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The great danger for the BBC and Channel 4

27 May 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The great danger for the BBC and Channel 4

The crisis posed by the pandemic has cruelly exposed the dilemmas both broadcasters face, writes Ray Snoddy

Newspapers are leading the way on the stories that really matter on the Covid-19 pandemic. The joint investigation by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror is one of the most talked about stories of the year and could yet have positive, cleansing consequences for the nature of government in the UK.

With 71 per cent of the population believing that Dominic Cummings broke the rules when he drove from London to Durham with his four-year old son and infected wife and the implausible tale of the 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, the story is far from over.

With plunging approval ratings for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and 40 Conservative MPs calling for the head of Cummings, a view shared privately, according to the Daily Telegraph, by at least six Cabinet ministers, the days of the very special advisor appear numbered.

The tide running against Cummings will gain momentum - it would have happened more quickly had Parliament been sitting - until Johnson may have to choose between his own survival and that of Cummings.

In such a contest there can only be one outcome. Cummings will have to go and one of the most powerful unelected officials in the land will have been brought down by dogged journalists and their colleagues across the media who have piled into the story and prevented it being shrugged aside by evasions and lies.

Meanwhile The Times and the Financial Times have continued to plug away at the information no longer provided by the daily government press briefings - the international comparisons on death.

Thanks to them we know not only that there have so far 37,048 Covid deaths in the UK, but also 63,800 excess deaths during the period compared with a rolling five year average. More significantly the UK not only has the highest number of deaths in Europe and the second highest in the world behind the US, but also the third highest death rates in the world per million people behind Spain and Belgium.

Answers will be sought over how such a slow motion tragedy could have happened and who was responsible.

The answer is actually becoming much clearer thanks to a remarkable piece of reporting by the Insight team of the Sunday Times. The Insight journalists have established that three weeks of “dither and delay” in Downing Street almost certainly cost thousands of lives.

The article demonstrates that after the need for a lockdown was accepted in principle the “libertarian” Johnson took a further nine days to work out the how and when of the lockdown.

During the delay a further 1.2 million people are estimated to have been infected with the virus.

The political consequences of those stories and such detailed journalism will play out across the summer and although predicting the future is a tricky business none of it is likely to bode well for Johnson and Cummings.

Against such a background it seems a little self-indulgent to fret about the future of the BBC and Channel 4 affected as we all are by the impact of the virus.

However the BBC’s annual plan has come out which actually covers the next two years and the finances of Channel 4, home to some of most hard-hitting TV journalism, has unsurprisingly suffered a collapse in advertising revenue.

The BBC has of course the privilege of licence fee funding but that has been hit by an increase in those who cannot or will not pay added to the inevitable postponement of imposing licence fee payments on most self- isolating over 75 year olds.

The crisis posed by the pandemic has cruelly exposed the dilemmas the Corporation faces - an ever rising tide of expectations all to be funded out of a threatened budget.

You can hardly cut news and current affairs in the midst of a continuing crisis can you? More money must be spent in the North to counter the claim that a metropolitan BBC is out of touch with the Brexit lands and then of course the challenge of preventing a young generation being lost to the streamers.

That problem at least has eased during the crisis with the success of programmes such as Normal People.

The greatest moment of danger for the BBC is to try to close down a service that many people value. The 6 Music logo should be tattooed on the leg of BBC executives to remind them of the station they nearly closed and which is now such a success.

The Corporation is now minded to go backwards and turn BBC Three into a broadcast channel once again.

The decision to push the channel out into the ether as an online only channel was a mistake that was obvious to most people at the time and was mainly designed as supposedly modernist cover for a sharp budget cut.

The channel’s return to the broadcasting mainstream with a budget doubled to £80 million is obviously welcome as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of BBC Four - one of the best things the BBC does and bang in line with the Corporation’s public service remit.

The BBC has lost the active support of many of its most loyal followers because of what was seen as the inadequate tit-for-tat Brexit coverage; or to give it a more technical term - false equivalence. 20 Nobel prize winners say Brexit will be a disaster, Boris Johnson said yesterday that was nonsense.

The BBC would lose a lot more of its loyalists if it decided to close BBC Four.

The great danger is that the Corporation will keep it alive as a husk, drained of finance, creativity and original programming.

Having undermined the ratings that will then be used to justify closure a couple of years down the track. It is a very familiar ploy in broadcasting.

A channel devoted entirely to repeats, though useful, would end up a zombie channel without a budget for original arts and history programming to name but two genres smack in the middle of what should be doing.

As for Channel 4, when the worse of the crisis is over thought will probably have to be given to a new financial structure which might even require government support for at least the short term.

For now it’s difficult to drag your eyes away from the most compelling political soap opera for a generation - the Boris and Dominic show.

Will they or won’t they survive?

Meanwhile surely a rerun of BBC Four’s The Thick of It is long overdue.

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