February 23, 2024

BBC, Under Criticism, Struggles to Tighten Its Belt

DAVID CAMERON, the British prime minister, was in Brussels meeting the press last October when he took a few moments to make fun of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

“Good to see that costs are being controlled everywhere,” Mr. Cameron said as he directed a mocking glance at three BBC correspondents, each from a different BBC program, covering his news conference.

The implication: Considering that the BBC has agreed to freeze most of its public funding for six years, effectively sentencing itself to a 16 percent budget cut through 2017, it surely could have looked harder at its staffing needs for the event.

“We’re all in this together,” Mr. Cameron said sarcastically, reciting his government’s favorite austerity slogan, and then added, “including, deliciously, the BBC.”

Why would the British premier celebrate the financial woes of the BBC? The corporation is the biggest, oldest and most revered public broadcasting company in the world, a centerpiece of the British brand, as essential to Britain’s view of itself as the National Health Service or the royal family. 

The BBC’s news broadcasts, whether on the radio or on television, exude authority and command respect around the globe. The corporation has also made extraordinary cultural contributions to Britain over the decades, through nurturing  talent, sponsoring major musical events and broadcasting television shows like “I, Claudius,” Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Fawlty Towers.” Britons call it, affectionately, the Beeb, and sometimes “Auntie,” for its traditional role as the last word on everything.

But despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the BBC seems at times to be an all-purpose whipping boy, an easy target for casual joking and at times naked derision from the country’s political establishment.

As Mr. Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government embarks on a grueling austerity program, it has accused the BBC of “extraordinary and outrageous waste.” Media companies — especially those of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, the BBC’s chief competitor — have been quick to join the critical chorus.

Much of the criticism has to do with the license fee of £145.50 (about $240) that is levied annually on every British household with a television set. The fee brings in £3.6 billion a year, about 80 percent of the BBC’s total income.

The mandatory charge makes Britons feel, rightly, that they own the BBC, and emboldens them to complain loudly and often — as thousands did recently about a storyline in the soap opera “EastEnders.” In the show, a character whose baby dies of sudden infant death syndrome secretly swaps the body with her neighbor’s live baby. The writers rewrote the script so that she finally gives the baby back.

Just as Republicans in the United States have complained that National Public Radio has a left-wing bias, so do conservatives in Britain complain about the BBC’s political leanings. (A threat to remove NPR’s federal funding has remained only that so far.)

Members of Parliament are outraged at BBC executives’ high salaries, like the 2010 compensation package of £838,000, or about $1.4 million, for the director general, Mark Thompson; that total is set to drop to £619,000 this year. Its employees — it had more than 21,300 at the end of 2010 — are worried for their jobs, angry about a plan to relocate many of them from London to a suburb of Manchester, and unhappy about cuts in their pension plans.

The BBC’s many detractors, led by Mr. Murdoch’s corporation, say the licensing fee has allowed it “to get too big, too smug, too unanswerable,” as The Sun, a tabloid owned by Mr. Murdoch, declared in an editorial last year.

The BBC is not permitted to accept advertising for its broadcasting activities or Web sites within Britain, but it does accept ads and generates revenue through some of its international arms. Rivals complain that it behaves increasingly like a profit-making company, despite its public subsidy.

THE licensing fee is an anachronism, put in place in 1922, when the BBC was founded as a monopoly. Such was its reverence for the seriousness of its own mission, to “inform, educate and entertain,” that its news anchors habitually wore dinner jackets during radio broadcasts. It got its first television competitor, ITV, in the 1950s.

Today’s media landscape, with scores of television and radio channels available via satellite, cable or over the air, is unrecognizable from the one envisioned all those years ago. As those channels fight for audiences and advertising, the BBC’s guaranteed income is, more than ever, a source of envy.

“If you look at the dynamic marketplace that exists in this country, and someone came along and said, ‘This is a market that needs three and a half billion pounds’ worth of public intervention,’ they would be laughed out of court,” said Michael Grade, a former chairman of both the BBC and of ITV, the biggest commercial TV company in Britain. Like many Britons, both friends and foes of the BBC, Mr. Grade believes that the corporation has been allowed to grow too big and too unwieldy, offering too much to too many people.

Every week, more than 97 percent of the British population watches, reads or listens to something produced by the BBC, which operates 10 TV channels and 16 radio stations domestically. Through its World Service radio network, it has a weekly global audience of 180 million.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=610246ea08d9845e953a323993da7ad8

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