Liz Lightfoot reports on the Leicester Exchanges live debate, which took place at Savoy Place, London on Wednesday 24 October 2012. The topic under discussion was the future of public service broadcasting.
The independence of the BBC is under threat over its mishandling of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse allegations, according to former editor and Guardian columnist Peter Preston.
Trust – which is a at the heart of public service broadcasting in this country – has been eroded and the Corporation is on the back foot, lying on the floor with the politicians on top, Mr Preston told delegates attending a Leicester Exchanges live debate in London, on Wednesday October 24. “The BBC can be neutered or pushed back into a corner, it can be threatened and come under greater political control and that is happening now after all this mess,” he said.
Mr Preston was one of four distinguished panellists leading debate at the event on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting.
Another panellist, Dawn Airey, the former chief executive of Channel 4 and Channel Five who is now President of the commercial CLT-UFA UK TV, said it could be argued that the BBC is “at its best at the moment when it is at its very worst”. She said: “Panorama is able to turn on Newsnight and say the programme got it wrong for all of these reasons. Not many broadcasters would do that.”
The Jimmy Savile crisis did, however, suggest that the BBC needed to look very carefully at its processes and how it operated, she added.
“It is quite extraordinary that news and current affairs can operate as a separate fiefdom so that nobody, but nobody, can question the sanctity of the editors. Why have somebody as director of programmes at the BBC who doesn’t express curiosity,” she said.
There could hardly have been a better time for a debate about the future of public service broadcasting. Under pressure from an explosion of commercial broadcasters and the need to reinvent itself for the digital age, the BBC was facing calls for the resignation of its most senior executives over the Savile allegations.
The debate hosted by the University of Leicester was held at 2 Savoy Place off The Strand where some of the first BBC radio broadcasts were made in 1923 and on 24th October 2012, the date of the last analogue broadcast in the UK.
Dawn Airey called the crisis “a shard of glass into the heart” of the BBC that prides itself on the independence and quality of its journalism. What happened with Jimmy Savile was “an abomination on this earth” but she questioned whether the public shared the media village’s obsession with the intricacies of the process.
Peter Preston called for a sense of proportion in the media coverage of the crisis at the BBC. He agreed that the media coverage was excessive. “We in the media are fascinated by all this and because we are fascinated we get it out of proportion. I don’t know whether Joe Bloggs in the street is transfixed by it,” he said.
The disaster for the BBC was the way it opened the door to more political interference. “One of the difficulties with public service broadcasting as we have it now is that it is politically influenced. The amount of collar fiddling and dirty work and dirty threats behind doors that go on is already very considerable and makes all sorts of coverage very difficult,’ he said.
Mr Preston added: “ I remember being on the Today Programme when the man running the Labour campaign came on the phone and made all kinds of threats about what would be done if the producers didn’t do this and that. This goes on all the time.”
Panellist David Wheeldon, BSkyB’s Director of Policy and Public Affairs, said it raised the long term questions of whether one organisation should have 60 per cent of the market share of the news and whether the BBC should have a regulator and cheerleader in a single person – now Lord Patten.
Moving to the wider question of the future of public service broadcasting in a digital age, Professor Peter Lunt, the head of the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester, said surveys consistently showed that the public valued public service broadcasting, represented not just by the BBC but by other channels funded by the licence fee.
The concepts behind public service broadcasting – to inform, educate and entertain – had been criticised in the past for containing within them the notion of elitism and the feeling that the BBC was part of the establishment and did not represent the thoughts and ides of large sections of the public. “There is a legacy that goes back to those days. What kind of media do you want for the future and how much of that has a residue of traditional values?” he asked.
Dawn Airey said she believed the public did hold on to the values of public service broadcasting. “I do value the BBC for presenting news as fact and not as opinion as in some countries.” The mission to inform, educate and entertain sounded Presbyterian like reasons but they were not out of date, she said.
Surveys done on the BBC year after year had shown it was more appreciated than it had ever been, despite the licence fee.
“Of course, nobody likes to pay taxes but part and parcel of being British is a well funded BBC along with universal health service free at the point of delivery,” she said.
However, members of the audience took issue with the description of access to the BBC and other public service channels as “universal”.
One commented: “I am a licence fee payer. The BBC isn’t universal. You have to pay the licence fee even if you don’t watch the programmes because if you don’t then you go to prison. Accessibility is a very important part of public service broadcasting but who is it accessible to?”
The world has changed since the BBC first started broadcasting, said David Wheeldon. In the early days of public sector broadcasting there was a limit on the available airways. “We are no longer in an age of spectrum scarcity but in a wholly different age and the economics that apply to broadcasting have changed beyond all recognition.”
He argued that commercial channels were providing quality broadcasts that satisfied the concepts of public service broadcasting. “The idea that public service broadcasting be linked to subsidised institutions has to be questioned.”
The support for public sector broadcasting in the UK was around £3.5 billion and the question had to be asked as to whether the country needed an intervention on such size and scale, given that so much public sector broadcasting was being provided by the commercial sector, he said.
It was not sensible to put universality on a pedestal. “I don’t see why a compulsory payment of a licence fee is any better than a voluntary payment of a subscription fee,” he said. But it was wrong to think of the BBC and the commercial sector at loggerheads. “The BBC and Sky have co-operated a lot recently,” he added.
The real competitive threat to public sector broadcasting was not within the borders of the UK, but from global companies coming into the market. “When you have Google and Apple talking about investing considerable amounts of money in devices and content that you are in already, then you have to wake up. Are we going to have the scale to compete with global content producers? We should worry less about the old fights between ourselves,” he said.
All four panellists saw a future for public sector broadcasting. Peter Preston said things moved slowly in British public life and he believed the licence fee would still be there in 2016 and probably in 2024, unless technology provided some magnificent answer.
Dawn Airey said she believed the BBC would continue to re-invent itself and continue to have a conversation with the citizens of the UK. “It has to have this conversation because it is paid for by a universal tax and if that ended, I think we would regret it,’ she said. However, she agreed with a member of the audience that public service broadcasting could be doing a lot more to support regional broadcasting.
The future of public service broadcasting content is “very rosy” but likely to be produced by a greater and more diverse range of broadcasters, said David Wheeldon.
“It is likely to be not as a result of intervention but of sustainable business model. The need for a massive sustained intervention by particular institutions will dissipate but not disappear completely.”
Professor Lunt said the mission of public service broadcasting had been rethought in the last BBC Charter renewal. “The BBC is now charged with sustaining citizenship and civil society and that is an extremely challenging purpose to have.”
That would be the subject of another debate!
An edited version of the live debate.