BBC director general Mark Thompson has described Ofcom’s proposals for the future of public service broadcasting as “defeatist” – and has outlined an alternative plan that could see the BBC share resources with ITV News.
Speaking at a debate organised by the Federation of Entertainment Unions, Thompson said the BBC wanted to secure a system where ITV and Channel 4 would continue to provide a public service for “the next decade and beyond”.
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“We believe that the public want all the current PSBs [public service broadcasters] to remain in the family. They don’t want one of the players to be thrown overboard,” he said.
“Although Ofcom’s research has a lot to commend itself, the jump to the models [proposed by the regulator] is too quick and the models are too defeatist.”
In its wide-ranging review of public service broadcasting, Ofcom proposed three models, including a proposal where the BBC and Channel 4 remain the key providers of public service broadcasting, and another that would allow a wider range of media organisations such as regional newspapers to compete for funding.
The regulator is also considering the role of BBC Worldwide – the BBC’s money-making arm.
Hands off Worldwide
Thompson said Worldwide was expected to turn over £1bn this year, “recession willing”, and although he appeared to rule out giving part of the company to Channel 4, he said the “clout of Worldwide” could benefit other public service broadcasters.
“[Worldwide is] intimately bound up with the BBC. It’s absolutely associated with the BBC around the world,” he said.
“We believe we are talking about a package which will have a very very substantial economic impact on the sector, far greater than will be achieved by any of the models I’ve seen so far.”
He acknowledged that “many thousands of jobs in the BBC had gone” as the broadcaster stripped its cost base as part of a “massive modernisation programme” aimed at “transforming the way we use television, radio and the web”.
Speaking about ITV’s plans to scale back its regional news coverage, Thompson said: “If you look at the story of ITV and regional journalism, you could argue it’s a fact of life and an inevitability or [you could argue that] it’s something regulators and politicians could have done something about.
“What can we do by sharing facilites and potentially co-siting with ITV so the economics of regional journalism for ITV are sustainable – not with a sticking plaster for a few years, but over the next decade and beyond?”
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said ITV’s regional news cuts had been presented by the broadcaster as a fait accompli – regardless of the ongoing consultation by Ofcom.
“The reality on the ground is that jobs are being cut, programmes merged and changes implemented with scant regard for the public, the staff or political decision-makers,” he said.
“We say parliament will decide. The reality is that ITV plc have already made these decisions and are implementing them – flying in the face of the consultation and the political decision-making process.”
Dear said he was concerned by Thompson’s proposals to share news resources between the BBC and ITV, and flatly dismissed giving any of the licence fee money to commercial broadcasters.
He said: “Such a route does nothing to strength public service broadcasting. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
TV ‘brought to its knees’
Veteran broadcaster and political campaigner Tony Robinson, who was also on the panel, warned that a partnership between the BBC and its commercial rivals must benefit both sides and not be used as an opportunity for the BBC to protect its own interests.
“There’s two kinds of partnership,” he said. “There’s the Ant and Dec kind of partnership, where two friends work together and one just happens to be bigger than the other.
“And there’s the Robert Mugabe – Morgan Tsvangirai type of partnership. Sometimes those of us on the outside think the BBC see the second one as preferable.”
In an impassioned speech, Robinson said British television had been “brought to its knees” by the “terrible defeatism” of the regulators.
“We’ve lost those bits of television that are so difficult to make. The notion of local television has almost disappeared,” he said.
“The whole culture of risk-taking which has driven every new step forward in British television is now almost a dead duck.”
Robinson added that he was “fed up” of the BBC having to justify its existence and of Channel 4 having to go “cap in hand” for the money it needed to stay afloat.
“Ofcom says that the only way to preserve PSB is by cutting a few arms, toes and limbs off in order to protect the head,” he concluded.
“As far as local journalism is concerned, that is not an argument. There are far too many economists in Ofcom and not enough people that understand television and real human beings.”