ANALYSIS: The BBC’s painful but necessary renewal

Successful lobbying has seen off the threat of dismemberment which faced the BBC. The draft charter is proof that PR has won the public service argument

Successful lobbying has seen off the threat of dismemberment which faced

the BBC. The draft charter is proof that PR has won the public service

argument



It has been a good month for the BBC. First there was that interview

with the Princess of Wales. Then, last Monday, came the news the BBC had

won virtually all of its key objectives, after a long lobbying campaign,

for its draft charter.



For an organisation frequently attacked for alleged political bias

against the Government, the outcome was cause for some celebration.



No-one can have been more pleased than director-general John Birt, whose

key message - that a previously ‘under-managed’ BBC is now being

‘managed’ - appears to have hit home.



Of course it must have helped that one of the PM’s closest advisers, his

political secretary Howell James, was himself a former director of

corporate affairs at the BBC and had taken charge of the initial plans

for charter renewal.



According to Leighton Andrews, head of worldwide corporate affairs, a

key element in the BBC’s success lay in the decision to launch its own

internal reform programme, which allowed it to effectively lead the

debate.



‘The defining fact is the BBC didn’t wait for other people to tell it

that it should change and become more efficient or redefine its role,’

he says.



The result, in November 1992, was the ‘Extending Choice’ report prepared

under the then director-general Michael Checkland and Birt. It largely

validated Birt’s push for a leaner, fitter BBC.



Another important development was the creation of a dedicated public

affairs department - alongside the Beeb’s long established planning and

policy unit - planned by James’ successor Pamela Taylor and finally

launched by Andrews in 1993.



‘It was the first time the BBC had approached its public affairs in a

systematic fashion, and since then we have had to deal with six or more

select committee enquiries,’ he says.



Ironically its very existence was a sign of the BBC’s willingness to

look outside for advice. Taylor herself was deliberately chosen for her

outside experience. Her replacement, former BT executive Colin Browne,

was also an outsider as was Andrews - formerly joint managing director

of The Rowland Company.



Indeed much has been made about Birt’s fondness for using outside

consultants and the BBC has a long relationship with Lowe Bell. This

year Andrews added two more to the roster with lobbyist Westminster

Strategy and Brussels-based Market Access which both provide monitoring.



When it comes to lobbying, however, Andrews is adamant that this is

dealt with in-house. Indeed the BBC has built a formidable lobbying

machine. His department numbers five London-based staff, with more

operating out of Brussels.



If charter renewal prompted the creation of a dedicated public affairs

department, says Andrews, ‘it wasn’t seen as a one-off appointment’. The

growing range and complications of the media sectors means Andrew is

confident that the unit will remain busy.



But just what were the dangers the BBC was facing in 1993? Margaret

Thatcher’s government had already demonstrated its willingness to attack

ITV’s vested interests with the bloody licence renewal of 1991-2. But,

John Major’s election with a far narrower majority bought a more

conciliatory tone. Yet Andrews insists that the BBC was guaranteed no

easy ride.



‘People have forgotten all the threats and things which people wanted to

do - such as advertising on BBC services, or franchising out its

commercial activities, and querying whether it should be running

magazines,’ he says.



‘Even after the 1992 general election, people were still lobbying for

BBC television to take advertising and the privatisation of Radios 1 and

2. Clearly there was still a lot to play for.’



Not that the BBC did not have help. Even its natural rivals in the

commercial broadcasting sector were supportive in keeping advertising

off the BBC. While Taylor points to the distraction that Europe became

to some right-wing MPs normally seen as the BBC’s natural enemy.



Opposing lobbies concede the corporation has proved a daunting opponent

in winning the support of Government.



‘There’s little point now taking on the BBC when they hold all the

aces,’ says John Hooper, director general of ISBA, which argued for

advertising on BBC2 and Radios 1 and 2.



Hugh Colver, until recently director of communications at the

Conservative Party, says that the BBC has worked hard to build on

existing support for public service broadcasting.



And despite the recurrent anti-BBC outbursts by hostile MPs and

ministers, he notes: ‘It’s interesting to see that people now attack

particular bits of the BBC or programmes or a presenter, and not the BBC

as a whole.’



Yet, the process of creating such an effective lobbying machine has not

been without some cost. If the Auntie of old was viewed as a leaky old

ship apt to appear at war with itself, it now appears to some to have

unfairly cowered many of its internal critics and curtailed the ability

of staff to talk to the press - ironic given its own mission to explain

and inform.



Hence Birt and his lieutenants have faced attacks from the likes of

veteran World Service correspondent Mark Tully, who resigned insisting

Birt had imposed an unnecessary climate of fear.



No wonder BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey, in welcoming the draft charter,

referred to the reforms as being ‘painful’ but ‘justified’.



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