Magazine article Public Finance

On Location with the BBC

Magazine article Public Finance

On Location with the BBC

Article excerpt

The BBC's charter renewal process has become a political drama, involving a new cast, rewritten story lines and - for some - a significant change of scenery.

Director general Mark Thompson has demanded efficiency savings, though thus far has stopped short of sinking his teeth - for a second time - into his colleagues.

Facilities are to be shifted from London to Manchester. More output will be commissioned from the private sector. Resources are to be re-directed to 'frontline' programme making. To anyone struggling with Gershon efficiencies in the NHS or education, the BBC's reforms have a familiar ring to them.

Money is a major issue. With an annual budget of some £4bn and allegations that the corporation is bureaucratic, it is inevitable that charter renewal has led to a focus on resources.

The BBC is, in a very British way, funded by a tax that isn't a tax. The licence fee, easily described by the corporation's enemies as a poll tax on TV watchers, is subject to heavy government oversight. However, much of the evidence about public perceptions of the corporation suggests people believe they get reasonable value. The government has decided to keep the licence fee for at least ten more years.

But money is only a subplot in the continuing drama. The main storyline concerns the BBC's independence, impartiality and public service remit. Even in complex twenty-first century Britain, the corporation inspires high levels of trust and loyalty.

It has managed with some success to come to terms with a society that shows little respect for Establishment institutions and is far less homogeneous than in the cosy days of The Goon Show and the Home Service.

Public service obligations are desperately difficult to describe, and are not unique to the BBC. But, for the time being, the corporation is overwhelmingly important as a news and current affairs broadcaster, with a remit that extends into Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and to all the regions of England.

However, the balance between expenditure on nationwide and regional or local output is significantly skewed towards the national. Local radio had £182m spent on it in 2003/04, about 6% of the overall BBC programme budget.

Even if television spending on 'within-region' programming is added to the local radio total, it would only be equivalent - at most - to 10%-15% of overall corporation spending.

Local and regional broadcasting by both the BBC and other broadcasters receives strong support in opinion polls of viewers and listeners. …

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