BBC under fresh assault

It’s becoming more and more clear that the BBC will have to come up with something more to stem the tide of media and political criticism that makes it the victim of its own success. That success by the way, was founded on going on line early while the newspapers and all other UK mainstream media were asleep. Ex Guardian editor Peter Preston, whose paper has aims to become no less than the centre left’s website of choice for the entire world, holds out a long spoon to sample supper with James Murdoch, who attacked the “Orwellian” BBC dominance of the UK media market in Edinburgh last week. Like Gordon Gekko, Murdoch proclaimed :

“ The only reliable durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

His independence and his profit. Is this anti-BBC diagnosis the right one? How come the US media is suffering likewise where there’s no BBC equivalent?

Preston returns to the vexed problem : to charge or not to charge?

It’s hard enough to find ways of charging for news sevices in a world where even devout Guardian bloggers say they’ll just push off if anyone attempts to extract a penny from them. It’s practically impossible while the successors of Lord Reith sit at the centre of their own huge stage, declining to adjust logic or strategy

He sets up the big issue for the future – the convergence of platforms whose shape no one today can foretell.

So the tangle over websites, pitting newspapers against corporation, isn’t an end game in itself, it’s just a beginning. The politicians and regulators we have – or are just about to get –are intrinsically being asked to decide what “broadcasting” means today

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And Preston makes a plea

There’s no point standing on a fortress wall howling defiance. I’d hate to leave the world to Sky. I think the BBC is a force for good (and truth in journalism). I want it to last another 87 years, at least. We need it to survive and prosper
But for that to happen, we also need to see the way things are, and will be, not the way things were: to recognise a problem in order to start finding solutions. A civilised discussion, not an Edinburgh shouting match?

But a civilised discussion about what?

I can foresee pressure on the BBC to charge for its website, certainly for iPlayer, and a freeze of the licence fee under a Conservative government. But crying wolf over BBC News On Line text services is well overdone. The time to prick their bubble reputation is long overdue. ( though the World Service’s is different and better). Compared to newspaper sites like the Guardian’s and Daily Telegraph’s, the BBC’s news sites are not much more than a new headline service with poor back story files and an indifferent search facility. BBC News On line Northern Ireland is pretty weak. Were it to extend the range of its blogs – imagine a Nolan blog like the show – and distil its current affairs and other factual ouput into on line stories and columns, it could wipe the local press out. No sign of that.

  • Brian

    If the conservative government do Murdoch bidding and make the Beeb charge for iplayer then it will be on a par with the great train robbery. Lets have no more talk of the BBC/iplayer web site being free, it is not, we license payers have already paid for the content of the iplayer.

    The BBC web site works under the same principle as the NHS, police, etc, etc, it is paid for upfront by the people of the UK, which then allows us to use it free of charge at the point of use.

    I am often critical of the BBC, but anyone who suggests we should crash the it is a charlatan or like the Murdoch’s has sold their soul and national loyalties for a barrel of greenbacks.

    The average Sky subscription cost £120 per month, whilst the BBC costs £11. For Murdoch’s Skys £120, we get what, bar the sport and news not much. For the Beeb’s £11 we get countless radio stations, above average TV and one of the best web sites in the world.

    Of course the reason the multi nationals hate the BBC, is because it makes a nonsense of their perpetual lie that private business is always best.

  • Sorry that should have been the average Sky subscription cost £35 per month

  • willis

    Thank God for Peston – at last someone in the Beeb has grown a pair.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/aug/30/robert-peston-james-murdoch-bbc

    Murdoch apparently banged the table and shouted: “How dare you?” with Peston shouting back: “If you think you can get fucking angry, I can get fucking angry.”

  • Brian Walker

    willis, Peston is great but the guy in my post has an R is his name. mickhall, I talked about charging for iplayer combined with a licence fee freeze that is, a de facto cut. Not my idea, I don’t recommend, I only report the point.

  • Brian,

    I was not having a go at you, sorry if it seemed I was.

