BBC and creators - what future?

EVEN before the event had started, a senior broadcaster was saying over coffee that "Authors could be the greatest allies of public broadcasting..." That set the constructive tone of the seminar on the future of the BBC in London on 21 October, organised by the Creators' Rights Alliance and British Music Rights. The meeting took place against the background of an impending government review of the BBC's funding, with the Conservative Party commissioning its own think-tank to produce alternatives to the licence fee - or to the BBC.

The organisations said after the event that:

The event made startlingly clear that the whole concept of Public Service Broadcasting faces severe challenges in the near future. The Creators' Rights Alliance and British Music Rights are proud to have brought together information and debate of such high quality on these matters. We look forward to the government recognising the contribution that our members make by giving creators' representatives a voice both in the OFCOM Content Board and the BBC Licence review process.

In particular, as authors and other creators we would like to see the BBC give more consistent recognition to our contributions to its success. As citizens, we are keen to support Public Service Broadcasting. We anticipate keenly work with the BBC on these issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

© Dave Rotchelle
The opening panel: left to right, José Borghino, session chair Charles Wheeler, Chris Walden and Aidan White

Chris Green of the British Academy, opening the meeting, noted that "Public Service broadcasting faces interesting times. In general, the concept of public service anything is still under attack in some quarters. In particular, for the past several years supporters of Public Service broadcasting have been quietly asking what it can possibly mean, given the huge changes in media technology... whatever it is, it is distinguished by its refusal to treat its content as a mere commodity."

The state of Public Service broadcasting internationally

José Borghino, Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors, painted a very sorry picture of what can happen when Public Service broadcasting is weakened. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) lost its licence fee in 1974, in favour of direct funding from general taxation. This had left its management seeking the "easiest, cheapest and least controversial path" in all decision-making.

"The globalised culture wars are real," Borghino said. To provide alternative entertainment programming to the US imports shown by the commercial stations, ABC is dependent on the BBC. What it still has going for it is the integrity and accuracy of its news and current affairs, and for this it was coming under attack, both in specifics over Iraq war coverage and in general from News International, lobbying for it to be reduced to the status of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the USA.

Chris Walden is a composer of TV and film music, originally from Germany and now working in Los Angeles. He noted how the marginal status of PBS left the populace "uninformed and disinformed" by the commercial networks ABC, CBS, NBC and, in particular, Fox. PBS receives one-fifth of its funding from government: the rest is raised from individual viewers, largely through annual "begathons", and from commercial sponsorship of programmes. (The 6pm News Hour is currently supported by telecommunications company SBC and by agritechnology corporation Archer Daniels Midland. Neither business is controversy-free, and there have been allegations of pressure to suppress stories by past sponsors. MH)

As a composer, Walden has no relationship with PBS because it doesn't have the budget for innovative commissioning. He is unhappy about his German clients abusing "publishing rights" - under German law they cannot claim outright ownership of his work but do insist on him licensing them to publish spin-offs. The US, however, is "a third world country in the area of performance rights" and enforcement of what rights composers can retain is complicated by the existence of three competing rights-management systems.

Aidan White is General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists and summarised the state of Public Service broadcasting in selected countries:

  • Italy provides "an extreme example of the downside of politicisation". Prime Minister Berlusconi, who also controls the majority of commercial broadcasting, is wont to "appear at the studios demanding to address the nation uninterrupted" in a manner reminiscent of a banana republic.
  • In Greece and Spain public broadcasters face court challenges alleging that they are unfairly competing with commercial outlets.
  • Though the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun failed, an agenda is still being pursued that would encourage such lawsuits and lead to WTO panels forcing privatisation of broadcasting as much as of other public services like water supply.
  • In countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic former state-controlled broadcasters have been sold off, leaving no public sector. Broadcasting is dominated by "badly-dubbed imports", and for the past ten years the near-total lack of indigenous current affairs programming has produced a "loss of collective memory and cultural record" in these societies.

The IFJ is of course concerned with members' struggles with all broadcasters and publishers for respect for creators' moral rights to defend the integrity of their work, and for a fair livelihood. It must also "engage with civil society as a whole " over the "conflict between privatisation and the concept of quality". An encouraging sign was the reaction to the US Federal Communications Commission decision on 2 June to remove restrictions such as that on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcasters: the grass-roots pressure exemplified by is persuading Congresspeople that having all sources of information in a city owned by the same corporation might be a bad plan.

Responding to questions from NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear and other audience members over how such a campaign might be built internationally, White referred to a forthcoming proposal by the Council of Europe and UNESCO for a Convention on Cultural Diversity, and to the current World Summit on the Information Society, possibly the best-kept secret of recent summitry. The EU's treaties do not give it authority to intervene in Public Service broadcasting per se, but it can set relevant competition policy.

