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
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
‘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,’
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
‘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
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’.