  • willis

    Brian

    I will admit that when I first read your post I thought the howling defiance quote belonged to Peston and given the title of your thread I do not think mine was an entirely misguided contribution.

    However since I enjoy taking the piss out of other’s mistakes I cannot complain when The Golden rule is applied to me.

    And so to the BBCNI News online offering.

    “BBC’s news sites are not much more than a new headline service with poor back story files and an indifferent search facility”

    Possibly the most succinct critique I have yet read. The Search facility does my head in.

    The only news site in NI that does education in a comprehensive fashion is behind a pay wall.

    Oh and this wonderful programme deserves a better web presence. Just remind me the market that is being threatened.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007cpv9

  • Brian has raised a fascinating subject, but I’m not sure about his conclusion that the BBC NI would wipe out the local press if it expanded its service. Why should the BBC use public money to take on its commercial rivals in this way ?

    Brian reckons the BBC’s online success was based through investing in the sector while the newspapers were asleep. It is fairly easy to invest heavily when you are spending unlimited amounts of other people’s money.

    The simple fact is that the BBC overspent its online budget by £36m, or 48 per cent, last year and for several months no one in the corporation even noticed. Eventually, the BBC Trust had to intervene.

    From the very start, the BBC has been pumping enormous amounts of public money (£110m last year) into online activities which could have been provided by newspapers and potentially funded through advertising at no cost to the tax-payer.

    It’s a fair point that the US press are struggling without the presence of a BBC counterpart, but there was no real chance of UK papers ever prospering online when the BBC had cornered the market through its massive resources.

    The latest ABC circulation figures for the Belfast papers were so terrible that the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter avoided reporting them. The Telegraph was down another 10 per cent year on year despite a very expensive relaunch. It has now lost half of its readers in the last decade, and – regardless of the online debate – will be facing a bleak future it is cannot address the freefall very soon.

  • Slugger, the problem for both the BBC and News Corporation is that there are SMARTer people than they in Control of the News Agenda and Virtual Reality Technology/Binary Manipulation of Digital Code.

    And the following, believe it or believe it not, is Ulster Born and Bred, …… http://amanfrommars.baywords.com/2009/08/29/090829/ …. although whether a Host with the Most and Titanic Lough Side View from Palace Barracks, is quite another thing to be Plausibly Denied.

    Methinks T’ick Micks are a Myth which Allows for Stealthy Placement of Immaculate Resourced Assets into Universal Virtual Forces for the Unconventional and Irregular Battle Space Field ….. and no one will or can deny that the Emerald Isle does not have Spacers second to none, with almost Half a Century of Valid Live Experience of the Black Watching Art ….. Covert Surveillance.

    Masters of that Particular and Peculiar Universe in Deed, indeed, and Wiser in IT too beyond Imagination and One’s Wildest Dreams. And a valuable Invisible XXXXPort for/from the Province and 32 Counties.

  • willis

    Oldhack

    “Brian reckons the BBC’s online success was based through investing in the sector while the newspapers were asleep. It is fairly easy to invest heavily when you are spending unlimited amounts of other people’s money.”

    I have got to disagree with you both. The Newspapers were not asleep. They just could not see how to make money out of the internet so they left it alone hoping it would go away. They might have predicted how Google, Amazon and ebay would drive a bulldozer through their advertising revenue, but they did not.

    Instead they blame the BBC for doing what it always does best, turning arcane technology into usable services.

    It is a bit like the music industry complaining that Apple made a success of itunes when they had been wasting their time suing techsavvy teenagers.

  • The comparison with Apple, as put forward by Willis, is flawed, as the BBC is publicly funded and Apple is not. No one doubts that the BBC is a fine broadcaster, but why should it be automatically given huge sums by the tax-payer to supply online services which could be provided by commercial outlets ? Some newspapers were quicker than others to develop electronic editions, but the massive and deeply questionable presence of the BBC meant it could never be a level playing field.

