When George Osborne was forcing the BBC to take the £750 million hit from free licence fees for the over-75s two months ago, there was, remember, also a seasonal flurry of news stories about naughty seagulls swooping from a great height on defenceless people… and even dogs.
This image was foremost as delegates at last month’s Edinburgh Television Festival, fired up by Armando Iannucci’s brilliant MacTaggart lecture – a rallying cry in defence of the BBC – banded together to dive-bomb culture secretary John Whittingdale with disdain. He both attended the event and then bravely hung around for the critical pecks, casting himself as a reluctant hatchet man caught up in essential national deficit reduction.
His message boils down to a denial that anyone is seeking to dismantle the BBC – he wants it to streamline management, and make the optimum use of targeted funds, without sacrificing core services. His worst threat was of Ofcom taking future responsibility for adjudicating on impartiality complaints, something the public would welcome for simplicity’s sake. But Iannucci’s barbs about the composition of Whitting-dale’s charter advisory group lacking creative people hit home. This is something the culture secretary does control.
Also, Iannucci’s defence of public service broadcasting included the deft soft power point: the BBC can connect and communicate high culture and ideas with larger audiences and popular taste, enriching Britain and beyond. But when I switch on I also see the BBC cross-promoting its radio services on TV and changing radio and BBC3 stations into online platforms with the speed of a rip tide. It is failing to lay the groundwork for a modus vivendi with Scotland and Wales.
The BBC’s management in the past decade, through arrogance, contributed to the mess over accountability and governance by never really according the BBC Trust the respect it needed to establish itself.
In truth, though, the festival also demonstrated how mercenary the independent production sector from which most of the delegates are drawn tends to be. Outside of the MacTaggart, it is about networking and sessions and drinks to meet commissioners who hold the purse strings.
So the greatest anxiety centres on the prospect of cuts of around 10% in BBC income. Tony Hall’s speech this week about delivering ambitious online partnerships, more box-set style drama, an expanded World Service and a children’s on-demand service lacked crucial financial detail.
Yet this tough licence fee settlement shaping up, the only one on offer, should create an incentive towards swift iPlayer online registration to access BBC content and, surely, a system of subs for non-UK residents. (The way UK theatre has seized the opportunities of international live performances ought to inspire the BBC).
My final worry is Channel 4. If broadcasting policy is influenced by cutting the deficit, then it is a tasty morsel for privatisation, despite being well run, and showcasing some sparkling new programming. Let it be.