NUJ activist Phil Sutcliffe announced that he was going to "lower the tone": from creators' point of view, he said, the BBC is another organisation that extorts rights. "Stop screwing with us and line up with us!" Sutcliffe declaimed, setting his conditions for creators to "defend the innocence of the BBC" in a mutual campaign - "er, make that 'independence'..."

Creators' perspectives

Film director Maurice Phillips "can't imagine life in Britain without the BBC". Only Public Service broadcasting can offer a "fair and equal balance between populist programming and cutting-edge drama".

Phillips mentioned that Public Service is not the only source of fine broadcast: the US HBO cable channel's productions such as Oz, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under were counter-examples. Richard Hooper, Chair of the regulator OFCOM's Content Board and chairing this session of the meeting, was very keen that participants should explain this "paradox". Some later responded that HBO was spending a small proportion of the income gained over years as a movie-rerun channel.

For Sally Beamish as a composer of chamber and orchestral music, the BBC is a vital source of funding and the BBC4 digital channel offers great hope for continued diverse productions. She described instances of "courageous programming to the point of madness" that could only occur in a Public Service context, including a commission for the annual BBC Promenade Concerts - the largest music festival anywhere - that led to the Corporation having to cope with the headline "Proms against pesticides"... If she had a complaint, it was about lack of transparency in the commissioning process.

Phillipa Gregory started her career as a local paper journalist before moving into broadcasting, and now writes (mostly historical) novels. She described working for the BBC as a freelance as a bit like a relationship with a neurotic lover. First comes the wooing, complete with assurances over dinner that you are the one and only, yea the only novelist in London. Then there's the wedding and the requirement to wash socks... or, specifically, to sign contracts promising not to use any of your characters in other contexts - "which in my case, since it would apply to the entire House of Tudor, seemed a bit extreme".

In discussion James Lancaster, BBC Head of Contributor and Talent Rights, noted from the floor that "There's a strong and fundamental sense of dependency between the BBC and the creative community... we don't want grudging support, we want a situation where support is freely given. We are listening to creators' concerns, and we have moved on the question of Moral Rights. We need to improve the way we work together." He also noted that BBC World, the arms-length commercial operation, contributed £150M a year to BBC coffers and £80M a year to creators.

© Dave Rotchelle
James Lancaster listening...

The licence fee

As noted above, the government is reviewing the BBC's funding. There is a suspicion afoot that Cabinet ministers' annoyance over l'affaire Kelly may colour their judgement.

Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. He attends many meetings worldwide on broadcasting policy and observes that "Without exception, everyone outside the UK concerned about these issues believes in the importance of cultural diversity - and is astonished that the licence fee is being challenged. It is a huge world success story."

Tom McNally is Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a spokesperson on broadcasting. He responded robustly to the argument that Public Service broadcasting is unfair competition for private corporations: "The people have the right, through Parliament, to 'distort the market'. The BBC is a distortion - and it is the will of the people that it be so."

John Whittingdale was in 1988-90 Political Secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and is now Conservative spokesperson on Trade and Industry. He noted that Thatcher had considered privatising the BBC but had been advised that it would be "one nationalised industry too far".

But, he asked, does the BBC need £2700M a year? Does it provide value for money? Why should people pay for it who don't watch it? The licence fee is a "regressive tax" in that it is proportionately a bigger burden on people with lower incomes. Is it right that single mothers should be jailed for failing to pay fines imposed for not paying it?

Alan Yentob is "Director of Drama, Entertainment and Children's TV with overall responsibility for output across all media" at the BBC. He observed how when he joined the Corporation "broadcasting was very clearly a vocation". Now it is expected to be a business.

Quality in broadcasting is essential to the nation's quality of life, he insisted. It is important to defend the principle of universality of Public Service broadcasting - specifically against doubts such as those raised earlier from the floor over the BBC's paying £10M to run the Harry Potter film at Christmas: "We do not want to be like PBS, at the margin of society."

The task ahead was to improve a national asset. The BBC needs to listen more - and to acknowledge that creators can be "its conscience".

Responding to a question from Carole Tongue, Yentob acknowledged that the governance of the BBC could possibly be improved. He praised Lancaster as a "doughty defender" of creators' rights.

Questioners, including NUJ Freelance Organiser John Toner, raised the anomaly whereby creators of content have no representation on either the OFCOM Content Board or the Licence Review. The CRA and BMR await a response to this question with interest.

Bernie Corbett, General Secretary of the Writers' Guild, hoped that no-one present would fall into complacency about the persistent nature of the BBC. The threat to Public Service broadcasting in the UK was real and demanded a powerful response.

Summing up for the CRA Mike Holderness thanked the organisers, particularly Carmel Bedford. Creators looked forward to working alongside the BBC in mutual respect...

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