Amid regulator outcry, BBC should stop antagonising its supporters

Amid regulator outcry, BBC should stop antagonising its supporters

The BBC will always have many enemies with a commercial interest in its downfall. It would be wise, then, for it not to estrange its supporters.

Ofcom, the communications regulator, is rarely if ever rude and neither is its group director of broadcasting and online content, Kevin Bakhurst.

In fact Bakhurst is by nature quietly spoken and thoughtful. As former controller of the BBC News channel and later managing director of news and current affairs at the Irish national public service broadcaster RTE, Bakhurst also absolutely knows what he is talking about.

So when Bakhurst writes to the BBC expressing “disappointment” at the lack of clarity and detail within the BBC announcements about changes to both local broadcasting services and news channel provision, it is worth paying attention.

“We have had to request a significant volume of additional information from the BBC in order to understand the changes and believe some of this could have been avoided had the BBC set out much clearer plans from the start,” said Bakhurst in regulator speak, which nonetheless delivered a firm smack on the wrist, and suggests he is more than a little pissed off.

Just in case the BBC is too obtuse to notice the rebuke, Bakhurst lays it out loud and clear:

“We encourage the BBC to consider how it can improve the transparency around announcing such changes; we expect it to be able to explain in detail how services will alter and what audiences and stakeholders can expect,” he added.

Two lumpy halves of a pantomime horse

From the outside it is very difficult to imagine how the creation of a single 24-hour television channel from the ruins of BBC UK channel and BBC World News will work in practice. The BBC marketing department has come up with the mantra “Proudly British, Uniquely Global” for the new channel.

It could turn out to be like two lumpy halves of a pantomime horse.

Some things we already know, such as the dropping of a “What The Papers Are Saying” segment presumably on the grounds that this would be too domestic and an international version would be a tricky operation. There are also suggestions that routine coverage of Parliamentary Select committees will also be dropped for similar reasons.

Fine for an international channel but not exactly fine and dandy for UK audiences, where sometimes it seems that Select committees, and the scrutiny they provide, amount to the only remaining functioning arm of our democracy.

Sounds like a lovely opportunity for Sky News to clean up.

Then there has been the unedifying spectacle of long established presenters having to play a cruel form of musical chairs to get one of the rapidly diminishing jobs

Bakhurst outlines a number of potential concerns: that some groups who disproportionately use BBC News, particularly older viewers, will be adversely affected, while stories that are only interesting to UK audiences will no longer be covered. Ofcom also questions how the BBC will maintain the quality of service to UK viewers when the unexpected happens with a breaking UK news story.

The regulator has warned it will closely monitor the content and performance of the new service, which will “include two premium feeds for UK and international audiences” together with research on audience views.

In yet another thinly veiled warning, Ofcom is starting to wonder whether its current proposals on a new operating licence for the BBC remain appropriate.

“If we have any concerns about the BBC meeting its commitments or we have evidence that audience needs are not being met we will consider introducing additional operating licence requirements,” says Bakhurst with something solid in his velvet glove.

Another smack on the wrist

Ofcom is just as concerned about BBC plans for local broadcasting, which have already led to a 24-hour strike.

The BBC has committed to continuing with unique news and travel bulletins for the 39 local stations between 6am and 6pm but there will be 20 shared programmes between 2pm and 6pm on weekdays and between 10am and 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

On some days there are even plans to share a programme between places as far apart apart as Norfolk and Dorset.

Ofcom questions whether shared programmes covering such large areas will still be relevant to local audiences and why it considers such changes to be appropriate.

“Should the BBC seek to make any further changes to these service or move beyond the commitments outlines, we would expect it to discuss these in detail with Ofcom prior to doing so,” says Bakhurst.

Again, another smack on the wrist. And as with comments on the integrated news channel, if necessary, the regulator will introduce further requirements into the operating licence to protect the delivery of “crucial” local content to all audience across a range of platforms.

Arrogance mixed with incompetence

Kevin Bakhurst is thoughtful and quietly spoken but the BBC would do well to pay attention.

Across a wide front the BBC is displaying that most doubtful of all strategies, arrogance mixed with incompetence, while at the same time alienating some of its more committed supporters. Whether it is local broadcasting or 24-hour news, change — and here change usually means getting less — action is justified by ill-judged technological determinism.

The BBC hierarchy took on Gary Lineker without realising they were also taking on the football establishment, and Lineker won.

Then the BBC decided to take on the world of classical music with the announcement, without warning or discussion, that it was closing the BBC Singers, the UK’s only professional chamber choir which was founded 99-years ago.

Cue the international equivalent of musical pandemonium with threats by major musical figures to boycott the Proms and once again the BBC caves in and halts something it should never have done in the first place. The sour notes had even reached as far as the Cabinet room, according to The Times.

The BBC, once again with much egg on its face, will try to find alternative ways of helping to finance the BBC Singers. Why was such a thing not explored in the first place?

The BBC has a difficult hand to play because of the combination of increasing competition and deep government-imposed finance cuts in real terms. It is a time for management to be as its most creative and most inclusive, instead of blundering about in its current cask-handed way.

The BBC will always have many enemies with a commercial interest in its downfall. Against such a background it should have a care about antagonising its supporters whether in local radio, 24-hour news, the right to freedom of expression of freelance presenters or the BBC Singers.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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