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Why the BBC is less sure of itself than ever

As Mark Thompson prepares to become chief executive of the New York Times, the tributes have been fulsome. The consensus is that, as director general of the BBC since 2004, he has safely guided the corporation through a difficult period of transition. His legacy, however, is more complicated.

Unlike his predecessors John Birt and Greg Dyke, Thompson is a BBC man through and through. Apart from a brief stint at Channel 4, he has spent over 30 years at the corporation. There has been grumbling about cost-cutting, allegations that he was too pro- Israel after he supported the BBC’s decision not to broadcast a Gaza appeal in January 2009 and, in October 2008, the “Sachsgate” silliness involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Yet this was nothing compared to the Real Lives controversy, regarding an interview with a senior member of the IRA, which did for Alasdair Milne in the 1980s – or the row over a Today programme report questioning the government’s case for going to war in Iraq that brought down Dyke in 2004.

Thompson has three great achievements. First, he understood the need to get a grip on the BBC’s finances: in particular, the populist issues of presenters’ salaries and executives’ expenses. The BBC has sailed through a severe recession relatively unscathed. This is in no small part thanks to him.

Second, he kept the licence fee intact. In October 2010, he agreed a new licence fee settlement that would deliver stable funding until 2016-2017. But it meant cuts. The “delivering quality first” plan called for 16 per cent “savings” and 4 per cent reinvestment over four years. The result was repeats and cuts in personnel but no devastating editorial losses.

Third, Thompson drove the BBC forward to meet the challenges of the digital age, with the launch of the iPlayer, the Red Button (triumphant during the Olympics), HD, the best website of any media organisation and plans to make the BBC archive available online. The most positive changes in the BBC in the past eight years have been not in programme-making, but in the technologies that make programmes, new and old, available in previously inconceivable ways.

Identity crisis

This, Thompson argues, has been achieved without losses to highquality programme-making. In the past year alone, the BBC has produced the best-ever coverage of a single sporting event, the London Olympics, with record viewing figures, and outstanding drama from Sherlock and Doctor Who to The Hollow Crown, a production of Shakespeare’s history plays. The BBC has fought back in the battle of Saturday-night entertainment with Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice UK. On radio and TV, it has done a firstrate job of covering many major national and international events.

So, what’s not to like? Thompson, a good man, has failed to own up to serious problems in programming. The BBC has lost sport after sport in recent years because it doesn’t have the money to compete with ITV and Sky.

You cannot watch the FA Cup final, the Uefa Champions League or the Ashes on the BBC. Horse racing and much of live Formula One have gone, too.

Thompson made his reputation in news and current affairs. He worked on Newsnight and edited Panorama and the Nine O’Clock News. Yet Newsnight and Panorama are in free fall in terms of ratings and reputation. It’s hard to see how either will survive in its present form. A liberal-left bias can be found in much of the BBC’s output. Barack Obama and the Arab spring were assumed to be unquestionably good in a pious, sentimental way. There has been too little hard thinking about what Obama has achieved or what rural Muslim voters (as opposed to liberal, English-speaking women in Cairo) might want.

Meanwhile, whole areas of programme-making that used to be among the jewels in the BBC’s crown have been eroded. Imagine and The Culture Show are poor successors to Bookmark, Arena, Omnibus and The Late Show. To accommodate big names such as Simon Schama and Mary Beard, the power in history documentaries has shifted from producers and directors to presenters. The quality of filmmaking has declined as a result.

Worst of all, the coverage of the Diamond Jubilee was a disaster. It will always be to the BBC that most people turn for the great national moments, but coverage of the jubilee bombed because it lost its sense of its identity. It didn’t want to be too serious, highbrow or reverential. It wanted a warmer, more populist tone and brought in presenters from factual entertainment. Once any public institution loses a sense of what it is, it is in trouble. At this crucial moment, Thompson’s BBC failed.

The BBC has never been less sure of what it is for. News and current affairs, the BBC’s defining assets, are looking wobbly. Few would deny that the corporation is dumbing down. Thompson has consistently got a good press. The next few years will show whether he deserved it.

David Herman is a former BBC arts producer.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?