Birt’s medicine has made the BBC ill

The BBC is currently in the last stages of its ten-yearly Charter Review Process. At a large meeting in Westminster in March this year, packed with industry and policy people to discuss the government White paper on charter review, I asked Tessa Jowell – the UK’s Secretary of State who has spoken eloquently of the need for governance reforms – how they will ensure a process that democratizes appointments to the new regulatory body, the BBC Trust, so that government doesn’t have a direct role in those appointments (as it has throughout the BBC’s history). She answered with an emotional but vague appeal to diversity, willfully evading my question about the need for due process to ensure greater independence and wider representation in those overseeing the BBC’s self regulation. I gather this story resonates with the problem of independence faced here by the ABC, what we might call Windschuttlegate and the stacking of the ABC board.

The BBC began as a monopoly in the 1920s and was characterized by three crucial elements:

* Economic – you’d have public funding, definitively not the commercial model of the US.

* Politically it was held to be, or that it ought to aspire to be, independent from government.

* It was committed to universality and, as the early historian of the BBC Paddy Scannell and others have argued, it created the first approximation of a national culture. This was very much linked to the need to be popular because popularity creates the legitimacy for public funding. It perhaps aspired to what Habermas famously called the ‘public sphere.’

The BBC’s cultural and social characteristics were that it was to embody the ethos of public service. Its aim was to inform opinion and to develop or elevate ordinary tastes often associated with citizenship purposes. That is, as in the famous Reithian trinity, to educate, inform and entertain.

My recent research has identified three kinds of problems at the BBC at present.

The first is a cultural problem — a question about whether the BBC is committed to a kind of elitist model of cultural development or elevation. Is it overly homogenous? It has often been accused of being London-centric and of failing properly to reflect Britain’s diversity. And from the very earliest days there was a tension between the national and the regional and local services. Politically, the current Charter Review is trying to address the problem of the three ways in which the BBC has been tethered to government. First of all through this ten-yearly charter review process, secondly through the government’s power to set the level of the license fee and thirdly through the indirect influence exercised over the appointment of the governor to the BBC.

The second problem is the long-standing criticism that the BBC is over deferential, that it pleads to the political centre and doesn’t represent the full range of political movements in the nation, and of course its inglorious role at times in moments of national crisis. When you look at the history, though, it really balances out: there are some pretty awful episodes of propagandistic functions being fulfilled by the BBC and then there are the counterbalancing incidents.

And finally there is the economic problem: that is, how to justify public funding, the universal nature of the license fee given the inevitable imperfections of universality in the audience. That is, parts of the audience that do no use the BBC as much as others, notably working class, ethnic minorities, young working class women, a series of demographics that the BBC has been worried about for at least 15 yrs and tries to reach, but with limited success.

After World War Two in Britain, we saw the rise of the broadcasting duopoly with the launch of ITV. This saw a tremendously interesting and innovative period with creative developments particularly in TV journalism, drama and entertainment.

In the 1980s Lord Annan was charged with making a report on the state of broadcasting. This was in response to the argument that British broadcasting needed to be opened up to new cultural currents and social realities.

So in 1982, in the wake of Annan, our second major public broadcaster, Channel 4, began with a tremendously interesting remit for experimentation, minorities, and diversity. It was funded in a very imaginative way by a cross subsidy on the profits of the ITV company so there was a buffer, no direct relationship between advertising sales and the running of the channel. This was dissolved in 1993, since which time Channel 4 has sped in a more populist and commercial direction until the present, where it is trying to go back the other way and ask for some public money.

The growth of Channel 4 in the 1980s coincided with the beginnings of our independent production sector, which has now grown to a very substantial economic sector. Also, often forgotten but perhaps most interesting of all, was what we call the Workshop Movement, which was a commitment made through agreement with the broadcast union that a number of training workshops would begin which would sell programming to Channel 4 and which would encourage non-traditional people to get into TV. So we had women’s workshops, black and ethnic minority workshops, workshops in the north east of England, deprived areas and so on. And this was a tremendously important initiative, which lasted through the eighties and then kind of dribbled out, unfortunately.

