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Thursday, January 14, 2010 

How to destroy the BBC without mentioning Murdoch.

It's been obvious for some time now that the BBC under a Conservative government is going to be facing a vastly different climate to the one that it currently enjoys under a somewhat supportive Labour party. Facing not just the accusations from the usual suspects of an innate liberal bias, but also now the outright fury of the Murdochs for daring to provide a free to use news website, with many certain that the deal between Cameron and Murdoch for his support must involve some kind of emasculation of the BBC once the new Tories gain power, there still hasn't been a set-out policy from how this is going to be achieved. Thankfully, Policy Exchange, the right-wing think-tank with notable links to the few within the Cameron set with an ideological bent has come up with a step-by-step guide on how destroy the BBC by a thousand cuts which doesn't so much as mention Murdoch.

Not that Policy Exchange itself is completely free from Murdoch devotees or those who call him their boss. The trustees of the think-tank include Camilla Cavendish and Alice Thomson, both Times hacks, while Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and who refused to pay the licence fee until Jonathan Ross left the corporation is the chairman of the board. Also a trustee is Rachel Whetstone, whose partner is Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy. Whetstone was also a godparent to the late Ivan Cameron. The report itself is by Mark Oliver, who was director of strategy at the Beeb between 1989 and 1995, during John Birt's much-loved tenure as director-general. Oliver it seems isn't a blue-sky thinker to rival Birt however; his plans are much simpler.

His chief recommendation (PDF) is that the BBC should focus on quality first and reach second. On paper this is a reasonable proposal: the BBC has for too long tried to be all things to all people, although its reason for doing so is that all of the people are of course forced to pay a regressive tax to fund it. Oliver's pointed recommendations on what it shouldn't be doing though give the game away: it shouldn't be spending money on sports rights when the commercial channels do the job just as well when they win the bids. Has Oliver seen ITV's football coverage, one wonders? About the only sport ITV has covered well in recent years was F1, and they decided to not bid for the rights the last time they came up because of the money they'd spent on the FA Cup. The other thing the BBC should stop trying to do is 16-35 coverage, which really drives the point home. The real proposal here is that by stopping catering for the youth audience, the hope is that the young lose the reverence for the BBC which the older demographic continues to have, even if if that has been diluted in recent years. There is a case, as I've argued in the past, for shutting down BBC3 and privatising Radio 1, not to stop catering for the young but because the money spent on both could be better distributed and spent elsewhere. BBC3 in nearly 7 years of broadcasting has produced at most 5 programmes of actual worth, and all of them could have been easily made for and accommodated on BBC2. Radio 1 is just shit, end of story.

Along with Oliver's proposal to end the spending on talent and on overseas programmes which the other channels would bid for, this removes the justification for the keeping of the licence fee right down to the public service credentials - in short, the BBC should do the bare minimum, stay purely highbrow and in doing so, would lose the support which it currently still has across the ages and classes. The first step in this process was clearly the Sachsgate affair, resulting in the stifling layer of compliance which producers now have to go through, and which is discouraging even the slightest amount of risk-taking or programmes which might cause anything approaching offence. If, after Sachsgate, the BBC was allowed to keep its bollocks, just not allowed to use them, then Oliver's proposals would complete the castration.

Oliver's other key recommendations involving the BBC include the abolition of the BBC Trust, which hasn't held the corporation to sufficient account even though it has put its foot down on a number of occasions, while also recommending the "bottom-slicing" of the licence fee, which as the BBC has repeatedly rightly argued, would end the special relationship it has with licence-fee payers, leaving it no longer able to justify itself fully to the public. Finally, a Public Service Content Trust would be set up, another quango to which the BBC would have to justify itself to.

The other two eye-catching proposals which don't involve the BBC are that Channel 4 should be privatised - after all, ITV is a shining example of the benefits of such a move, or the Simon Cowell channel as it is shortly to be renamed. Lastly, ownership and competition constraints should be relaxed in exchange for programme investment commitments, or as it may as well be called, the Murdoch clause. The vision which this report set outs is a media environment in which Murdoch's every wish comes true - allowed to buy ITV and Channel 5, those pesky rules on impartiality dropped, and a BBC reduced to a husk. Whether we should go the whole way and rename the country Murdochland is probably the subject of Policy Exchange's next report.

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Horrible, horrible stuff. Good grief, I hope this doesn't become a reality, what a cruel blow that would be to our BBC.

I do not trust NuTory® on the BBC until they address the wreckage left in commercial broadcasting by Mrs. T's 1990 Broadcasting Act. The Tories have to answer for the demise of regional and local news; the demise of high quality drama; the dross that is ITV1; Simon Cowell; and the fact that the only good English speaking showbusiness anymore is out of the US. You'd think that after that disaster, which many senior Tories fessed up to later and even Mrs T was said to have regrets about, they'd be a little more careful about the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Sounds pretty good. Even if TV became worse (is that possible?), that is a good thing as it gives more time for more important activities.

In the UK, public service broadcasting makes a huge contribution to the economy, ensures that we're in the rare position of exporting cultural work, and gives loads of people quite agreeable work - as well as counteracting a poisonous commercial media and giving us some kind of democratically accountable source of news and information.

We actually *produce* TV drama rather than just importing it like many other countries do.

The tories would prefer it to be like PBS in the states - something that you make naughty children watch if they don't do enough homework.

This really is one of these issues that could/should unite a lot of people - 100 days to save the BBC in advance of the next election. Doubt it'll happen though....

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