The inner workings of the BBC news operation are a mystery to me (although I did get a peep into the newsroom a while ago which was very exciting) so I find myself wondering about the orgins of this item on yesterday’s Today programme. The premise is that Saturday evening primetime TV in Britain is enjoying a renaissance thanks to big live and drama franchises like X-Factor and Doctor Who. Can’t really argue with that – Saturday night TV has been brilliant for several years now and the ratings reflect that – but is it strictly news? I mean, what’s the trigger? Did something happen? Was something announced? Or did someone in the ITV press office pitch an interview with Michael Grade to the Today editors who then sought a premise for the item?
The interview itself is interesting and Grade’s always good value, although his case, which is that this represents some kind of reprieve for broadcast TV, sounds a bit thin. Let’s face it, the Saturday evening revival is almost certainly a blip in the inexorable decline of broadcast-model media produced by a burst of creativity and investment from the BBC and ITV that probably can’t be sustained (especially not by ITV during the nastiest decline in ad spending in decades). Our collective realisation that broadcast TV has real and enduring strengths in live and ‘event’ programmes will not save the medium from ultimate irrelevance – although it might defer it.
So, back to my question, how does a story like this, connected only obliquely to current events, wind up on air in Today’s peak hour? What’s the process?
Looks like it, doesn’t it? The history: a short-term crisis (Hutton and then all that premium-rate stuff and the lies about the Blue Peter cat?) produced an apparently innocent change in the way the BBC is governed (and a new royal charter to go with it) and now, eighteen months later, it’s just sinking in that the BBC Trust is potentially the corporation’s unwitting nemesis.
No one seriously thinks that the Trust has it in the for the Beeb but the kicking doled out to news chiefs in the latest report could be a sign of things to come. The problem is that The Trust is a strange beast: a kind of internalised regulator, a body paradoxically obliged to provide statutory oversight and to defend the corporation’s independence and standards. The Trust must, by law, be tough and impartial and this will necessarily lead to some damaging analyses—and coming not from an arms-length regulator but from right inside the corporation.
The Beeb’s top managers must fear a drip drip drip of negative reports and impossible-to-ignore prescriptions. Legislators hostile to the corporation for various reasons must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of lots of new ammunition for their causes. As the Trust’s reports pile up on the DG’s desk, each demanding an expensive response and quite possibly deep and structural change (like, for instance, spinning off and funding Scottish and Welsh mini-Beebs), it might look increasingly like the corporation is tearing itself apart.
The potential for damage to the BBC from its own governing body, doing no more than its job, might make ‘top slicing’ look trivial. Is that what was intended when the Trust was set up? Obviously not. Can it now be avoided? Probably not.