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Keep broadcasting public - Dr. Georgina Born

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Posted by Dr. Georgina Born

As some of you may know, I wrote a book on the BBC in its industry and political context (Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC, Vintage 2005) based on a decade of research, including two years of fieldwork inside and around the BBC. This is the most extensive inside study of the BBC ever carried out, and what I say today is informed by that study.

During the research I found it necessary to become involved in policy debates and in updating the philosophical rationales for the BBC and public service broadcasting, which I have done in a number of papers.

Today I want to pick up four aspects of the charter review signalled by the recent White Paper, each of them critical for the future well-being not only of the BBC but of the British media:

1. The Window of Creative Competition (WOCC) and the related issue of in-house production;

2. The BBC Trust: specifically, appointments to it and the notion of accountability that it embodies;

3. Ofcom’s future role and influence in relation to the BBC; and

4. The BBC’s role in the future digital media ecology.Three basic contextual issues should be highlighted at the outset:

• The bigger context for charter review in 2006 is an increasingly commercialised and internationalised media system in the UK: this has been accelerating in the past decade. With increased competition from the mid 1990s there was a shift away from the ‘double duopoly’ (BBC1-ITV, BBC2-C4) and a greater crowding in the commercial sector of the industry, causing a growth in imitative programming and a re-balancing of the industry towards commercial populism and away from the former PSB-oriented structure.

• There are two marked threats to the BBC, a double squeeze or pincer movement: an erosion both of the BBC’s presence and scale in channels and distribution – through new delivery mechanisms such as the PVR, mobile technologies and broadband; and of the BBC’s production capability, with the corporation offering (and government and Ofcom encouraging) serious cuts to in-house production via the WOCC. 

• Recent Ofcom research (presented in their Review of the TV Production Sector) shows that audiences think there is an undersupply of innovation, quality and originality in television, and that they are concerned about the amount of formulaic and derivative programming. This confirms that there is something wrong, that something is not working in the television ecology as presently constituted (a conclusion, however, that Ofcom avoids).My colleague Steven Barnett said on Thursday at another charter review event that the Government has ‘got it right’. Now while I respect Steve’s views, and while there is a great deal to applaud in the White Paper and the basic and eloquent defence of the BBC that it presents in certain places, there are still matters for concern in what is proposed.

- I want to focus on several key blind spots and errors of reasoning in policy thinking on what PSB is and how best to sustain it. These blind spots concern me because, if we don’t shift this foundational thinking at the base of current policies, things will continue to move in a direction that is antithetical to our public media system.

- We can see a similar ambiguity in the BBC’s own policies: both a defence of its public service values, and attempts to be radical in reinventing the public service remit in some of its digital radio, new media and online activities (for example the Interactive Media Player, Action Network, and cross-media events like Asylum Day or Black History Month); and yet at the same time concessions to outsourcing production, to equating accountability with the rigid measurement of ‘public values’ along the lines set out by Ofcom, and a shying away from certain necessary governance reforms that would greatly boost its capacity to meet its democratic obligations.

1. The Window of Creative Competition and its implications for in-house production:

The BBC’s offering of the WOCC will go down in history as a particularly clear case of political expediency on the part of the BBC. It is perhaps understandable that, in the wake of the Hutton debacle, Mark Thompson and Michael Grade would seek to restore good relations with the Blair government. What makes this appeasement bizarre is that it strikes voluntarily at the very heart of what, consensually, has been the BBC’s defining feature: its existence as the last enclave in British media of production that is entirely free from commercial pressures.

- Why does this matter? Because history shows that having a substantial scale and proportion of well-funded non-commercial production competing with well-funded commercial production has been the way to ensure a positive competitive dynamic within Britain's broadcasting industry, and thus of setting standards, maintaining quality and injecting risk-taking, originality and innovation into the system. There are a number of problems with the proposal for the WOCC:

• A first question is: what exactly is the research that justifies setting the BBC’s minimum in-house production guarantee at 50%?

• Why is the BBC proposing to reduce in-house production when it is well known that in future the ownership of content rights will become more essential in the media economy? This situation caused even Channel 4 a few years ago to consider getting into production, in order to secure its own future ownership of content rights – something now being heavily contested by the large independents via PACT.