  • DerTer

    Brian, may I ask why you started a new and separate thread on this topic when there was one (initiated by Mick) already on the go?

  • Ben

    Am sorry but why should we shed any tears for the the Telegraph? I would applaud the BBC online services, it is simply another method of them getting their content to me as a license payer.

  • Preston’s essential point depends on a single assertion:

    Everybody – from the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group to the editor of the Independent to the lords of the Mail – agrees with James [Murdoch] about the BBC’s website, currently consuming upwards of £150m in licence-fee cash. How does a newspaper that wants (nay, needs) to move on to the web and pay for the words it puts there, cope when the BBC dishes them out for free?

    Except …

    Can we believe that single fact?

    Is the Beeb devoting that quantum of resources to its web-presence? Even were that so, how much is “exported” beyond the licence-payer franchise? By the way, the iPlayer references are surely irrelevant, because they cannot (except with cunning and expertise) be accessed without the UK: and we licence-payers have already contributed up-front; and we should in current technology be entitled to access the back-up.

    Now, as I recall from a couple of years back, Sky revenues were well over £4B, when the Beeb’s take, via the licence fee, was just £3B+. Shurely shomething wrong? Which is obliged to offer concessions? Which provides a more rounded service?

  • Comrade Stalin

    The BBC has been providing a news service since before World War 2. During that time, commercial services have come and gone. I might add that the quality of the commercial news programmes has varied considerably during that time. ITN News At Ten used to be quite respectable up until about 10-15 years ago when they seemed to be dumbing it down (part of a general trend of dumbing things down on ITV stations, sadly – I can’t think of the last time I watched any programme on ITV). Channel 4 News, which is also produced by ITN, competes very well (indeed complements, IMO) the BBC’s news but I’m sure Mr Murdoch wouldn’t be too keen on the editorial line there either.

    The real problem here is to do with large media corporations hurting due to declining advertising revenues, and losses being caused by digital downloading. There’s a generation of teenagers coming up now to whom the idea of buying a CD seems like a strange and unnecessary expense. It’s not immediately clear to me how this problem will be resolved. Threats by the government to go after file swappers are meaningless, hiding such activity from view is trivial.

    On the subject of the BBC itself, I think that it is woven so closely into people’s lives, accompanying us almost from birth, that people take it for granted and do not give it the credit that it is due. The organization has reinvented itself many times throughout its history. Rather than resisting change and technology and impeding competition, as people would have us believe, it has done the opposite, embracing new ideas before they were proven or tested – for example, adding television to its repertoire, and (later) the Internet. Most recently they have led the way with iPlayer, setting the standard for the availability of programming over the internet for others to follow, snags and issues with the implementation of it aside.

    They worked hard to ensure they catered to a wide range of interests, especially those that might have been “disapproved” (like pop music) and they allowed artists, writers and musicians (esp. BBC Radiophonic Workshop) to experiment and develop their talents. Many of the programmes and shows they have produced (Monty Python, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers spring immediately to mind but there are many others) are now considered archetypes and are considered around the world to be among the finest examples of television programming produced.

    The BBC News website is not the most technically sophisticated one in existence, but it does the job well, and it more than fulfils its objective given that it is one of the most popular single sites on the Internet.

    So while I do not believe that the BBC is above criticism, I hope that people realize that these efforts to raid the license fee revenues, or otherwise impede the work of the BBC, need to be resisted. Anybody who believes that Murdoch has the right idea about television programming should check out footage of the Fox News network in action on Youtube.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Malcolm,

    £150m would be double the £72m budget for bbc.co.uk in 2006-07 so I would indeed be interested to hear where the sum comes from. Worth bearing in mind that this figure is prior to the introduction of iPlayer.

    It doesn’t sound that outrageous, though, considering the technical feat involved in keeping a fairly large website comprising an archive of audio, video and text media, which is subject to significant worldwide traffic loads, in service.

