There is no more dangerous moment for the BBC than when it decides to
ask for more. Years ago, when Alasdair Milne was putting forward an
impeccably logical case for a substantial rise in the licence fee, down
the road Bernard Ingham was rubbishing the idea to lobby journalists.
The campaign was dead virtually before the BBC press conference was
over. Instead of getting more, the Beeb got the Peacock Committee into
its future financing.
It was a courageous John Birt who hijacked the MacTaggart lecture at the
Edinburgh Television Festival at the weekend to ask for a ‘real’ rise
after a decade of RPI or RPI minus something. This was a real departure
for the MacTaggart. Everyone knows the lecturer is meant to confine
their ambitions to pitching for a new job. Asking for money seems a
little crass, not to mention ill-judged. It all sounded very much like a
party political for the BBC - an organisation that was mentioned 94
times in the Birt extravaganza. Politicians denounced the idea, even the
broadcasting community was not convinced and there were the inevitable
calls from David Elstein of Sky to abolish the licence fee altogether
and replace it with a voluntary subscription.
But it was two outsiders who had worked in the BBC for a time who
unwittingly delivered the coup de gr‰ce, to a policy that the BBC spin
doctors must have been working on for months.
As the BBC asked for more, Michael Attwell, now at Channel 5, and Nick
Elliott, from the ITV Network Centre, swore their undying respect for
the BBC as a programme maker and then told a tale of waste and muddle in
a still bloated bureaucracy in a Festival session - The BBC I Left.
The BBC’s campaign for more was over two days after it began and Mark
Thompson, chairman of the Edinburgh organising committee, was lucky to
have got his promotion to controller of BBC2, before Attwell and
Elliott, and to a lesser extent Tim Gardam, lovingly described their
In contrast, Channel 4’s campaign to prevent any privatisation,
effectively launched at Edinburgh in a session debate, took fire and
Michael Grade was applauded to the rafters as he said he would fight the
privatisation. The privatisation was effectively denounced as a crude
money-raising exercise - but not that much money - to help fund tax
It is a campaign that should have the support of the marketing community‘ if they want to keep a Channel 4 with a distinctive remit.
Privatise the channel and what you’ll get will be much more like an
Apart from effective campaigning, Grade really does have the fate of the
channel in his own hands. Any privatisation could be stopped in its
tracks by the resignation of Grade, chairman Sir Michael Bishop and the
rest of the board. The government should not discount such a
Raymond Snoddy is Financial Times media correspondent