BBC’s new challenges

In amongst all the talk of cuts to budgets and freezes on spending, my eye was naturally drawn to today's story (for example in the Guardian) about changes to the funding of the BBC. 

Many papers (like the FT) have run stories focusing on the freezing of the licence fee for the next 6 years – though these articles are generally tucked away on inside pages.

On its own this would be a pretty shocking announcement for demoralised BBC staff, raising the spectre of years of squeezed programme budgets as inflation and rising costs eat into the money.

But for me, having in the past spent 16 years at the BBC World Service, the real story is the agreement of the BBC to take over funding of the World Service, S4C in Wales and BBC Monitoring.

As David Elstein points out on the Today programme, the real effect of all these changes added together will be a reduction in the BBC's spending power of 25%. That's enormous.

But this is not just about the money. It's also about the effect on those who run BBC departments and programmes.

I remember dealing with BBC restructurings in the 1990s and 2000s and coming across unforeseen knock-on effects on departments in Bush House. I have no doubt that the changes announced today will bring new challenges for World Service staff. Some of those challenges will become clear within years rather than months.

Here are some areas to watch:

Distinctiveness

Broadcasting to audiences outside the UK requires a different approach from UK broadcasts. Bringing the World Service within the funding structure of the BBC provides an opportunity for the best of World Service practice to have a higher profile in the rest of the BBC.

It also provides a challenge for the World Service to remain focused and distinctive in its output when BBC bosses in the UK may only be vaguely aware of how it is valued overseas. 

Up to now the FCO grant-in-aid has effectively been a ring-fenced budget for the World Service.  This will no longer be the case, which means everyone will be arguing over the same (reducing) source of money.

World Service managers will have to argue their corner against high-spending UK TV departments, not easy when radio and overseas services can feel like second-class citizens.

Independence

It's always been difficult to explain to citizens of other countries that the BBC World Service is editorially independent but funded directly by the FCO. Arguably it will be easier to convince the world of the BBC's independence if the World Service is funded directly by the licence fee.

Alternatively BBC World Service staff will have to guard against UK-focussed priorities which may not be in the best interests of overseas listeners. 

The Daily Mail Factor

The licence fee payer will now be funding the World Service, so brace yourself for tabloid stories about UK viewers' money being wasted on unworthy foreigners.

Career prospects

It's not fashionable to talk of 'career paths' these days, but everyone needs to feel they're moving forward, and anything that breaks down barriers to movement must be a good thing.

In recent years there has been much closer coordination between programme makers and journalists working for UK outlets and those reaching overseas audiences.  Expect this to continue, especially as Bush House is emptied and everyone moves to the new Broadcasting House. This may well provide better opportunities for staff to move between different parts of the BBC.

Having said that, it will be much more difficult to get a job at the BBC in the first place, given the shrinking funds.

Good luck to all at the BBC who will be grappling with these issues in the coming years. Let me know if you can think of any more.

(Update: here's a nicely succinct list of pros and cons from someone closer to the decisions than I ever was.)

 

Posted on 20 October 2010

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