Slash and burn at the Beeb

The BBC has barely been out of the headlines in recent months, not least since the publication of its major strategy review. Siobhan McGuirk asked trade unionists and industry figures what they think needs to change at the corporation

July 5, 2010
9 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

Waves of opposition have hit the BBC hard since the corporation’s strategy review proposals were published on 2 March. These have been most vocal in opposition to the planned closure of digital radio stations 6 Music and the Asian Network.

These are not the only suggested cuts, however. The review, carried out over the past year, also proposes major reductions to the BBC website, slashing lower-traffic areas to cut spending by 25 per cent by 2013. The teen-focused output of BBC Switch and its Blast creative network is scheduled to be shut down, along with BBC Worldwide magazines. The intention ‘not to launch services more local than at present in England’, meanwhile, paves the way for private companies to take over local programming. Ominously, employment policies are set to be altered to reflect that ‘working for the BBC from now on will mean constant new opportunities and constant change’. Casualisation of the workforce looms.

For many analysts, these proposals represent, at best, a pre-emptive strike in response to the hard-line approach promised by the major political parties before the election. At worst, they demonstrate an act of overstated self-sacrifice, which plays straight into the hands of those calling for cutbacks and the ‘top-slicing’ of the licence fee. This controversial proposal would redirect 3.5 per cent of the licence fee into a fund for non-BBC content to be contested by commercial broadcasters. The idea is backed by those profit-making media corporations that accuse the BBC of monopolising the airwaves and having unfair protection (stable income) during the recession.

The public feels strongly about the BBC, one of the reasons the campaign to ‘Save 6 Music’ has been so vocal. Supporters of the Asian Network have also built strong campaigns. Both stations got a slew of Sony Radio Academy Award nominations in a demonstration of resolute industry backing.

As Red Pepper went to press, the strategy review was nearing the end of a three-month consultation period, with a 25 May deadline. We asked union representatives and media industry figures to share their views on what needs to change at the BBC.

ROGER GRAEFdocumentary filmmaker

Over the past decade it seemed that the BBC was recognising – albeit belatedly – the need for more arts coverage. Recently, it seemed to be putting more into BBC2 for factual programming. I would hope that these developments continue. I am sorry about suggestions to reduce the mix of programming on BBC4. That is a very bad idea that will only add to its ghettoisation.

I don’t think that the BBC is failing to live up to its responsibilities, as I understand them. But it needs to ease the pressure to play absolutely safe with every programme. This is a legacy of ‘Queengate’ and the Brand/Ross incident, and it is hampering a lot of work in documentary and current affairs programming. Of course people attacked by current affairs will complain, as Primark did recently. This should not be seen as the end of the world because it can be responded to: hands up if the programme-makers are wrong, stand firm when they are right. And more often than not, they are right.

The over-expansion accusation levelled at the BBC is fair, in some respects. The BBC suffers from having the potential to do a lot more but it spends too much on managers and not enough on programmes. Managers want more things to manage and are less interested in programmes. They’ve cut the programme budgets continually, to make them more ‘efficient’.

The BBC needs to remember that risks, in documentary, arts, drama and journalism, are good, not bad. It could certainly encourage more risk-taking drama and documentaries but it needs more room to try things and fail and to rely less on safe, familiar faces in front of camera.

JEREMY DEARgeneral secretary, National Union of Journalists

It is not surprising that the BBC is under attack – nor that the attack dogs are Murdoch and the BBC’s commercial rivals. It’s no surprise either that those politicians who believe the media should be more about delivering for the market than providing information for citizens echo those attacks. They believe public service broadcasting should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Tories are threatening to cut the licence fee. The Lib Dems say the BBC is too dominant. Labour wants the BBC to share its money with commercial rivals. This happens at every election. What is different about the current attacks is that BBC management is leading the charge, hoping that self-harm it will head off criticism from politicians and commercial rivals. It is failing on both counts.

Not content with BBC plans to axe 6 Music and the Asian Network, to chop half the pages from the website and sack 25 per cent of the staff, to sell off profitable magazines and to scale back some of its local radio programming, commercial rivals want more. They are braying for the privatisation of Radio 1 and free online news content to be scaled back. In essence, they want a smaller BBC – or preferably no BBC at all.

