious attempts at exemplary and responsible behaviour. No matter the failures - these were not lauded. No matter the mistakes, they are always found out. But never, ever, did the likes of Ross and Brand have a following that exceeded those of previous national heroes in literature, politics, the military, science, trade and industry.

    Look at the statues that decorate our capital cities. These are the men that the leaders, whether national or tribal, of the world's far flung peoples respected and came to see. Their works were admired, their speeches and aphorisms remembered. They were also the role models. Today, nobody who has taken the trouble in some far off country to learn English would be able to decipher the noise coming out of Brand's mouth and more than foreigners on the London Underground or National Rail can understand the announcements unless they are those recorded in advance by professionals. Videos of UK TV are used all over the world to recruit young people in the cause of bringing down the world leader that is now a joke

    It seems that by catering to a certain part of British youth in a desperate effort to make them seem mediatically valued, no standards are set in either speech, behaviour or vocabulary. If I go to France, everything that is said on TV, in public announcements and in written notices is clear, grammatical, properly spelled and clearly enunciated. A Provencal accent is different  from a Parisian only because it is slightly easier on the ear for the English, just as Irish or Scots used to be over here and still is compare to to glottally stopped blatherings of non-locational ethnically baseless noise we here ever more of over the air in the UK.

    The UK and the US - the Anglo Saxon world, has lost self-respect and as a result is a leader in the breakdown of any respect. Authority is based on confidence, confidence and respect are linked. The failure of one risks the failure of the other. A typical result is that order is imposed only through force. Force imposed without respected authority is hard to distinguish from violence. The difference between force and violence in the public perception and the mind of authority is the very cornerstone of civilisation. This failure is the reason for the humanitarian disasters in Africa and elsewhere.

    The cult of celebrity is half of an equation on which the other side has developed to match. Instead of leaders we have managers, managers of the world of celebrity. The people the BBC has produced to discuss the matter of Ross and Brand and by implication the people above and around them clearly have not the calibre required for this period of history to be leaders.

    Perhaps this does not matter. Perhaps a leaderless world is exactly what is required just now. Let us just see what the mix, as it ferments, produces. Nevertheless the confusion and ignorance is reaching an extraordinary peak, putting quite a strain on the functional parts of society (the UK military for instance, never in better hands in some respects). Ross should be sacked not suspended, Brand should never have been hired - I suppose that is why the BBC exec who hired him has resigned, an otherwise popular and efficient lady. If she hired she should be able to fire and should have done, both of them.

    The confusion in the analysis of social phenomena is quite amusing or could be if not sad. A classic example:

    The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found boys born to light drinkers were 40% less likely to have conduct problems and 30% less likely to be hyperactive than those whose mothers had abstained.

    The link above is to a story which reveals a statistic which causes a problem, we are told. How to explain and interpret it. The explanation is very simple.

    1. Moderate alcohol consumption is a natural part of the human diet and has been for millennia for most races.

    2. Parents who are light (or even low-medium) drinkers are by definition those able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage without it altering their personality, causing addiction or encouraging abuse. They are likely to have children with similar intrinsic traits including self-control, reinforced by both example and upbringing supplied by the same parents - nurture reinforcing nature. This will tend to make them intelligent, attentive, good learners and well behaved.

    3. A moderate intake of well made alcoholic beverages is good for the metabolism and for the mind in most people. Those who have genetic or environmental circumstances that render this invalid should avoid the stuff.

    Yet this straightforward explanation seems to have eluded all commentators and researchers. The best they could come up with was a politically correct mis-hit:

    "The reasons behind these findings might in part be because light drinkers tend to be more socially advantaged than abstainers, rather than being due to the physical benefits of low level alcohol consumption seen, for example, in heart disease.

    "However, it may also be that light-drinking mothers tend to be more relaxed themselves and this contributes to better behavioural and cognitive outcomes in their children."

    As for the other commentators they think the results should be treated as giving the wrong message. In short, everyone, no matter what view they actually hold, has to dance around mouthing what they think is politically correct. The envelope that needs pushing in this country is to get people who understand which way is up, on the TV and Radio, talking the truth out loud.

    FEBRUARY 26th 2010
    OK, now we have reached, thanks to relative collapse of western economies, a stituation where the BBC's secure financial base in the license fee is seriously resented by the commercial broadcasters. So instead of being a stabilising force, able to retain is services and employees and outsourced contracts at a time when nothing is more needed, the BBC will be forced on the grounds of 'fairness' to cut back on many of its greatly valued services. There is nothing free-market theorists hate more than the success of any effectively nationalised institution, even if it is completely independent of government in its operation and policies.

    The BBC will of course give in and relinquish some of its projects, cutting back, we are told, on some web services. This will in theory save money (how can it? Are we to see a reduction in the license fee???) and give some room for commercial competitors who apparently finance the services by getting audiences, viewers etc. to pay for goods and services they don't need and would not otherwise buy if it were not for the advertising they carry, or take out subscriptions for complex packages of which most people only want one of the pile of stuff bundled. Oh well, such is life, we have to go along with all these earnest, confused, self-serving shakers and movers. At least Jonathan Ross's salary has hit the waste-paper basket.
    If fewer foreign imported programs means more home-grown, that's OK.

    SEPTEMBER 2010

    So the license fee is to be frozen for a year, possibly more. A reduction is then not impossible. This is in recognition of the obvious loss in wealth of the average UK citizen. The retiring chairman of the  BBC trust has announced this proposal, the government is to take the actual decisions. The simple fact that nobody has the nous or personality to point out is that every single person employed by or paid by the BBC, earning more than a certain minimum a year could take a pay cut of the required percent to balance the BBC books on any 'job' or contract or salary without their world coming to an end.

    The public should not be in a competition for their talents with other broadcasters, buying them for the BBC if there are others who will bring them and their talents to us. The idea of it being our great privilege to have e.g. Jonathan Ross on the BBC when there are many other channels he can be bought by if they want him was always ridiculous. That is an extreme case, but the same applies to anyone paid a celebrity salary more than the minimum rate for the professional job. £144 million pounds spread properly could be saved without any effect on programmes or anything else other than the pockets of people who are far from on the breadline. Selling of assets is not required either unless its a good idea (which exceptionally it might)

    OCTOBER 6th 2010

    BBC set to cut 2,000 jobs by 2017

    The BBC says this will be the most far-reaching transformation in its history, changing how - and where - it operates.

    Most of the savings are due to come from finding cheaper ways of working, through new technology, job cuts and new terms and conditions for BBC staff.

    But with no TV channel or radio station facing closure, few expect licence-fee payers to be marching on Broadcasting House

    Speaking ahead of Thompson, BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten explained how the trust will consult licence fee payers on the plans. The public will have until the end of the year to respond.

    I have no comment to make at this stage.