• Why, when the existing 25% independent production quota implies that the remaining 75% of output is there to compete for, is it deemed necessary to have the WOCC? It is sometimes stated that the competition between independents and in-house producers is unequal, that independents face greater difficulty in getting commissions. My book shows, however, that at least in the late 1990s it was independents that were favoured for commissions over in-house, particularly in key genres such as Drama and Entertainment, sometimes with 45% of annual commissions going to independents. This is why Dyke came in as DG proposing to rebalance this situation.

• We hear (from the Ofcom TV Production Sector Review) that a high proportion of the BBC’s in-house guarantee will in future be spent on returning series and genres where commissioning and production are combined (eg sport). But this is a cause for concern, as with BBC in-house the only part of TV production free from commercial pressures, manacling in-house to these genres will favour a less internally diverse, less risk-taking BBC: where will the one-offs, the short series, the trend-setting ideas come from when guaranteed output is committed to reliable shows? The BBC needs to assure us that this is not its thinking, and that it will continue to invest core funding in the risk-taking and innovation – whether in entertainment, drama or documentary - that invigorates the whole broadcasting system.

But the deeper issue concerns the present state of the independent TV production sector: Ofcom’s recent Review of the sector provides overwhelming evidence that the sector is not the source of creative innovation and diversity that it is assumed to be by both Ofcom and government. Some of the findings in Ofcom’s Review are as follows:

a) The Review shows that consolidation is well underway in the sector, and will continue, with the continuing growth of ‘super indies’.

b) It shows that market share among independents is skewed towards large companies, while small companies have the lowest profit margins (c. 1%) and the most variable profit margins: that is, they operate on a very fragile basis.

c) On innovation and risk-taking, it shows that small independents use 17% of turnover for development, where large companies use only 1% - clear evidence that large companies are more reluctant to shoulder creative risk and experimentation than small companies.

d) The Review admits that the ‘production sector [is] predominantly a freelance-based industry, which relies on outsourcing at almost every stage of production’ – evidence that the sector’s employment practices are not conducive to a high skilled, well trained workforce.

e) It shows that producers themselves are worried that the dominance of super indies will lead to reduced creativity and innovation, due to shareholder obligations and high profits targets.Together these and other findings in the Ofcom Review fatally undermine the prevailing assumption that the independent sector is the main source of innovation and diversity in British TV. They suggest that to counter these trends, the well-being of both BBC in-house and of the small independents is vital: in terms of providing conditions for creativity relieved of strong commercial pressures, supplying new talent and training, counteracting consolidation, and augmenting diversity in TV production.

- The irony is that Ofcom evades these conclusions in its Review, which proposes no new regulatory interventions to moderate the dominance of the super indies, promote better employment practices, or nurture small independents and new entrants. Moreover, it seems that PACT has been captured by the big companies and is relatively unconcerned about the perilous state of the smaller independents that it is also supposed to represent.

A debate is therefore urgently needed on the crucial issue of the WOCC: it has generally been ignored in charter review, as though the implicit settlement is a shrunken BBC production base in return for the licence fee and no overall regulation by Ofcom. But this is a price too high, one that undermines the BBC’s capacity to do exactly what the licence fee is there to support.

2. The Trust: the notion of accountability that it embodies, and appointments to it:

The proposed BBC Trust is central to strengthening the future democratic functioning of the BBC. It is to be welcomed that the new charter will create a new, more independent body, the Trust, to oversee BBC management, creating a long overdue separation between Governors and Director General, governance and executive. It’s equally good news that recommendations for a separate regulator, and for Ofcom to be fully regulating the BBC, have been rejected.

- But the way the accountability of the Trust has been conceived in the White Paper, and throughout the review process, represents a dominant but weak idea: it centres on the simplistic notion that, since the Trust is there to represent the public interest, the primary aim must be to make it open, transparent and accountable to the Great British Public. Of course, openness is generally a good thing, and measures to encourage it should be applauded.However there are several problems with this thinking:

• First, and most importantly, the real public interest in the BBC – which market research supports, since the public has sophisticated views on what it wants from the BBC – is for the BBC to do what it does extremely well: that is, to make good, original and innovative programs, whether sitcoms, comedy or current affairs; and to provide high quality, well conceived networks and services.

