The in-tray for the next director general of the BBC is already piled high.
Tony Hall did a good job in stabilising the ship after the crisis caused by the Jimmy Savile revelations, and he has presided over the BBC in an amiable way over the past seven years. But the corporation is facing some of the toughest issues in its almost 100 years of history – and it has the fight of its life for its funding, relevance and reputation. One very senior former executive put it this way today: “The Beeb is in a surprisingly weak place at present and it urgently needs courage, vision and, above all, a fresh, original, striking and bold take on its role.”
There were two major missteps during Hall’s tenure which will be the source of continuing headaches. The first was the licence fee settlement in 2015 which lumbered the BBC with responsibility for the over-75s, who had been getting their licence for free. The compromise that has emerged – continuing free licences for the poorest pensioners but charges for most – will be a nasty challenge to implement. There will, inevitably, be aged viewers who refuse to pay and the BBC will have to decide whether it really wants a system that threatens octogenarians with prison. But also there is no sense that the government has accepted the BBC’s proposed deal. Boris Johnson is still telling the corporation to “cough up” and has mused more widely about the durability of the licence fee. It seems impossible that the major debate on the corporation’s future will wait until the next formal milestone in 2027.
Any way around, the financial position is tough and could get tougher. Further cuts are expected to be announced in BBC News very shortly, and it will be a Herculean battle for the new director general to persuade the government that the BBC deserves long-term sustainable funding. The former DG Mark Thompson yesterday said on the Andrew Marr Show that he thought the BBC could make a subscription model work, but he rightly said that this risked destroying the very essence of the BBC – which is its commitment to universality within the UK.
The second misstep is epitomised by scrapping BBC3 as a television channel and underestimating the threat to the corporation’s younger audiences from streaming services. The BBC had a first-mover advantage with the iPlayer more than a decade ago, but it has taken too long to shift it to the centre of the video offering – and only now is there talk of “a big shift in money and hours towards younger audiences”. All is not yet lost, but Netflix and YouTube and the rest have seized the attention of children and young adults – and for many of them there is a worryingly fragile relationship with the BBC.
As confirmation that the corporation is under siege from all quarters, there is another big battle on the future of its news services. The government’s hostility is obvious in its boycott of the Today programme, but perhaps more troubling are the signs that levels of audience trust are starting to erode. Some of this is not the BBC’s fault: it’s about the proliferation of choice in the digital age, and the pernicious effect of social media vitriol when deployed against traditional organisations. But the BBC didn’t help itself with shaky coverage of the recent election campaign, and it runs the risk that it is no longer distinctive and authoritative. Its London metropolitan instincts have also not served it well in a time of Brexit. The criticism of BBC News is not that it’s terrible but just that it seldom stands out for excellence within the digital market place in the way that you might expect when there’s been a public investment running into the billions. That’s even without the damage caused to its reputation by the long-running row over equal pay for women.
There is a healthier position in drama and other main television genres where the Christmas schedule achieved some major hits – with Gavin and Stacey claiming astonishing audiences and Dracula and A Christmas Carol burnishing the BBC’s creative reputation. Natural History and the likes of Strictly Come Dancing are in good nick, though the commercially-lucrative warhorses such as Top Gear and Doctor Who are weakening. The competition – now coming from Apple and Disney as well as Netflix and Amazon – will only intensify; and it’s actually British content and British creativity that need to have the case made for them, within a wider battle for public service media.
The BBC has a long tradition of coming through various competitive storms and government reviews and scandals with its size and its national role left intact. It still remains one of the world’s greatest broadcasters. But whoever succeeds Lord Hall will need to be clear that this time it’s different. By 2030, the British media landscape will be very different – and the BBC will be squeezed onto the margins if it doesn’t reinvent a winning formula.