Tuesday, September 21, 2010

BBC needs more reality TV

It’s not surprising Sir Michael Lyons is giving up as chairman of the BBC Trust. He knows when he’s onto a loser.

The former chief executive of Wolverhampton and Birmingham councils was appointed to the job by the old Labour Government. He was one of their trusties, having been a Labour councillor at an early stage in his career.

With the BBC under scrutiny as never before, we can reasonably assume he quit before was pushed out of his £204,000-a-year three-day-a-week job.

Things are getting nasty at the Beeb and they’re not likely to settle down any time soon.

The broadcasting unions are threatening to black out part of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham next month. We may also face blank BBC TV screens when the Government unveils its controversial spending cuts on October 20.

The 48-hour strikes over plans to limit the BBC’s generous pensions scheme will not do the national broadcaster any good.

Instead of causing the viewers and the Government maximum inconvenience, which is usually the aim of any strike, all it will do is play into the hands of the BBC’s rivals.

The unions live in the dark ages when the BBC enjoyed a near monopoly over the airwaves.

These days, there are hundreds of TV channels to choose from. This bewildering, and often dispiriting, variety of output does not guarantee quality, of course.

Some of the stuff you get with a Sky TV subscription is so embarrassingly bad it’s a wonder how the stations which churn it out can survive financially. And many of the Freeview channels are not worth wasting your life watching.

Even so, politics junkies can find more than enough coverage of party political conferences and Government spending reviews without having to go anywhere near the BBC.

The Corporation is still a national institution like the NHS. We seem to love it for all its faults. Yet if you look closely at what the BBC does, you have to wonder whether we need it any more.

We pay £145.50 for the privilege of watching television, whether we ever look at a BBC programme or not.

Most people, most of the time, still seem to think this is decent value for money. The licence is certainly a lot cheaper than even the most basic Sky package.

If payment was voluntary, rather than being the legally-enforced poll tax that it is today, the BBC’s income would fall substantially from today’s £3.5 billion but it would still yield a small fortune.

Sadly, we don’t have that option which is why the Corporation is under such scrutiny over how much it pays its stars like Jonathan Ross and why its executive directors’ salary and expenses are now public property.

It may be OK for BBC Director General Mark Thompson to claim £2,236.90 and £1,277.71 to cut short family holidays and fly home to deal with urgent business but it doesn’t look good. Especially when you know he was paid £778,000 last year.

The BBC attracts hostile attention partly because the papers and TV stations on the attack are owned by commercial rivals. They see the Corporation’s privileged financial position as a distortion of a free market in broadcasting.

That helps to explain why it seems to be under constant bombardment from the rest of the media. But it doesn’t invalidate their complaints.

The BBC’s expansion – especially its attempt to dominate the internet – are rarely justified by its public service broadcasting charter.

That’s because, even though they are highly-paid, it’s executives do not really know what the organisation is for any more.

If “public service” were the real objective, the BBC wouldn’t need all the TV and radio channels it now owns. It would not produce pap aimed at winning an increasingly-irrelevant ratings war. And it would not fork out millions on “talent”.

Apart from the sacred cow of the NHS, everyone in the public sector is facing huge spending cuts. They must be applied to the BBC as well.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will soon embark on new negotiations over the licence fee. The time has come to debate the options. One would be to close down many BBC activities, sell them off and cut the fee to no more than £100.

In my view, it would be better if the whole monstrous edifice were sold off in a massive privatisation which could make billons for the Government at a time when cash is short.

Luckily for the BBC, though, it is still valued enough by viewers and listeners that a sell-off is not on the cards.

Even so, it’s a fat, monstrous old auntie sitting complacently on its sofa sucking sweeties paid for by the hard-up taxpayer. It needs a fitness regime if it’s to survive.

The unions may think blacking out the Tory party conference is a dramatic statement of intent but they’re asking for trouble.

Sir Michael has six months of his contract to go. He should give the BBC a dose of reality TV. If he switches off now, the unions shouldn’t complain if the rest of us switch off too.

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