Protect against a colossal act of national self-harm
Raymond Snoddy dissects Sir David Clementi's parting words to BBC staff
It’s been a tough week for the BBC – but then most weeks are at the moment.
The highlight was the departing shots at the Government by Sir David Clementi, as his four-year term as chairman of the BBC came to an end.
Sir David, the mild-mannered and thoughtful former deputy governor of the Bank of England, did not mince his words.
He warned that any moves to weaken the broadcaster would be “a colossal act of national self-harm.”
For good measure, Sir David added that the BBC was one of the very few British institutions that were regarded as world-class.
On his travels aboard during his term, the BBC chairman had always been struck by the high-regard the Corporation was held in around the world.
Sir David’s parting words to BBC staff were hardly random and were a clear indication of internal fears at the highest level that the Government of Boris Johnson could easily perform a colossal act of national self-harm by deliberately weakening the BBC.
It would come in a way calculated to do the most damage – a hit on its finances with, at the very least, a freezing of the licence fee.
It is probably the first time that a departing chairman has had to issue such a generalised warning.
There have been rows a plenty in the past. Former chairman Sir Michael Lyons, threatened to resign, together with his then director general, Mark Thompson to block – at least for a period- plans to make the BBC pay for free-licence fees for the over 75s.
But there has been nothing quite like saying that likely government policy would amount to a colossal act of national self-harm.
Did such a striking message generate headlines and spark a debate about the merit- or otherwise- of Sir David’s words?
The Times covered the story in a small NIB – news-in-brief - on page four behind a paragraph devoted to teacher Sue Allington winning £140,000 in an age discrimination case, and ahead of an extension to the grants scheme for electric cars.
When it comes to the BBC, The Times, in many ways a good newspaper, is not a reliable voice.
The paper has been calling for the “reform” of the BBC for decades, which of course is simply code for the long campaign by its owner Rupert Murdoch to greatly reduce the size of the Corporation in line with his commercial interests.
From personal experience, it can be noted that there was always space for a page lead on the BBC if the story was a negative one but anything neutral or positive was lucky to get a NIB.
The Clementi piece in the Daily Mail only made a single column but the six paragraphs were straight and factual.
The Daily Express was more in line with expectations by claiming that “Britons were furious” that Sir David Clementi had dared to take a veiled swipe against “Boris Johnson making any changes to the ‘world class’ broadcaster.”
Sir David did not rule out “any changes” but furious Britons turned out to be Express readers who thought Clementi was “having a laugh” by claiming the BBC was held in high-regard, and those who wanted to defund the BBC.
In difficult times, the BBC can always rely on its “friends” often former senior executives who have profited considerably from the organisation, to stick the boot in.
This time, the blow came from Russell T Davies, the illustrious screenwriter behind the revived Dr Who series, who suddenly announced in the middle of a podcast that television drama was enjoying a golden age but that the BBC was heading for extinction “right now in front of us.”
Curiously Davies, currently enjoying his Channel 4 hit It’s A Sin, and who has in the past criticised the Government for cutting BBC funding, has now decided the game is up.
The writer announced that under the threat of streaming giants, the position of broadcasters such as the BBC was not so magnificent and he had given-up fighting for it – without saying why.
Russell T Davies, who may understandably have been concentrating on his special subject – drama – but he still was articulating the Netflix fallacy – that the rise of international streaming services makes national public service broadcasters irrelevant and that the next stop is oblivion.
The fallacy is almost certainly shared by members of the Johnson government and could become self-fulfilling.
In fact the opposite is the case. The intense competition from organisations such as Netflix and Disney + ,which are forecast to each have around 300 million subscribers by 2026, makes the role of properly funded national public service broadcasters even more important in future not less.
The obvious has to be repeated as many times as it takes. Netflix is an excellent provider of films, drama series and some documentaries.
It does not however provide local, regional, national and international news, nor a wide range of original radio or general entertainment, before mentioning one of the Corporation’s greatest achievements – the BBC World Service.
Netflix does not rapidly put together curriculum-based educational programmes for children unable to go to school because of the pandemic either.
There was another potential blow to the future finances of the BBC – with the re-emergence – in the Daily Mail- of the hybrid option for funding the BBC.
The suggestion is for a two-tier funding system. You could have, the argument went, a licence fee of around £100 a year for news and current affairs, big national occasions such as Royal weddings and funerals and local TV and radio.
Presumably this licence fee would remain compulsory although this was not entirely clear in the Mail feature. Everything else would take the form of incremental add-ons where monthly subscriptions would give access to everything else from soaps to high-end dramas. Entertainment subscriptions might bring in around £50 a year per household.
In fact such a system, which appears a sensible compromise, is anything but. It would cause confusion among viewers, and possible anger from those reluctant to pay for news.
It would also increase economic uncertainty for the BBC.
Hybrid funding would create two-tier audiences and drive a wedge between news and entertainment.
More importantly, it would undermine the main advantage of national public service broadcasting – that everyone pays a single fee and in return are informed, entertained and educated with the widest possible range of services.
If he does not know already, then Sir David Clementi’s successor, another former banker Richard Sharp, will have had a small taste of some of the issues he will have to face and the battles he will have to win against both the friends and foes of the BBC.