MEDIA: ITV’s lobbyists score another point off their rivals

This week the BBC unveiled its annual report, but in a new form.

This week the BBC unveiled its annual report, but in a new

form.



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

impact.



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

coffers.



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.



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