Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Contract

Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Contract

Article excerpt

Under the new chairman and director-general, the BBC, we are led to : believe, intends to cut costs and waste. The problem with the corporation is that in the past it has been incapable of contracting or even retrenching; its dynamic is to grow constantly with the inexorable and consequent increase in the licence fee. I would like to think that Michael Grade and Mark Thompson mean business, but historical precedent doesn't inspire much confidence.

Although BBC radio is in good health, television, particularly BBC1, has been shockingly dismal, dumbed down almost beyond belief. Every week I'm hard pushed to find a programme on this network, and to a large extent on BBC2, that I want to watch. It's no different on the commercial networks, but they don't have a safe, guaranteed income, the licence fee, that continues to rise. This might be a good thing as it leaves the evenings free to listen to more radio, to read an improving book or to converse with those nearest, but it does mean that our public-service broadcaster has succumbed to catering for the lowest common denominator, something the Board of Governors appears to have belatedly woken up to, and only in advance of the negotiations over the renewal of the BBC Charter in 2006.

This is largely a legacy of the period when John Birt was first deputy and then director-general, years of structural chaos and low morale, expansion into digital television and radio, which often duplicate what can be seen and heard on existing radio and television networks. It was expensive and is the main reason that the BBC is said to be in the red by £245 million. I have long advocated that, instead of creating these superfluous networks which can be watched or heard by only a minority of people, the BBC should have concentrated on its core programming. Grade and Thompson should close them all down and, with the savings, encourage high-quality programmes, something the BBC used to do best. Why, even the licence fee might be reduced.

Radio Four was nearly done for by one of Birt's clones, but fortunately the network was rescued by the present controller Helen Boaden and the presence of the director of radio Jenny Abramsky. One has no difficulty in finding excellent programmes any week of the year. …

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