The BBC is adept at manipulating the press. That is how it came to
have two bites at the PR cherry this week. Through leaks it tried to
isolate the news of quite unjustified rises of 18 per cent and more in the
salaries of most of its top executives from the good news about its highly
effective programmes and channels, funded by the licence fee. The basic
point about the BBC is that it is having a tremendous creative run, but it
is all thanks to public funds, and improved stewardship.
The multi-channel era has seen satellite channels pushing upwards by a
fifth in one year to take 12 percent of total viewing. But the BBC’s
television audiences at 44 per cent are rock solid. In the past three
years the combined BBC1 and BBC2 audiences have not dipped, while ITV’s
eight point lead over BBC1 crumbled. It seems obvious that those truly
deserving big pay rises labour just below the top tier: they are the
creatives with the wit to conjure up Only Fools and Horses or EastEnders
Let’s hear it for Alan Yentob, now restored as director of television, and
the heads of departments who struggle to produce a stunning array of hits
It is lamentable the chairman Sir Christopher Bland can justify the rises
by reeling off comparisons with private sector operations, when the truer
comparison is with worthy public servants. For instance, head of the civil
service Sir Robin Butler’s 1997 salary of pounds 157,000 (compared to
Birt’s pounds 355,000) springs to mind.
After reading the annual report I’m struck by how frequently the BBC’s
commercial Worldwide side fails to deliver. Profits are down one-third, it
is still negotiating for an American cable deal, the satellite services
BBC World and BBC Prime still make losses, links with the Discovery
Channel are still not signed, while the deal with Flextech, giving away
BBC rights to its back catalogue for up to 30 years, is untested.
The BBC was proud to take a loss, closing its Arabic service last year
rather than suffer Saudi censorship. But why it ever ventured into the
deal in the first place remains unanswered.
This commercial naivete is also exposed by the governors’ admission that
the BBC nearly came a cropper with overt sponsorship of the Prom in the
Park. It also failed to reduce the 13 per cent of licence fee evasion.
I’m not saying the BBC shouldn’t be evolving. But it is a hybrid body
still 95 per cent dependent on public funds. That is why its top brass are
thrilled by a document co-authored by top City economist Gavyn Davies
arguing it needed an up-rated licence fee, to exploit digital
To pretend that the BBC’s top management deserve to be rewarded along
private sector lines is wrong. They’d shrivel up in a place like
They create the framework - not even the products - out of our money.
They are public servants, not media magnates.