The BBC expands its global reach

Stephen Hewlett

A major cultural export, the British Broadcasting Corporation has a loyal following at home and abroad, but as it expands it risks becoming vulnerable to the very commercial pressures it has been courting

The BBC can be a very confusing beast. On the one hand, it puts out its World Service news bulletins – complete with the familiar ‘Lilliburlero’ signature tune and its (still) patrician voice tones – while, on the other, it acts as a ruthless business operator for as much cash as can be extracted from your local broadcaster for commercially-attractive programming like ‘Top Gear’ or ‘Dancing with the Stars’. If the BBC is starting to look big that’s because increasingly it is.

The World Service alone – funded by grant-in-aid direct from the UK government – employs over 2,000 people and provides programmes and content across radio, TV, online and even mobile phone networks, in English and 31 other languages. Then there is BBC Worldwide, which is the commercial subsidiary of the UK-based, licencefee- funded public service broadcaster. Worldwide employs nearer 3,000 people, sells finished programmes – and increasingly programme formats – and magazines, as well as running 41 TV channels round the world, 29 of them BBC-branded. It has a formats and production unit in Los Angeles and similar outfits in Germany and India (with plans for more) along with significant commercial investments in local independent producers in other territories. It generates in excess of £1 billion of revenues and even has a ‘Global Brands’ department.

Behind these is of course the ‘mother ship’ – the UK licence-fee-funded public service broadcaster with its 20,000 workers, four national TV networks, a 24-hour news channel, two children’s TV channels, seven countrywide radio stations, national stations for each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and its extensive network of local radio stations across the whole of the UK. And that’s not to mention its award-winning and hugely comprehensive online news and entertainment service, which includes the market-leading videoon- demand catch-up viewing and listening platform, BBC iPlayer. It all adds up to a substantial operation.

The BBC’s reach and status as a global media brand is something British governments have always had a soft spot for (and some might say a blind spot) but domestically the sheer scale and scope of the BBC’s operations have been starting to cause problems. Commercial competitors have found long standing arguments about its potential for negative market impact are beginning to get real traction. The recession hasn’t helped, but complaints about the licence-fee- funded BBC – with no requirement to make commercial returns on its investments – crowding out would-be commercial operators, and making life difficult for competitors, who must make profits to survive, have been increasingly well received. At least in the policy sphere.

In fairness, the BBC hasn’t just grown by accident. Successive governments have sought to use the organisation (and the licence fee which funds it) to pursue broader policy goals. The BBC’s move into multichannel digital TV was an agreed policy to help attract British viewers into the digital age. It was a prerequisite for the long-planned digital switchover which would release so much valuable analogue spectrum. But that channel expansion – from two to at least seven – while it might have helped people to move from analogue, has certainly left the organisation looking much bigger than before. If you throw in an element of ‘digital panic’ and the BBC’s fear of losing its salience with audiences in the emerging digital world, you can see how the BBC became vulnerable to the twin charges of being too big and too competitive.

But however much “too big” and “too competitive” might worry policy-makers (and infuriate competitors) it doesn’t in itself really impact with most of the public. But two things that have gone hand in hand with the BBC’s digital expansion certainly do – eye-wateringly high levels of talent and executive salaries. The BBC’s decision to pay chat show host Jonathan Ross an all-time record-busting £18 million over three years did not go down well. Neither did the fact that, in the name of attracting the best management, a string of top executives were taking salaries in the region of £500,000 a year, with pensions and benefits to match. And when, in the wake of the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal, it emerged that the BBC had no less than 146 managers being paid more than the Prime Minister, the press had a field day. And this is a press that is now finding itself toe-totoe with the BBC in ways that are entirely new – with real commercial edge – as they try to make a living in the converged online space.

If there is a concern that has resonated with the British public, it is about what might be called the BBC’s moral compass. They want the broadcaster to be competitive on screen and on air and they still really like (and in many cases love) the programmes and services – at least the ones they personally enjoy – and even now they still don’t generally really mind paying the licence fee. But they are not quite so sure about the corporation itself: “Is Auntie still, well, Auntie?” they wonder. And this is a key source of potential political vulnerability.

The vulnerability arises because the BBC’s core asset – and possibly its most extraordinary characteristic, certainly by international standards – is its independence from government control. All of the BBC’s journalistic integrity and reputation stem from that key attribute. But when you look at what sustains it you find a series of individually weak, almost filament-thin conventions.

In recognition of the fact that the BBC should be kept beyond the reach of politicians for as much of the time as possible, the BBC’s Royal Charter is always ten years long and licence fee settlements are a minimum of five. In recent times the BBC has had an effective monopoly on licence fee revenues, which are hypothecated to it, thus avoiding the need for the corporation to compete with other good causes for funding ahead of some other body appointed by government for the purpose. And whilst the BBC is fully subject to the law and its programmes subject to oversight by broadcasting regulator Ofcom, the BBC is otherwise regulated and governed by its own sovereign body – the BBC Trust.

But here’s the rub. When there are questions about the moral quality of the BBC’s behaviour, and especially when those begin to resonate with the wider public, any number of obvious-sounding changes to the way the corporation is run and held accountable (for how it spends its £3.4 billion of licence fee cash) run the risk of doing real lasting damage to the core asset: the BBC’s independence.

It may be that at home and abroad the BBC might have to pull in its commercial horns if it is to retain the affection of audiences that is key to its continued freedom from political intervention and control. If that priceless quality were to be eroded or undermined, it would not just be the British public who were the losers.

About the author:

Stephen Hewlett presents ‘The Media Show’ on BBC Radio 4 and is Visiting Professor of Journalism and Broadcasting Policy at Salford University


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International