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
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.
The opening panel: left to right, José Borghino, session chair Charles Wheeler,
Chris Walden and Aidan White
Chris Green of the
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
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
and summarised the state of Public Service broadcasting in
- 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
- 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
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
is persuading Congresspeople that having all sources of
information in a city owned by the same corporation might be a
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Summing up for the CRA Mike Holderness thanked the organisers,
particularly Carmel Bedford. Creators looked forward to working
alongside the BBC in mutual respect...