The BBC's private sector mentality
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What does the chairman of the BBC do exactly?
I still think of Chris Patten, the Tory peer and last British governor of Hong Kong, as Chairman of the BBC, but, in point of fact, there have been three permanent (and one interim) chairs since his term ended in 2014. Since then both Rona Fairhead (a Tory peer) and David Clementi (a former Bank of England deputy governor) have completed full terms, and now Richard Sharp is in post, having taken over in February last year. Sharp has exactly the CV you’d expect for a BBC Chairman: ex-JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, advisor to both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, huge donor to the Conservative party…etc.
The role of Chairman (distinct from the Director-General, who is the CEOlike figure in charge of the day-to-day operations of the corporation) oversees the BBC Board (a 2017 rebrand from the old BBC Trust). The board handles relations with the government of the day, maintaining the BBC’s independence and ensuring its future.
Anyway, whatever. Many of you are not even British, so why would you be interested in this strange, old-fashioned position?
Well, this weekend, Richard Sharp gave a rare interview to the Sunday Times. The interview, his first since taking on the role almost two years ago, is irritatingly sycophantic – the Murdoch owned Times is transparently sympathetic to the injection of private sector dogmatism that Sharp champions. But, equally, I am guilty of my own biases and should acknowledge them in my commentary. I cannot see how a career banker, for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs (two of the least creative businesses in the world), has either the sensitivity or imagination for the task of reinventing the BBC. But I am also just politically hostile to such a raging, unashamed Tory at an organisation that requires the pretence, at least, of neutrality.
But – as outlined above – Sharp is just the latest in a long line of ideological chairs (the chair is, after all, a political appointment). He’s not even the first Goldman Sachs alumnus to hold the post. But he has taken on the role at a time when the BBC is in undoubted crisis. Its future is as uncertain as ever in its hundred-year history. This is not just because of the continuous friction over its impartiality or the rapidly whirling talent drain – the most existential question is one of funding. Presuming that the next charter does not allow a program as luxurious as the license fee, how can the organisation compete?
This is the central question, and, as far as I’m concerned, the central mistake. Take this excerpt from the interview as an example: “I was worried how I’d be received. Somebody associated with the Tory party. White, pale, male, stale. But people have been incredibly welcoming. Perhaps it’s because they realise, ‘Christ, we’re up against Netflix, Apple, Amazon. Somebody who believes in the BBC, who has engaged in capitalist activity, could be useful.’”
The premise here is that the BBC is “up against” Netflix, Apple, Amazon and all the other streaming providers (perhaps diplomatically, Sharp exempts Disney from this list – the BBC has just struck a $100m licensing deal with the world’s biggest streaming platform, for its golden goose, Doctor Who). It is a competitive streak that runs through the organisation, a desire not to outdone by its big tech rivals.
But why? As the deal with Disney+ has shown, there is plenty of opportunity for collaboration (financially beneficial collaboration, at that). Bringing in a Chairman with extensive private sector experience (though nothing entrepreneurial, as far as I can tell) was clearly part of the strategy to go head-first into that competition. But as Sharp himself admits, the BBC is just not a private sector organisation. “I overestimated the fat,” he says in the interview. “Our operating margins and cost base are world class.”
I’ve been thinking about the question of utilities a lot in the past week, having made a genuinely sickening podcast about the Bulb energy company collapse. If you don’t know this story I would really recommend listing to the show, as an explainer – it will boil your piss. Anyway, the story involves a management consultant and an energy trader deciding to “disrupt” the energy market by creating a sort-of Deliveroo for electricity. Except that, you know, if Deliveroo went bust the government wouldn’t need to step in with a £6bn rescue package. The question I had was why these kids were allowed to “disrupt” the energy market, why the government felt more competition was a good thing? Nobody could’ve foreseen the conflict in Ukraine, which has transformed the energy market (for worse), but surely the salt-the-earth VC-fuelled strategy of Uber or WeWork or whatever was INSANELY risky for what is essentially a public utility (even if, like the water sector, it’s a private one).
And the BBC is also a public utility, to some extent. But it no longer operates like that because its remit has become so expansive. From just a few radio channels and some presence on the ol’ gogglebox, to one of the world’s largest international news sources. The fact that Sharp feels like the BBC needs to compete with Netflix and Amazon is not just because of the Beeb’s excellent output reputation, but because mission drift has led them into a significantly overstretched position. They are no longer a public utility.
And if you end up in that position, then it’s hard to justify the license fee. If TfL tried to kill Uber or the NHS tried to end Bupa or the British Library had a crack at JSTOR, we would find that pretty baffling. There are counter-examples of course: I produced a podcast this week where a Tory MP argued in favour of private schools because abolishing them would place more stress on state education, an argument I find pretty thin gruel. Education is not something to be trifled with. But provision of, say, sci-fi shows or reality TV series about plumbers finding love or international tiddlywinks competitions – that seems like stuff there’s more of an argument for not burdening the public kitty with.
I do think that, ultimately, the BBC will need to change its mentality. Become a smaller, more efficient provider of essential public services. It should provide news and weather, and the most affordable entertainment package on the market. It should provide children’s programming and education for over-stretched families, and it should provide a full-month of Christmas music to drive long-haul truckers crazy. But it shouldn’t be competing with the biggest global streaming platforms – it should be working with them.
But, from his interview in the Sunday Times, I suspect that Sharp feels differently. Every best practice he cites is from the private sector (“I’ve got Bloomberg TV on in here for a reason…It’s excellent. We have to raise our game.”). He seems to have no love for, or interest in, the organisation’s heritage or raison d’etre. His final message is, however, one of pure economic responsibility: “The BBC is at the heart of the broadcasting ecosystem that is vital to the creative industries, one of the few sectors where Britain is globally competitive. It’s worth £100 billion a year.”
The truth is that the BBC simultaneously gives Britain a huge edge as a global broadcaster, and also has a massive stifling effect on the creative industries here in the UK. To see the BBC as an unmitigated force for good – in terms of Britain’s creative output – is to misunderstand the sector (or to see it from outside). The issues are, I suspect, more complicated and intractable than even the bods at JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs could account for.
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