• In order for this to happen, the key question – as I showed in my book – is for the conditions for creativity to be right inside the BBC: for the ethos, the organisation, the incentive and employment structure for production, commissioning and strategy to be such that they positively encourage and support creative ambition, risk-taking, and high ethical and production standards. My book shows how these conditions were seriously undermined under Birt, and gives detailed evidence of how this led to reduced ambition and quality, and greater imitation of commercial output.

• There is an error in the widespread view that these developments are recent: they were inaugurated by Birt in the mid 1990s, and are now deeply entrenched. Marketisation, centralisation of commissioning, casualisation, and making production departments compete for commissions to finance basic staffing: these and other forces together encouraged formulaic production and failsafe commissioning. (For a full account, see my book).

• The point here is not to go over the Birt era again: it is to highlight what kind of accountability on the part of the Trust matters: and that is, accountability in terms of scrutinising the state of the BBC, to ensure that management policies do not – as they did under Birt – have a destructive impact on creativity and innovation in production and commissioning. As I put it in chapter 6 of my book, what matters to the public is that governance and self-regulation make sure that the BBC functions well creatively; and this requires something that was missing under Birt: the Governors’ capacity to oversee the accountability of management to its creative staff, and to ensure that the executive fulfils its duty to promote – not erode – the conditions that allow integrity, creativity and innovation to flourish.

• Why did the Governors under Birt not fulfil this critical accountability function? For two reasons: they had little independence, which the new proposals put right; but the evidence is also that they did not understand the organisation – they were ignorant of the effects of what Birt was doing. This problem has not been given enough attention in the review debate: the Trust will need an independent research function on the organisation itself in order to ensure that it does understand in future, and is able to hold management accountable for its impact on creativity.

• To repeat: it is this kind of accountability that matters most to the public. The inability to grasp this basic principle is one of the most regrettable aspects of the current debates.Another problem with the accountability doctrine as presently conceived is the stranglehold of a naïve idea, in the face of the crescendo of politically expedient commitment to this doctrine, that audience research or opinion polls could effectively steer the governance of a hugely complex organisation such as the BBC.

• Of course, research and polls should be carried out with regard to the BBC’s functioning, and the Trust and Executive Board should be required to take due regard of them. But in the end, the British public is not knowledgeable about the media industry, nor about how to provide the conditions to enable the production of excellent TV and radio.

• The Trust must be allowed to exercise its representative powers. It must be trusted. It would be wrong to hamper it with weighty plebiscitary mechanisms, such as revealing the voting records of each member, or having members assessed while in office with the threat of their being replaced – both mechanisms that were floated in the Green Paper. The point is not the detail here: it is the lack of belief in the capacity of those appointed, and of the Trust, to perform their duties with vision and insight on behalf of the public.But this links to a final problem: who will Trust members be, and how will they be appointed?

It is depressing to find no innovative thinking on the appointments procedure to the Trust in the White Paper, which recommends the same tired, establishment-oriented process as the current one for appointing Governors – even when it has been subject to considerable criticism:

• The current appointments procedure is criticised on two grounds: for its ready politicisation, lack of transparency and potential abuse (despite Nolan rules); and for the lack of real diversity in the resulting appointees.

• So where is the new thinking on transparency and competition in appointment to the Trust, to ensure that its membership is more diverse? Why no new independent, cross-party appointments panel, perhaps with representatives from other areas of public life? When I asked the Secretary of State about these issues at the charter review event on Thursday, she spoke eloquently of diversity, but evaded the question of procedure that would enable it.

3. Future relations between the BBC and Ofcom:

The White Paper proposes that the Trust should forthwith make judgments on BBC proposals for new services, and that the Secretary of State would only be able to veto such recommendations on the basis that due process had not been observed. This is a major step forward in ensuring the BBC’s independence from government, particularly when compared with the intense struggles between government and the BBC, and the repeated interventions by government, in the period of development of the new digital TV, radio and online services that occurred simultaneously with the Hutton crisis in the early 2000s.

- However, Ofcom will implement market impact assessment (MIA) tests for the Trust as part of the new public value tests (PVT) to be carried out for all new services and even for any significant changes to existing services. While the Trust will make the final judgement about the balance between public value and market impact, and deliberations will be made public – again to be welcomed – the situation will inevitably cause conflict between the two bodies.More fundamentally, there is a serious question over the status of market impact assessments, which are taken as hard science (as opposed to the soft science of public value assessment). But what is entailed here is market forecasting, and as many economists will readily admit, such forecasts are intrinsically uncertain, particularly in volatile sectors like new media.

