“Bloated” BBC – again

In the wake of Brand/Ross affair David Cameron has hit the front page of the Sun with a piece basically supporting the BBC but calling for eventual cuts in the £139 licence fee and an end to excrescences like Jonathan Ross’s £16 million three year contract. He also takes a punt at top BBC salaries.

“ While we are at it — on the kudos of the BBC — why on earth is the director-general paid over £800,000 a year? More than 50 people at this great public institution get more than the Prime Minister.”

People can easily work up a lather about this mixed in with jealousy – I do – but how great is the damage caused by recent rows? I know this isn’t the biggest subject in the world, yet the Beeb website took over 11 million hits on it last week compared to 3.5 million on the financial crisis and slightly less for the US election. Cameron is that rare bird for a top politician, someone who has actually worked in TV, in Carlton the old ITV London company. He therefore has first hand knowledge. About those salaries and on competing with the regional press, I agree with him. And also on the essential matter of the Beeb’s basic good value.

It isn’t much consolation to know, as BBC chief Mark Thompson reminded Andrew Marr yesterday that Andy Duncan the head of C4 got £1.2. million last year, particularly as every head of C4 except the founder Jeremy Isaacs has also been a top BBC executive. (Weakest Link question: Who was Andy Duncan’s predecessor? * Answer at the end)

Steve Hewlett , media commentator and ex-editor of Panorama assesses the fall-out shrewdly.

The Brand/Ross debacle couldn’t have come at a worse time. Pressure is already increasing on the licence fee, currently at £139 after a lesser than asked for rise above inflation, in order to pay for the technical costs of digital switchover by 2012. Ofcom the industry regulator are pressing for a share of this to go to the publicly owned C4.

The Beeb also faces the problem that support for it declines the further north you go. To try to remedy this, they’re decanting to the regions, above all to Manchester and trying to match up spend to the size of the local population. Northern Ireland’s current affairs “ centre of excellence” will get a boost and in religion. I recall many years ago the great TV critic of the Sunday Times Maurice Wiggin referred to BBC NI as “ the region with the stain glass lens.” That was before the troubles.

* Mark Thompson

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London