The corporation is ripe for criticism. We do it every day – excessive management pay and bonuses, too many managers and not enough staff in some areas, too little ambition, too much conservatism. But when James Murdoch, attacking the BBC’s ‘state-sponsored journalism’, says the only reliable, durable guarantor of independence is profit, we know which side we are on. The side of public service, not private profit.

The BBC needs to put more money into programmes and less into managers’ rewards. It must spend less on expenses and more on investigative journalism. It needs to reflect more communities better and more often, and the status quo less. But it must also stop being so cowed by politicians and commercial rivals. As Armando Iannucci put it so succinctly it at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards: ‘Surely at the end of the day with all its skill and expertise… it could find someone to articulately tell James Murdoch to fuck off.’

SUNNY HUNDALAsians in Media

I have been critical of the BBC Asian Network. The station has been subject to complaints over its confused music policy, not covering enough current affairs and failing to develop new talent. Yet I strongly feel its survival is important. It has undeniably championed new and experimental music that does not get airplay on other radio stations. It also invests in documentaries and news formats that commercial rivals, along with mainstream news journalists, shun.

Axing the Asian Network signals abandonment of the BBC charter’s commitment to ‘portray and celebrate the range of cultures and communities across the UK’. The BBC is notoriously bad at representing minorities, soaps aside. It should represent British Asian culture not only to serve that demographic, but to create links with the mainstream. Closing the network abandons Asian licence fee payers, but also Britons who enjoy aspects of Asian culture, and threatens the development of a hybrid British-Asian culture.

The Asian Network is a gateway into mainstream British culture. It has gone further than any other Asian radio station in combining mainstream pop culture and news with British Asian culture. It encourages and aids integration rather than stymies it. Without it, many Asians would retreat to alternatives that are less open, raising the prospect of ‘parallel lives’- where different communities consume different media outlets without much overlap.

Mark Thompson recently wrote that the BBC sometimes has to leave space for others. But in many cities across the UK, the Asian Network represents the only alternative to commercial radio. In London, where 40 per cent of British Asians live, all the main stations (niche offerings such as Panjab Radio aside) are owned by the one group: Sunrise. The closure is not good for competition.

It is also bad for the BBC. The corporation has an internal target to have at least 12.5 per cent of its workforce from diverse backgrounds. Along with the now defunct Asian Programmes Unit, the Asian Network has been a stepping stone for presenters, producers, journalists and actors across the media industry. Cutting this is not the answer.

LUKE CRAWLEYassistant general secretary, the Broadcasting Entertain-ment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu)

The BBC is giving in to intense lobbying by its commercial competitors and running up the white flag. The proposed cuts announce that the BBC is prepared to inflict pain upon itself – there is no need for politicians to do so. This is a misguided strategy, which has not prevented those commercial rivals from demanding even more closures and reductions in the licence fee. Bectu, the biggest union at the BBC, will defend our members’ jobs with industrial action if necessary. However, there are bigger questions concerning the future of the BBC.

The BBC is free to viewers, listeners and web surfers and must continue to be so. The licence fee is cheaper than any satellite or cable subscription and as a funding mechanism it keeps the government at arm’s length. Slashing the licence fee would only weaken the BBC and strengthen the arm of its commercial rivals. That is not to deny that we are coming through an advertising drought that has cut the income to channels funded by advertising, causing serious problems and job losses. Yet commercial analysts are already predicting that advertising income will rise quickly in the next few months.

The fact is that in the UK we decided long ago that we did not want an unbridled free market in broadcasting. That decision still has widespread and popular support. That commercial companies have to compete with the BBC, and do so successfully, has produced a rich and pluralistic culture of programme making. While it is not perfect, it still produces a huge range of popular programmes that would not be made by any commercial provider. The existence of the BBC makes all programme makers try harder. It makes us the envy of many countries across the world.

The BBC also has a vital role as a provider of impartial news at national and local level, which needs defending as the cornerstone of public service broadcasting. Politicians attempting to favour certain supporters by reducing its range, scope or funding must be opposed.


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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