• Of concern here is the implicit surrender to the Ofcom mindset that economics must be the final arbiter; and the leaking of this mindset into non-economic, non-quantitative areas – as shown by the BBC’s strenuous efforts to provide a metrics by which to measure the qualities of public value.

• Now, the public value measures have been designed with subtlety and flexibility; nonetheless the very existence of such a metrics will cause more mechanical, box-ticking thinking on the part of commissioners and producers.

• Moreover, it hands the BBC’s enemies the means to wage war on BBC judgments. Henceforth, decisions about services and programming will have to be publicly justified and will be contestable: as a result the BBC may be permanently on the defensive about its decisions. The future stakes regarding market impact assessment are illustrated by last year’s Green Paper when discussing the scope of the Creative Archive (CA), which promises to make BBC content widely available for non-commercial, public uses:

• Rather than welcome this initiative, the Green Paper cited the interests of ‘those who may want to buy or sell the rights to internet content’ as a reason for subjecting the CA to a market impact assessment before approving it. (And we have learned since that the CA will be used as the test case for the new combined structure of MIA and PVT).

• This was an extraordinary misjudgment in the Green Paper, elevating private interests over the BBC’s primary obligations to the public and the obvious public benefits of the archive’s release. If this is a sign of thinking to come, Ofcom’s activities risk squashing the BBC’s development of new media markets in the public interest.

• The base presumption should not be that the BBC inhibits innovation, but that it is likely to promote innovation and open out new markets (as happened spectacularly, for example, with both Freeview and digital radio).Lastly on Ofcom, we should note another worrying development: its successful propagation in recent years (particularly in its Public Service Television Review) of the idea that PSB can be reduced to a set of specified ‘public service genres’, which can in principle be supplied by any production organisation, since it is the commitment in commissioning that is really at issue.

• If conceded – and that is a big ‘if’ – this argument effectively undermines the case for organisations devoted to non-commercial production (that is, the BBC), as though high quality program-making and original creative ideas can be divorced from the organisational ethos, conditions and training base that make them possible. It is a nihilist view, and episodes like the fake documentary The Connection issue a clear warning.

• The Ofcom position ignores, that is to say, what we already know about the relatively poor employment conditions and weak commitment to training that prevail in the commercial production sector when compared with the BBC, and the impact of these factors on production. It is striking that in its recent Review of the TV Production Sector, Ofcom evades these issues, putting them outside the frame of the analysis when they should be central to its concerns about where quality and innovation are likely to come from.

• To correct this, we should enjoin Ofcom urgently to undertake research on the relative state of training and employment conditions in in-house, external and independent production, and, more generally, on the link between organisational form and quality and innovation in production. This is a central theme of my book in relation to BBC television, but comparative research is now needed across the sector.

4. The BBC’s role in the future digital media ecology:

The Government’s decision that Britain should move to digital television was controversial and remains so. It is therefore questionable whether the BBC should be yoked too closely to this policy, as the White Paper intends, for several reasons:

• By yoking the BBC to government policy, the BBC becomes a proxy for government and its independence is undermined.

• The BBC is likely to shoulder significant political and economic risks by taking on stewardship of this policy - risks which should not be devolved to the BBC.

• The considerable costs of the policy will have to be met from the licence fee, undermining its legitimacy; at the least, commercial broadcasters should also be required to contribute.

• It would be far better for the BBC to continue with its own independent research and development efforts in extending public access to and uses of digital and interactive media.

To conclude: as I said at the outset, we are witnessing an era in which the BBC’s inventiveness, particularly in new media, is very evident. And yet, as the end of charter review comes in sight, we see in the several ways outlined a defensive BBC, and the ascendance of an antithetical Ofcom–New Labour mindset which has ended up supporting the essential purposes of the BBC, it seems, almost despite itself – while laying the ground for bloody battles ahead.

- Most worrying, however, is the apparent lack of understanding of - or willingness to fight for - some basic principles that I’ve touched on even on the part of the BBC itself.

Georgina Born,


DATELINE: 24 January, 2010