Raymond Snoddy on media: Wordy BBC must be more open about its titles

As the Good Book says, there is more rejoicing in heaven over the sinner who repenteth than over 99 just persons - or words to that effect.

For years, decades even, the British magazine industry has been railing and campaigning against the obviously unfair advantage enjoyed by BBC magazines - endless free advertising on national TV.

The Office of Fair Trading conducted an inquiry into it, but still the practice continued, albeit in a diluted form. A BBC magazine continued to be promoted in the breaks between programmes but - big deal - the Corporation added the caveat that other, totally unnamed, magazines were available in the same sector. That really must have caused viewers to scurry off and search for the anonymous titles rather than buying the BBC magazine advertised.

Suddenly, in Royal Charter review mode, everything is possible at the BBC. There it is in the press release within the review of commercial operations: 'Trailing magazines on-air should stop'.

Of course, we have to be cautious. You have only to give the BBC six words and a marketing artiste will weave a spell of prevarication and deception. The BBC says the trailing of magazines 'should' stop. Why doesn't it say the trailing of BBC magazines 'will' stop? The use of a conditional word will allow someone to say next year: 'Well, it should have stopped, but something has gone wrong and unaccountably it hasn't.'

At least four of the words in the phrase are probably fine. Let's give it the benefit of the doubt on 'stop' and 'magazines on-air' - though you can never be absolutely sure with the BBC.

There is, however, another worrying word. Note the careful choice of language on what exactly it is that will stop. 'Trailing' is something that you use to push the contents of a particular programme or magazine. It is obviously a good thing that trailing is going to stop. But how about the promotion and branding of particular magazines on-air? Should that stop too?

When it comes to what sort of magazines the BBC will be publishing in future, we are offered an intricate 22-word sentence. If you realise that the BBC can play with the meaning of just six words, can you imagine what a skilled crafter of press releases can get up to with 22?

'Magazines should focus more on brands and subjects connected to the BBC's core programmes and mission, but there will be opportunities overseas' is what it has come up with.

Note the arrival of another 'should' here. Then there is the tricky problem of deciding just what 'focus more on' will mean in reality.

The BBC could focus a little bit more on magazines associated with programmes, but maybe there will still be plenty of scope for the current magazines that have nothing whatsoever to do with BBC shows.

And will the BBC actually sell off the magazines that were just opportunistic purchases or launches and do not relate to 'the BBC's core programmes and mission'?

Interestingly, the BBC then becomes rather more certain with its language. 'There will be opportunities aboard,' it insists.

BBC chairman Michael Grade was rather more precise in comments made earlier this year about BBC magazines. In future, he said, 'any commercial deals must be programme-related'.

In any lexicon of BBC policy, 'must' is so much more impressive than 'should', and Grade should insist that 'must' is the word that will prevail.

People would also take the BBC's long overdue change of heart rather more seriously if it was retrospective, meaning that we would see a serious sale of magazine titles that have absolutely nothing to do with programmes.

30 SECONDS ON ... BBC MAGAZINES

- The BBC publishes more than 40 magazines, ranging from pre-school and teen titles linked with shows such as Teletubbies and Top of the Pops to adult-oriented publications linked with Gardeners' World and Top Gear.

- BBC Magazines recently acquired specialist consumer magazine company Origin Publishing, publisher of titles such as BBC History and BBC Wildlife.

- Following the acquisition of Origin, BBC Magazines celebrated its biggest overall circulation jump in a decade in August 2004. Sales rose by 13% year on year including Origin titles, while subscriptions were up 15%.

- BBC Worldwide is to sell its profitable Eve title as part of the director-general Mark Thompson's review of the Corporation. It will focus on core titles such as Top Gear and Radio Times, with non-core magazines at Origin set to be offloaded.

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