Slow start to the death of the BBC.
Less than three weeks later, what happens? The BBC Trust meekly submits to a zero-percent rise in the licence fee over the next two years, which even the hawkish culture secretary Jeremy Hunt finds to be thinking too far ahead, agreeing only to the first year, with a decision to be made about 2012/3 at a later date. Not that the BBC should suspect that this will change anything come the licence fee settlement to be secured in 2013: most predict that if anything, the licence fee faces being cut. The freeze is despite the last fee settlement, agreed and signed by Tessa Jowell for the last government, which pencilled in a 2% rise next year and between a 0% and 2% rise the year after.
Well, why not, some might ask. Every other publicly funded body is being asked to identify savings, ready for the cuts which are just around the corner. What's more, isn't it about time that the BBC spent the licence fee more wisely, cutting back on the highly paid executives and star talent, trimming the fat and getting into line with the current economic climate? That, it seems, is exactly the sort of argument which the BBC was anticipating and so has reacted to, avoiding any possibility of the government falling out with the corporation by not embracing the new spirit of the age. And it's true that some executives, especially on the radio side of things, have been receiving more than they probably would in the private sector, mainly thanks to how successful the BBC has long been and continues to be in that sector.
The problem is, as Mark Thompson outlined in his lecture, that the BBC has already been responding both to outside pressure and to an internal realisation that it's been spreading itself too thinly. Thousands of jobs have gone over the last six years, it's made many of its top stars take pay cuts or refused their exorbitant demands in order to stay (for which see Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley crossing over to ITV, although describing them as stars is perhaps pushing it), it's tackling its pensions deficit, triggering the planned strikes and it wants to go even further, as its own Putting Quality First document set out. Those cuts and changes already proposed a radically different BBC, one where it effectively emasculated itself in some areas, and also went against its very supposed principles of providing different unique content which the private sector either wouldn't or couldn't. While the BBC Trust saved 6 Music, at least for now, the Asian Network will be closed at the end of next year. Now the freeze in the licence fee effectively means the taking of a further £144m out of the corporation's current budgets. True, if the BBC was to close or privatise a couple of more worthy targets, such as either BBC3 or Radio 1, neither of which even come close to providing a unique service unavailable elsewhere, then that entire £144m could be reallocated. Sadly, those seem to be cuts which the corporation is too stubborn to even begin to consider.
If this sacrifice is intended to endear the corporation to the coalition come the next fee settlement, then it seems to be an incredibly short-sighted gesture. Mark Thompson made an argument against a cut in the fee which applies just as well to the freeze during his MacTaggart speech:
But do not believe anyone who claims that cutting the licence fee is a way of growing the creative economy or that the loss in programme investment which would follow a substantial reduction in the BBC's funding could be magically made up from somewhere else.
It just wouldn't happen. A pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy. Once gone, it will be gone for ever.
It also reckons without the influence which Murdoch is going to wield in two years time, let alone the deal already done which led to him switching support from Labour to Cameron's Conservatives. All signs point by then to News International having swallowed Sky whole, with Vince Cable apparently unlikely to intervene. Claire Enders, the respected independent media commentator has said that this will represent a "Berlusconi moment", referring to the control which the Italian prime minister has over his country's media through his ownership of vast swathes of it. This would be even more drastic if Ofcom had been abolished or had its powers slashed, as Cameron suggested should happen prior to the election, picking on it directly as one of the quangos which should be cut down to size. While little has been said since the election, it could well be one of the targets in the general spending review. If politicians were scared of taking on News International when it owned only 39% of Sky, as they claim to have been as an explanation as for why they did next to nothing about allegations of phone-hacking at the News of the World, then the potential full spectrum dominance it will have in just a couple of years' time makes it even less likely that such abuses of power would be followed up and investigated to the fullest.
The enraging thing about the BBC is that from a position of power, with mass public support as multiple polls attest, it almost always plays the weakest hand possible. For 39p a day (approximately what £145.50 breaks down to) it represents incredible value for money, regardless of whether it's television, radio or their online content which you prefer to use, and almost everyone in the country uses on or the other and would miss it incredibly were it to slowly fade away. That's what the management essentially seems to be agreeing to, the slow death of a public service broadcaster which is too weak and pathetic to fight its own corner effectively. Perhaps in that respect it almost deserves what's coming.