  • Eddie

    It should be noted that a senior executive of a newspaper here in N Ireland is also a substantial shareholder in a company which controls a number of commercial radio stations in N Ireland.

    This newspaper quite regularly runs stories which appear critical of BBC N Ireland. BBC Radio Ulster’s audience share tops the lot. Were the station to be neutered, who would benefit? What sort of stations would take up the slack? Commercial ones?

  • Eddie, this thread is about the BBC’s massive online spending. Unless I missed it, you are the only person talking about the possibility of Radio Ulster being neutered. Why don’t you identify the newspaper stories which you regard as critical of BBC NI, so we can judge whether or not they have substance ?

  • Eddie

    This thread is indeed about the BBC’s on-line spending – and the fact that it is being attacked for that…part of a campaign to weaken the BBC. If you read our local papers at all, I have no need to identify the one I am talking about, or the executive who should “declare an interest”

  • Rather than a campaign to weaken the BBC, Eddie, the argument is that it should be strengthened by concentrating its resources on its primary responsibility – broadcasting. However, you have made a serious charge by implying that the daily papers here have effectively manufactured stories to undermine the BBC. You really need to specify the material in question, so we can see if there is any substance to your claims.

  • willis

    Oldhack

    iPlayer is an online service which only the BBC can supply. Are you suggesting it should be curtailed?

  • Willis, I’ve no problem at all with iPlayer or any other online services the BBC wishes to develop – within reason. The point which people seem to be missing is that the BBC has admitted overspending by 48 pc online last year, to a new total of £110m. No one noticed for several months, and the Trust eventually intervened. The hard evidence is that the BBC is devoting almost limitless resources from public funds to its online expansion. Brian kicked off this thread by predicting not unreasonably that the BBC in Belfast could put the local dailies out of business by increasing its online output and adding new blogs and other material. Is this really the best use of public money ?

  • jone

    Let’s cut to the quick shall we?

    The Irish News is part of the Northern Media Group consortium which owns six radio stations across Northern Ireland.

    River Media, which has two of the Irish News Fitzpatrick’s on its board, is also part of the consortium.

    Of this you will read nothing in the Irish News business section when it is reporting the radio listening figures.

    For example in James Stinson’s piece on August 7 you can read how Radio Ulster is having a terrible time while commericals like Seven FM are forging ahead.

    No mention that Seven FM is part of the Northern Media Group.

    Even the Times manages to declares an interest when reporting on the Digger’s activities.

    But so far as I can see the Irish News reporting of listener figures does not have a noticeable anti-BBC spin.

  • Eddie

    You should examine which COMPANY holds the other SHARES in the commercial radio COMPANY station of which you speak and then examine who the SHAREHOLDERS in that FIRST are – you will find a surprising name with a (substantial) minority slice in that company. He is by-lined regularly in the paper. Time for him to declare an interest then the readers will know where his paper is really coming from.

  • Eddie

    I wonder if Old Hack has an interest to declare in his defence of the newspapers

  • willis

    OldHack

    It is not the best use of public money and it is not what BBCNI is doing.

    You only have to look at the Arts Extra link I posted earlier to see both where the online money is going and why it is not a threat.

    Many BBC micro sites which once contained content which might have been in competition with other providers have been stripped back. Now they are simply a route into iPlayer with a bit of extra metadata.

    The rationale for this was set out here.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/speeches/stories/bennett_banff2008.shtml

    “That fact formed part of the thinking behind this – a permanent page for every episode of every programme the BBC has ever broadcast.”

    It was also affected by the Graf report.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3866355.stm

    Murdoch was way behind the curve, because it suited him and his audience were pretty ignorant of the real story in BBC online.

    I don’t usually go out of my way to praise BBC execs, but Eric Huggers and John Linwood really seem to know what they are doing.

    As for Ashley Highfield, the man responsible for hiding the overspend, he is now with Microsoft.

    I would also have hoped for a higher level of debate on Slugger given the preponderance of IT gurus here.

