I’m 22 years old . There’s a BBC press conference. The room is full of fag-ash hacks, men in suits and stroppy photographers. I’m not even a boy by comparison. I’m a baby.
And there’s the BBC brass, at a table up front, proudly announcing the signing of a new contract with Terry Wogan.
Terry wanders in as his name is called. He beams. Cameras flash, microphones are thrust, questions are shouted.
When it’s all calmed down, I put my hand up. I’m an easy mark: hippy-ish clothes, long hair, too young to be serious. So, yes, let’s have a question from Music Week’s young radio correspondent.
“How much is this contract costing?”
Chins drop. Pins drop – and are heard. Fleet Street faces turn to see – who is this cheeky fucker?
A cough, a sheepish look down, and the BBC spokesman says, “Er, we don’t discuss that kind of thing.”
“But I’m a licence payer. Everyone in this room is a licence payer. That’s our money you’re spending.”
We’ll draw a veil over the rest of it. Wogan, to his credit, was vastly amused. We bumped into each other on the street afterwards. We’d both got out of there as quickly as we could, while the rest slurped and supped at licence payer expense. “Ah,” he said. “The young whelp who asked the awkward question.” He obviously didn’t give me the answer I wanted, but he was clearly impressed I’d asked what no-one from Fleet Street had dared.
In that little vignette I think we see the genesis of the BBC ‘problem’.
‘We’re competing in a commercial market’, they say, ‘and we can’t let our competitors know our terms’.
Except, of course, that’s not what the BBC is for.
First off, let me say – I love the BBC and I completely support the licence fee as a form of finance. But its (the licence fee’s) days are numbered, with or without political interference.
The British without the British Broadcasting Corporation would be vastly poorer culturally. That’s my opinion. I’m open to rational arguments to the contrary, but I’ve never heard one.
However, the BBC is its own worst enemy. When your budget, taken from the public purse, is approaching £4bn annually even the rational among us must begin to ask questions.
Here’s what I think.
- As a public service broadcaster, there’s no need for more than two television channels (and hold your horses, because I have other options).
- I also cannot see the point of Radio 1, except as a hook to get young people into the BBC habit. Well, that’s not happening. Young people have a different agenda today, and public service broadcasting (which Radio 1 is not) is not on their horizon.
- There’s no public service requirement for 6 Music. Oh, I know we all love it (well, some of us). But it’s not doing anything that can’t be done commercially.
- There’s no public service requirement for Radio 4Xtra.
- I would also get rid of mono-cultural stations. We’re supposed to be building a cohesive society here. Broadcasting to social ghettos is not helpful.
- Jeremy Vine’s show on Radio 2 – what’s that all about? It’s like a news version of the Jeremy Kyle show. I’ve got my doubts about Radio 2 having any genuine public service value.
- In the era of apps for traffic and weather, and with your local news available on whatever device is closest to hand, there is no longer a rationale for the local radio network.
- Finally, the BBC website is a monopolistic disgrace, and absolutely illustrative of the Corporation’s overweening ambition; what I call corporate ego. It should be reduced to news headlines and links to programmes. It is a massive drain on programme budgets and generally speaking a vanity project of the most narcissistic kind. It is also inexcusably anti-competitive.
That’s the bad news. Now some good.
The World Service should be restored to its former glory, properly financed and no argument.
Radios Three and Four should have their budgets increased, maybe even doubled. They cost pennies by comparison with the big tv budgets. Radio 4 is the most important entry point for comedy and drama, and massively important to the ‘national conversation’.
BBC4 is what BBC2 used to be – great documentaries, un-dumbed down cultural interviews and fantastically entertaining and educational programmes about a vast range of music.
It also used to make great original dramas, but that budget was slashed, and the output stopped. Today, the vast majority of BBC4 is repeats.
So closing down BBC4 and scheduling its new output on BBC2 would scarcely be revolutionary. In the digital age, when the majority of viewers can access iPlayer, there’s no excuse for BBC2 running repeats of The Rockford Files, QI (on almost constant rerun elsewhere), Yes Minister and ‘Allo ‘Allo. We also don’t need cookery programmes from BBC2 (again, hold your horses; solution coming up).
So, two TV stations, Radios 3&4, The World Service, and a cut-down website. That might represent £1bn cut from its cost. It would put a huge dent in the argument which is forcefully, continuously and self-righteously conducted in the pages of many national newspapers – the Mail, the Times group (Murdoch-owned, of course) and others; not to mention increasing numbers of UK residents.
A stripped down BBC could see the licence fee back under the £100 mark. The argument for turning it commercial would lose its edge.
That would give the BBC room to breathe, time to figure out its role in a world where television becomes less and less about destination viewing. The recent primetime Sunday night drama, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, didn’t even make BBC1’s own top 10.
That’s not a reason for not making it. It’s just indicative of a new reality. We have no idea how our grandchildren will be viewing, but somehow we have to get ready for it.
So, in its new incarnation, let’s give the Corporation a third channel (BBC3, say) to develop a subscription model.
If people want programmes like The Great British Bake-Off, The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing, they will surely pay £6.95 a month to subscribe to a BBC version of Netflix.
But the beauty of a model like this is that the BBC could continue to develop great drama (as HBO has done, with Netflix now following in its wake).
And while we’re at it, let them have a fourth channel (BBC4, say; see how this is working?). It would be On Demand, where people pay for the programme they want, when they want, like, I dunno, Virgin and Sky. £0.99 for half an hour (to watch all those great old sitcoms); £1.99 for anything an hour or more – drama series and nature programmes. I know you’ll say, “We’ve already paid for them”, and so we have. But future generations haven’t.
There will – no doubt in my mind about this – come a time when the licence fee is socially (and therefore politically) unsustainable. In 10 years, the BBC could have developed a whole new finance model that would surprise them.
It would still be public service, still trading on its (and our) heritage. It could become a commercially sustainable version of itself without ever having to be dependent on advertising.
As for threats to its very existence on the basis of its political bias, that’s a whole other story. Almost every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill has sailed in that ship. On behalf of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell bullied the BBC daily, publicly and shamelessly for 10 years. But it’s still here.
If it can stop being a preening, bullying monolith, it will still be here when we’re long gone.