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28 August 2020

The Proms row is just the beginning of Tim Davie’s battle to save the BBC

The new director-general takes over next week at a time of unprecedented political and financial uncertainty for the corporation.

By Roger Mosey

The traditional British brouhaha about the Last Night of the Proms illustrates the challenge faced by Tim Davie as he prepares to start work, next week, as the new director-general of the BBC. The corporation is still central to our national life, but it is caught between the demands of new audiences and the expectations of its loyalists – and whichever way it turns, it seems its number of opponents will increase. Add an unfriendly government and a financial crisis, and the path to success becomes ever harder to find.

Davie takes over at a time when the corporation urgently needs a new sense of direction. He may have appeared to be the continuity candidate: one of the outgoing DG Tony Hall’s key lieutenants, supported by many senior colleagues, and a known quantity with 15 years of BBC board experience. The truth, though, is that he may have to be a revolutionary: the external and internal pressures on the BBC mean that “no change” is no longer an option.

BBC executives are fond of Hall, but many have been bothered by his avoidance of the tougher strategic decisions they believe are overdue. “I think Tony himself accepts that it is time for something different,” says one. These decisions cannot be avoided because the financial outlook is bleak. It isn’t known whether Hall plans to emulate the Labour politician Liam Byrne and leave a letter behind saying “there is no more money”, but there is certainly no magic money tree outside New Broadcasting House. The figures in red dominate: paying for the over-75s’ licence fees has been costing the BBC an extra £35m a month during the health emergency; there’s the threat of decriminalisation of non-payment, which could cost hundreds of millions; an absence of its annual dividend from commercial arm BBC Studios, also because of the pandemic; and undelivered savings from the last budget round after Hall withdrew controversial plans for cuts to BBC News. Further politically toxic savings have been announced in nations and regions. “They are royally screwed,” says one corporation finance expert.

This would be a grim picture even without the likely long-term trends. The BBC has come into its own during the coronavirus crisis as an institution that can bring the nation together, and it has been buoyed by increased consumption levels even among younger audiences. But there are already signs that these will not endure, and consent for the licence fee will remain shaky if the media habits of the young resume their regular pattern. That in turn feeds the blood lust of the Tory right, who see a way to diminishing the corporation by extolling the virtues of drama and entertainment on YouTube, Netflix and the rest. One well-placed corporation figure notes that there are the looming 2022-23 licence fee and charter mid-point reviews, adding that “time is short to make a compelling case, and to get the BBC seen as a critical investment”. The national and international economic meltdown makes that task even tougher.

And yet… the BBC still has a much bigger budget and a more guaranteed income stream than its UK commercial rivals. ITV or Channel 4 can only dream of £5bn a year coming into their bank accounts. One critic says the financial crisis in the BBC is partly self-inflicted: “they created an inherently unstable economic model in the digital era, cemented by the BBC’s inability to stop doing things while they continued to add more and more”. The question for Davie, then, is whether he can get the size and shape of the organisation right, and match that to its core funding, in a way that has eluded his predecessors.

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[see also: How the BBC can defeat the grave threat from the Conservatives]

One former senior television executive outlines a possible approach. “BBC drama has stayed in the game despite being outspent ten-fold by its competitors,” he says, citing shows such as The Night Manager and Normal People, “because the quality of commissioning and production has stayed up to par. But what the BBC doesn’t need is three or four terrestrial channels to spread its drama across.” Another figure with experience of running BBC budgets concurs: “If ever ‘fewer, bigger, better’ should apply, it’s now.” The corporate strategists will, of course, be reluctant to saw off limbs if it risks the commitment to universality. But that may be forced upon them, and it could even be an ultimatum that the corporation needs. What parts of the BBC’s output should in future be funded by the state for the good of the state – and what might be discarded or be paid for directly by new financial models? An experienced observer believes that “Tim getting on the front foot with this kind of initiative” could change the mood.

Also at the top of the Davie in-tray will be the future of BBC News. He himself is not a journalist, but it is a curiosity of the Hall regime that the outgoing DG – a very effective director of news under John Birt – has seemed uncertain as editor-in-chief, from his unfathomable defence of the Cliff Richard coverage to persistent crises about impartiality. Trust ratings are still high, but being eroded; and one of Hall’s colleagues who is normally stout in the defence of the BBC compares the current position on employees’ use of social media to “the Wild West”, with an urgent need for management control. I anticipate Davie will take early action to sort this out.

[see also: The BBC and the journalism of fear]

The particular problem for the BBC is that many of its staff’s Twitter feeds reveal the metropolitan, Remainer, liberal bias that its critics have always suspected; and there is a battle ahead too to counter that perception about the mainstream output. It is fine for the BBC to be a liberal organisation internally, and it still needs to do more to increase the diversity of its staff. But it is not acceptable for the BBC on air to morph into a news organisation like America’s MSNBC, which is open about its left-of-centre position. Recent research by the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford says there is still a strong public demand in the UK – 76 per cent of those surveyed – for news to be “neutral”.  Davie should stick on his wall Matthew Syed’s recent piece in the Sunday Times, which argued that any corrosion of the BBC’s reputation for impartiality “is of unusually grave importance… This could yet destroy the BBC itself, turning a great organisation into a facet of polarisation rather than a bulwark against it.”

[see also: The BBC must strive to be impartial but it should never be timid]

Related to that is the imperative to make devolution real, and to reflect the whole of the UK. The BBC has been good at moving staff into the nations and regions, but much less effective at giving them real power. Almost all the top decision-makers still sit in a small piece of real estate in W1A, and it is time to give authority and budgets to those in places such as Glasgow and Salford in a way that enables them to overrule a London view, rather than the other way round.

There are, of course, many more pages in Davie’s “to do” list – much of it about regulation and distribution and influencing legislation: the kind of stuff that is a hard slog but vital if public service broadcasting is to retain its prominence in a digital era. And he will have to cope with the Proms-type storms that accompany any DG. One of the current executives notes that we should never underestimate how difficult the job can be and how much fire-fighting is involved, citing the amount of management time spent on the equal pay debacle.     

Davie will therefore need luck. But he also has the opportunity in his early days to set an agenda and seize control of events. He will, I sense, do that. Change is coming – like it or not.

A previous version of this article was published by the Royal Television Society.

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