  • Eddie, try reading the posts again. I did not offer a defence of the newspapers, as that can wait for another day. I responded to the prospect, raised by Brian Walker, of the BBC investing public money so heavily in its website that the Belfast dailies are put of business. I also did not question your motivation, but I did ask if you could justify the serious allegation that the papers were effectively running manufactured stories to attack the BBC. So far, you have not done so, although you have assumed (`his defence’) that anyone who questions the way in which the BBC spends our money must be a man.
    When it comes to any potential conflicts of interest, again, you should put the evidence forward.

    I know almost nothing about Seven FM, mentioned by Jone, and I care less, but the search engine on the Irish News website, which appears to be free, indicates a number of stories reporting a commercial link with the station. You then need a subscription to open the reports, so perhaps someone else can supply the details. I have never knowingly tuned into Seven FM, but I do think that issues involving the policies and finances of the BBC are in a slightly different category.

  • Eddie

    To – Old Hack

    If you care to examine the prospectus for Five FM, probably available from Ofcom, you will see the names of the directors who hold shares in the companies in the consortium which owns the chain of commercial radio stations referred to.

    One of those directors is in a very powerful position to direct what is published about the alleged shortcomings of Radio Ulster. His newspaper has done so. I am not talking about the Fitzpatricks.

    Also: you suggest I should try reading the previous posts again. You should do likewise and you will find that I never claimed that the local press has “manufactured” stories about the BBC. Perhaps you would be kind enough to withdraw that allegation.

    Finally, yes, I did assume that your name “Old Hack” was a man. Perhaps others did likewise. If you are not a man, I humbly apologise, Madam. My pseudonym, Eddie, is more clear cut and would suggest that I am a man, and I am happy to confirm that this is so.

  • Eddie

    Perhaps Old Hack should consult the following, with particular reference to page 17

    http://www.ofcom.org.uk/radio/ifi/rbl/car/ifmapps/newry/5fm.pdf

  • willis

    For anyone who is getting fed up, here are 3 factual statements.

    Ed Curran is a shareholder in 5 fm

    Ed Curran edits the Belfat Telegraph

    Ed Curran wrote this:

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/viewpoint/bbc-payments-our-right-to-know-14328326.html

    This is all in the Public Domain. He is hiding nothing.

  • Eddie, I have no problem with any of the points you make about stations like Seven FM and Five FM.
    If you can identify potential conflicts of interest there, fire away. However, they are tiny outfits, and I’m sorry but I’m just not very interested. This thread was actually about the BBC, its funding and its online development. You posted about a media executive who was linked to both a commercial station and newspaper stories which `appear critical’ of BBC NI. There was an obvious innuendo about coverage which was effectively manufactured, but, as you do not wish to identify the stories in question, we can leave it at that. For what it is worth, I would like to see BBC NI prosper but I think there is a danger that it could soon be placed in a position of unhealthy dominance.

  • Eddie

    The fact that Ed Curran, who I am told is Editor-in-Chief of the Belfast Telegraph, is also a shareholder in commercial radio stations in the Province will come as a surprise to the majority of readers of the Belfast Telegraph – especially in the light of the Telegraph’s attacks on the BBC. Thank you to Willis.

    I notice there was a story in the Telegraph this very week: “Sluggish start to new Talkback” putting the boot into the programme now fronted by Wendy Austin.

    Who would benefit from a decline on Radio Ulster? Who would benefit from a rise in audience share? Commercial radio stations in the Province? You can guess.

    (p.s – Whether Mr Curran personally wrote the editorial that Willis directs us to, I don’t know. But I would have thought he would have known how to spell licence fee. It’s certainly not “license” which is a verb – i.e. to license. But he would have oversight on this attack on the journalism which contains this attack on the BBC)

  • willis

    oldhack

    If BBCNI becomes dominant it will be because the economics of newspapers have changed. Currently it is alleged that the Belfast Telegraph is being used as a cash cow to pay for the Indy’s losses.