When we come to the late eighties, we encounter issues such as deregulation and the growth of new technologies. We can see from the end of the eighties on and gathering pace through the nineties a tremendously important change, which is that the balance of the broadcasting ecology in Britain shifted in this period quite rapidly from being primarily public service oriented with a highly regulated commercial public service broadcasting sector, to being primarily commercially oriented, with deregulation, a much “lighter touch” regulation and frantic competition among the commercial broadcasters and Channel 4 for profitable demographics (which means young men).



So we now have all UK channels competing for young men: BBC 1 & 2, ITV, Channel 4, and from 1997 our new Channel Five, and the new digital channels as they began to come on, all heading for the same demographic.

There was an extraordinary restructuring at the BBC in 1996 when John Birt split the production departments from the broadcasting channels. Birt came to the BBC in 1987 as Deputy Director General, in charge particularly of journalism, ascended to Director General in 1993 and lasted till 2000. His idea was to create a level playing field in order that in-house and independents could sell programming equally to the channels. But what it did was to completely centralize commissioning in the hands of channel controllers and their teams of market analysts.

This was partly a result of the rise in the BBC’s use of market research. The BBC has used market research since the 1930s, but now audience research would be done, focus groups usually, and this market research would be presented in a meeting to drama producers, who would then be asked to create programming that responded to this research.

Something that neo-liberal debates get absolutely wrong is this issue of audiences. The key error in neo-liberal notions of what is happening in broadcasting markets stems from this sacred principle: the mantra of consumer sovereignty. This is predicated on that notion of the rational consumer that knows exactly what she or he wants, who seeks maximum choice, which is then equated with multiplication of media platforms, multi-channel television and so on. But on a number of levels this model is unsustainable.

Audience tastes are not pristine and autonomous; they don’t arrive in the world perfectly formed. Instead, we should think about audience tastes as a subset of a wider cultural process. We are cumulatively conditioned by what is made available for us, as audiences, to consume. That’s what produces our tastes in a kind of cyclical motion. What we get, what we see, what we ingest, what interests us, what we take in, conditions our tastes. We reject some things, we like others and that is how culture moves on. And I insist that this is not an elitist argument. This is a sociological fact; it’s even an ontological fact, which is to say production sets the conditions for consumption. What is made enables us all to engage with it and it has affects on our tastes.

The point is that if and when a media ecology moves in the direction that allows low quality, very populist programming to condition audience tastes and expectations then this can become a self fulfilling prophecy because it conditions tastes further in that direction.

In my view, the only alternative to this kind of drift, which in Britain we have been witnessing for about ten or 15 years, is through regulation to create a benign media ecology and encourage institutions that support ambition, creative risk, and high quality programs which can then influence the markets in which they operate.

For creativity to flourish you need a good organizational culture or ethos committed to ambition, to high quality, to independence, truth-telling, innovation, and risk taking. You need appropriate incentives so that people working within the organization are induced to continue to hold to these ethics and these forms of value and practice. And you need economic and employment conditions above all and organizational structures that provide the foundation for those things to happen.

If you think about it, all institutions are founded on a philosophy, and we neglect that at our peril. That founding principle needs to be institutionalized to make an organization that works profitably towards those principles, those ideas. You need the historical success and popularity of that institution and its services so that it is loved, and admired, and gains public support. You need producers and employees to be able to be induced to internalize this ethos and the culture and to apply it in their work. And again that necessitates good employment conditions, sustained employment conditions, which nurture identification and loyalty to that organizational culture.

I think it’s undoubtedly true that Birt saved the BBC from privatization, and he did so under great political pressure from the Thatcher, Major and then the Blair governments. He did it by zealously implementing neo-liberal economic reforms, the marketisation of the BBC, which drove the BBC in a more populist direction and, as my book tries to show, seriously undermined its creative well being.


This is an edited transcript of a speech given by Georgina Born to the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, on the 8th of August 2006. It was recorded and transcribed by ACIJ volunteer Natalie Muller, a student in Communications and International studies at University of Technology Sydney, and edited by Emma Dawson.

The Centre for Policy Development is grateful to the author and to the ACIJ’s Jan McClelland for permission to reprint this extract.

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