The BBC lifts its skirts

19th July 2017

This morning was unusual for me in that as I found myself in the car having just driven my daughter to the airport at some ungodly hour. This gave me the rare opportunity to listen to the full edition of the morning news magazine on the BBCs Radio 5. It was an interesting morning for the Beeb as, following new legislation, today was the day when they were to release the names or all their employees earning in excess of £150,000 a year.

This led to a bizarre situation whereby a BBC employee, Nicky Campbell, found himself grilling his boss – BBC Director General Tony Hall – on the iniquities that were to be revealed at 11.00am concerning both earnings and gender inequality. Mr Campbell did his usual excellent job, his questions were , relevant, penetrating and quite cunningly designed to wrong foot the DG. Why would he do anything else? This is, after all, precisely what he is paid to do. However, aside from the oddness of BBC employee grilling BBC boss, it dawned on me that, whilst Nicky Campbell cast himself in the rôle of defender of the suppressed – directly citing fireman, nurses and policemen – he was himself squarely part of the problem. This made uncomfortable listening.

Sure enough, as the clock ticked past the bewitching hour the BBC news website headlines switched from storm damage in Cornwall to the revelations of the salaries of its own employees. One didn’t have to scan far down to discover that indeed Mr Campbell – earstwhile champion of the underpaid – was pulling down a healthy £450k per year, or put another way, 3061 TV licences.

Whilst this may grate somewhat, this is not the point. Perhaps it might have been better if Radio 5 had chosen someone else to interview the Director General – Rachel Burden for instance, his co-presenter who was not even on the list of top 96 earners. But good luck to Mr Campbell, he does do a great job if, on this occasion he has fallen into a vat of hypocrisy not quite of his own making.

This is, of course about many things, not the least of which is the financial value we place on those who entertain us versus those who daily risk life and limb to make our world safe and to mend is when we fall ill. The inequality that Nicky Campbell, made the centre-piece of his interview.  These noble sentiments aside, what this is really about is the deeply odd scenario of a vast, publicly owned company swimming in a horizonless ocean of private ownership. How the executives at Sky, ITV, Google, Netflix and Amazon must had laughed when the poor old BBC was obliged to shoot itself in the foot (or heaven knows the head), dragged to the table by a well-meaning but deeply mis-guided piece of legislation.

The trouble is, today’s a announcements have slightly taken the shine off our love-affair with the BBC. Arguments about whether there is a place for the BBC in today’s multi-media world are for another day. For now, let us accept that we do love it as a nation, like our relationship with the monarchy, none of us can properly articulate quite why we but, as part of the furniture, it’s a hell of a comfy chair.

Then suddenly we learn something unsavoury; all those loveable presenters, actors and entertainers are not, as it happens, doing it for love or national pride or some higher sense of duty. They have their hands in the cookie jar just as deeply as anyone working for Sky or Netflix (well not quite as it turns out, but you get the point). Surely there’s nothing noble going on here, just a grubby little market in talent.

If the BBC has any worth, it emerges from the fact that it sits somewhere just above the market as the only successful socialist institution that Britain, perhaps the world, has ever known. Just a few years shy of 100, public ownership without government intervention makes it an institution almost beyond value. The fact that one person can earn in three hours in front of a microphone what a nurse earns in forty is indisputably an egregious inequality, but in the end it’s not the fault of the BBC. We all have a duty to right these wrongs but for now, let’s celebrate the BBC not so much for the talent it pays but for the talent it nurtures, for without it the only programmes that will be made will be those that place advertising revenue as their first priority.

If we have quality television in Great Britain (and in this I am not including the imports from the likes of Netflix, HBO and Fox) it’s not because the BBC must compete with the commercial channels, but the other way round. Kick away the support of public ownership and the BBC becomes nothing more than a crowd pleasing entity prostituting itself to commerce for funding and a hopeless race to the bottom begins.


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Martin Roberts

Martin Roberts is the founder of TTSLP.

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