This week the BBC unveiled its annual report, but in a new
For months, Corporation spin doctors have been preparing the press,
leaking details of how, this year, for the first time, it is publishing
two sets of accounts, separating the public service licence fee side
from the commercial trading arm.
It also attempted to symbolise its direct accountability to the public
and not just Parliament, by inviting selected consumer representatives
to its first self-styled AGM, held in the wired up media-friendly Radio
Theatre at Broadcasting House. The organisation, employing some of the
sharpest lobbyists and policy makers, is trying to disarm critics before
they start to land serious body blows.
On the issue of separate accounts, the governors have listened to the
critics. The BBC’s chairman could protest until he was blue in the face
that no subsidised benefits are unfairly flowing from licence-funded
programmes to the commercial or joint ventures ... but he was not
believed. The message was not getting across, and with good reason.
Until recently, simple questions, such as how much the BBC was spending
on digital radio, were met with bluster.
But will separate accounts relieve the pressure? Can the BBC continue
to define its own boundaries through the simple device of claiming it
knows best? Highly unlikely in the medium term. This is where I believe
lobbyists for ITV have suddenly got clever. The companies have spoilt
the BBC’s moment of glory by publishing last week, a well-aimed document
purporting to show that the Corporation’s public service remit is both
exceedingly poorly defined (a correct view) and loosening up in the face
of competition. There are many flaws in the details but not in the
overall big question it poses. This document is very similar in tone to
the arguments ITV used against Channel 4 in 1996/97, with devastating
Earlier this year Channel 4 found itself bound, in lightning speed, by
the new Government, with a strict new licence, which will shape its
programming into the next century. The licence imposes strict new
controls over the seven areas of ’public service’ programming, from
multicultural programmes to repeats, and has the beauty (from ITV’s
standpoint) of checking Channel 4’s advance on its mainstream heartland.
ITV argued for these constraints, in return for a deal allowing Channel
4 to end huge payments (a cumulative pounds 346 million) to its
But it succeeded because it went along with the grain of public policy:
Channel 4 is meant to cater for minority interests. And the BBC, it is
increasingly obvious, has to concentrate its licence fee firepower on
public service broadcasting, making innovative popular and unpopular
programmes, which make the difference.