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Tuesday, October 26, 2010 

The not so slow death of the BBC.

Rightly overshadowed last week by the far more grievous cuts being made to government spending, the surprise capping of the BBC licence fee at its current level until 2016/17 still came as a nasty shock, and one apparently foisted on the corporation by the government with little warning. We were solemnly informed that negotiations that would usually take a year of back and forth between government and managers, with input from outside interests and the public were conducted in just three drama-filled days, with everyone other than the BBC left out in the cold. Indeed, S4C, the Welsh-language channel which the BBC agreed to takeover the funding of was only told about its new erstwhile owner after the deal had been done.

While criticism was relatively muted, mainly due to how the BBC was at the bottom of most people's priorities as they tried to digest exactly what the cuts and benefit changes might mean for them, it was still apparent that the BBC had came out of the battle for the worse. The only bright spot was that it had managed to fend off having to fund the free TV-licences for over 75s introduced under Labour, which had it gone through would have meant more than £566m being sucked out of the corporation's £3.6bn yearly budget in an instant. Instead it managed to negotiate, supposedly with the help of sympathetic Liberal Democratic MPs, to take on the cost of running the World Service and BBC Monitoring from the Foreign Office, as well as the aforementioned S4C. Even saved as it was from having to impose such potentially draconian cuts to services, this still leaves the corporation having to look for further savings of £140m a year, the equivalent of a 16% cut in real terms over the duration of the fee settlement, slightly below the average 19% cut in government departments' spending.

The very making of that comparison is something that previously the BBC would have resisted. It might be funded by the taxpayer, but its independence from government always has been and supposedly remains cherished, even if it's the government that decides what the licence fee will be during each charter review. Simply involving the BBC proper in the spending review and not just its sections which it had control over was an attack on that independence. As the Guardian argues, that independence may always have been a mirage, yet it's always been and remains one which should have stayed in place. If that alone wasn't enough, then the incorporation of the World Service into the BBC's News output proper raises just as many questions and contradictions. The BBC is essentially being asked to act as the Foreign Office's limp propaganda arm whilst at the same time remaining scrupulously impartial. The public certainly wasn't asked as to whether they would like a portion of their licence fee to be spent on overseas broadcasts which have little to no relevance to them. The only real winners are those listening abroad, who can now have confidence that the message they're listening to is funded by the British taxpayer rather than the government itself, with all the massive difference that will entail.

Mark Thompson, attempting to recast the BBC's submission to becoming all but just another government department in the best possible light, deployed every favourable point in his armoury yet still failed to make a convincing case for having made the best possible deal. True, as he states, it both prevents an active cut in the licence fee itself, something much feared, and puts the BBC on a stable footing until after the next general election, outside of further political manoeuvring. That however is the best that can be said for it. Thompson claims that the BBC couldn't expect to be "untouched by the wider pressures facing the country", yet it already had been prior to the further cuts decided on the bounce at the end of the spending review, agreeing not to take up the rise in the fee which had been pencilled in under the previous government, while its "Putting Quality First" report was a retrenchment strategy before it knew it had to make any extra efficiencies. Thompson said in his MacTaggart lecture that "[A] pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy", something which he appears to have turned full circle on in a little over two months.

The only other incredibly slight positive that can be taken from the deal is that it doesn't leave Sky in quite the massively advantageous position they must have hoped for, and which the Murdochs must have trusted on gaining in reward for their slavish adherence to Cameron during the election. Make no mistake though, come 2016-17 the difference between the still coasting BBC and its competitors is going to be massive. The BBC was already planning on cutting back its spending on both foreign imports and sports rights, and with the savings having to come from somewhere while the costs of the former increase exponentially, you can see all but the few protected events crossing to satellite. Sky has already bought up the rights to all of HBO's back catalogue, and snapped up the next series of Mad Men more recently. While it's already become apparent that many managers at the Beeb will soon be leaving their posts, finding £140m of savings a year purely from their oversized pay packets and through efficiencies is a nonsense. 6 Music, saved from closure by the BBC Trust, will almost certainly be back in the firing line, as will other services which the private sector simply can't or won't provide. With no pay rises being possible without cutbacks in programme budgets, the workforce itself will either have to be cut further or will be militantly unhappy, as it already is over the changes to the pension system.

All this bodes ill for public service broadcasting in general. The innovations that will inevitably surface between now and 2016-17 will further constrain the BBC as it finds itself unable to find extra funds to provide content for them. This, along with the all but of end of its independence is what will most hurt the corporation. Remove its ability to change with the times, abolish its defining feature of rigorous impartiality and you have something which will fade into irrelevance and simply end up all but asking to be put out of its misery, which seems to be exactly what the Conservatives had in mind from the beginning. They seem to be playing just as long a game as Thompson and friends themselves thought they were. The BBC's slow but inevitable death has just come a step closer.

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Haven't they also been lumbered with funding the rollout of broadband to rural areas?

That's meant to come from money already put aside/left over from funding the digital switchover, so shouldn't have any adverse impact.

I agree that the cuts are huge, and scary, and pessimism is deserved, however:

It could have been much worse - with a Murdoch backed government i'd rather suspected more massive cuts.

The BBC are well placed for the future (Google/Apple TV will be the next TV revolution - iPlayer is well placed to integrate fully into this, very easy) in fact far better than Sky are, who'll want to run their own service and are frankly behind the times with their set-top box business.

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