By Professor Richard Sambrook
This post first appeared in The Conversation
The BBC faces a hostile government seeking to end the licence fee in favour of advertising. Meanwhile, political polarisation has undermined consensus about its role, it faces increased competition and technology is rapidly changing viewing habits. And there is serious criticism of its editorial performance.
I’m not talking about today – although all of the above apply – but the mid 1980s when the Thatcher government set up the Peacock Committee to report on the BBC’s finances with the expectation it would recommend advertising. Meanwhile home video recording was presenting challenges to viewer numbers and there was fierce public controversy led by government over its coverage of Northern Ireland.
The BBC responded by promoting finance director Michael Checkland to director general and bringing in former London Weekend Television boss John Birt as his deputy and anointed successor. The Peacock Committee decided the licence fee was “the least worst option” for funding, so it survived. Checkland started a series of radical internal reforms, continued by John Birt, who introduced specialist journalism and more rigour into news and oversaw a major investment in news and current affairs.
He also – with great intuition and foresight – developed new channels and online services which enabled the BBC to expand and develop its public service role into the digital age.
With Tony Hall stepping down as director general, many commentators are rightly identifying this as a key moment for the BBC. It faces huge challenges in terms of political support, issues over its funding, competition from new platforms and services and a questioning of its role in a fractured social environment.
But it would be wrong to conclude that its path ahead is only downhill.
Hall leaves a significant legacy. He steadied the organisation after the revelations about the crimes of sexual predator Jimmy Savile forced another DG to resign. He successfully negotiated a ten-year charter and new licence fee settlement providing future stability, he secured greater investment in the World Service. As a modernising force, he further developed iPlayer, launched BBC Sounds, Britboxand BBC Studios helping the organisation adapt with the rapidly evolving competition for on-demand content and a global rights market.
But he leaves with, once again, questions about the longevity of the licence fee, the BBC’s impartiality in a divided society, significant savings still to be delivered (on top of some 20% over the last decade) and the shadow of Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Disney and others cast over the smaller commissioning budgets for British content.
Whoever succeeds him faces a formidable array of challenges. First there are at least two running issues to resolve. The last licence fee deal accepted responsibility for free licences for the over-75s. But as that responsibility is about to transfer from government to the corporation they have said only those means tested should qualify.
The impact of free licences for all over-75s would be equivalent to the costs of BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC News Channel and CBBC and CBeebies combined – in other words, unmanageable. But the new Conservative government has not yet accepted the BBC’s position. In terms of budgets, this is a huge issue to resolve – one that a previous director general, Mark Thompson, was prepared to resignover rather than accept.
Then there are the running disputes over equal pay. The BBC, in common with many other large organisations, allowed a significant pay gap to establish itself between male and female staff and presenters. It has been slow to resolve this and there are a series of potentially damaging tribunals waiting to be scheduled. This is a morale-sapping sore that needs healing rapidly.
Then there are the more structural issues. Like many parts of the media, the BBC is searching for ways to fully engage the under-30 audience who are less loyal and spend less time in front of TV.
There have been plenty of creative attempts to fashion programming for them, including BBC3, but as yet insufficient traction as a recent Ofcom report noted. The lack of interest in the BBC by the future audience is, obviously, an existential issue.
Technology continues to develop, transforming consumer habits and expectations. The BBC has been traditionally bold with new technology – the first major UK news website, iPlayer as the first UK on-demand service – but there is a sense that it is falling behind as bigger global organisations invest harder. Hall recognised that on-demand audio and video was the future – the challenge is the pace of transition. How to serve current audience needs while moving towards a very different model for future audiences. The BBC needs a fresh and clear vision of what it should do and how swiftly.
And finally there is the political challenge. The BBC emerged from the general election with few friends on any side in Westminster – and a government limbering up to question the licence fee and core purpose of the organisation. Thompson, speaking on the Andrew Marr programme recently, was right to say that if subscription is introduced the BBC will be a very successful, smaller broadcaster – but it will not be the BBC any more. Universality – providing public service content for all, not just those that can afford it – is the core purpose.
But as it faces increased competition from global giants there is also opportunity. The BBC is the only global media brand the UK has. The World Service continues to be successful and popular. Set against American media giants, the BBC is a minnow – but one with a strong brand and creative record that still allows it to compete. In promoting the UK around the world, the BBC can be a valuable asset in post-Brexit Britain.
And in times of weak trust, fake news and disinformation its commitment to fairness and accuracy (setting aside contrary views on how well it delivers that) can be a major asset in pulling the country back together.
With growing inequality of access to quality content the case for public service media should be strong.
So in huge challenges, there is also opportunity. The next director general will need strategic vision, political acumen, significant managerial experience and the constitution to implement difficult, painful, radical change in the face of constant political and public criticism. It’s probably the toughest job in UK media and also the most important.