The more I study the BBC’s new draft Charter and licence agreement
published this week, the more I marvel at the coup it has pulled off.
These are amazingly benevolent documents: the Government has given the
Corporation almost everything it could possibly want. The PR industry
should note that, when it comes to Whitehall lobbying, the BBC leaves
ITV, Channel 4 and the entire media industry, standing at the start
It is easy to get distracted by the headline news, that it is to be
stripped of its transmitter network - basically a series of hills with
tall masts. But since the BBC’s sister commercial transmission network,
NTL was sold off with benefits to all concerned, this seems logical.
It certainly cannot be caricatured as a vicious form of asset-stripping,
in which the funds raised go to the greedy Treasury.
This is because the BBC has been placed in the favoured position of
handling the sale itself and keeping almost all the proceeds.
These funds will help pay for its extremely ambitious plans to transform
itself into a multi-channel digital broadcaster. The Labour Party’s
reaction, that this is a dangerous precedent, is as wrong as those who
try to whip up alarm about the new agreement’s detailed clauses on
programme standards: taste, decency and impartiality. The BBC will be
more than able to live with them.
But the word I keep returning to is ambition, soaring ambition. The new
objectives specifically allow and expect the BBC to play both ends of
the broadcasting field at the same time.
It is to provide public and commercial services: the two are given equal
weight in the Charter for the first time. The paragraph outlining its
commercial objectives also clarifies most of the grey areas which have
bedevilled its tentative expansion into satellite television.
It is empowered to provide services either alone, or with any other
company, and these can be funded by advertising, sponsorship,
subscription, pay-per-view, or any other form of finance it can devise.
The only constraint on the BBC’s new commercialism is that it has to
seek prior approval from the Secretary of State. I think the BBC has
emerged from the trauma of cutbacks and soul-searching as an exceedingly
powerful media player.
On the one hand, it has the safety net of knowing that public service
broadcasting, with worthy educational and cultural objectives, is
emphatically back in favour, thanks to a Britain on red hot alert over
On the other, it has a clear Government-blessed opportunity to grab a
big share of the massive new revenue stream from subscription
television, predicted to grow 500 per cent in he next ten years. The key
media lesson of this week is ‘never underestimate the BBC.’ Far from
being on the way out, it is plotting to power ahead.