Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/19/beeb_speaks_chaff_unto_nation/

The commercial cuckoo hiding in the BBC's global mission

Nation shall speak Top Gear and Doctor Who unto nation

By John Lettice

Posted in Media, 19th May 2010 12:17 GMT

Check the calendar dates and a possible cunning plan emerges. On Thursday 6th May, there was a strong possibility that the UK would elect a Tory government, one that would be eyeing BBC funding suspiciously. On Tuesday 11th of May, BBC director general Mark Thompson gave a speech at Chatham House on "Nation Speaking Peace unto Nation: The BBC's Global Mission". So the fight-back begins?

Mark Thompson plugs Freesat

Well, as the coalition government didn't fall into place until the evening Thompson was speaking, the eyes of the media were in the main directed elsewhere. Which is possibly just as well, because if Thompson has a case at all, it's not an entirely credible one. Thompson is - as the title suggests - making a speech about the continuing, even growing, importance of the BBC's international operations to the world. The BBC commands a unique level of trust from audiences across the world, he tells us, is prepared to support local operations with local staffing over the long term, and when other news organisations are cutting back their international coverage drastically, "the BBC's journalism, its objectivity and impartiality… is more, not less important than it used to be."

The World Service gambit

It's the classic defence of the World Service, but there's something of a pea and shell game going on here, because Thompson isn't just talking about the BBC World Service, but also about BBC Worldwide, bbc.com and BBC World News. Thompson presents all of these as components of that single global mission, but their funding, their objectives and the constraints they face are very different.

The BBC World Service is paid for by a Foreign & Commonwealth Office grant, while everything else is commercial. BBC Worldwide is the BBC's commercial arm, while global TV channel BBC World News and bbc.com, are supported by advertising. BBC World News was originally launched as BBC World Service Television, but the FCO declined to fund it as part of what the World Service does next, hence its need to be commercial. The online operation, bbc.com, was launched as an international, advertising-supported version of the BBC site in late 2007, while one of the things BBC Worldwide does is to license BBC programming internationally. It also runs a string of channels, including BBC America, BBC Entertainment and BBC Lifestyle, licenses high-earning BBC shows including Top Gear, Doctor Who and Dancing with the Stars, and partners with Virgin on ten channels in the UK, including the less than uplifting Dave, and the G.O.L.D. retread factory.

The corporate structure covering most of these arms is confusing, and changes frequently. The bottom line, however, is that the World Service is government funded and does mainly radio, while everything else is at least aspirationally commercial. The funding for the non-World Service operations is provided by the British taxpayer via the licence fee, so the task of making them 'profitable' isn't exactly a challenging one. This appears not to have happened yet, however, as Thompson tells us that "full sustainability through advertising" should be possible for them.

The commercial cuckoo

It's one of those curious areas where News International and the Guardian Media Group are on approximately the same side. If you're Mark Thompson you present it as a logical progression of the BBC's historical international mission, whereas if you're Rupert Murdoch you see it as a commercial entity competing on the basis of massive subsidies from the UK taxpayer, while cashing in on the BBC's blue-chip branding.

And it's perfectly possible that BBC Worldwide will at some point in the future be an independent commercial company, albeit it one still using that branding. A sell-off has been planned in the past, and was mooted again late last year. It's not something that the new government is likely to be actively hostile to, nor is it something that Mark Thompson himself necessarily opposes (so long as the BBC gets to keep the money), but where would that leave the international mission as he presents it today?

In the long run it's up to the British government to decide why and whether there's a point to paying for the BBC to speak peace unto the rest of the world, but the way the World Service has done this in the past now has limited shelf-life, and adequate funding for more contemporary replacements is unlikely. The BBC, says Thompson, still has huge towers in Ascension beaming short wave World Service broadcasts to Africa, but this audience will clearly decline, and increasingly World Service programming will be delivered through deals with local FM stations and via the internet. In delivery, therefore, the "global mission" will look increasingly like the 'self funding' commercial international operations, except that the news will be paid for by the FCO. Says Thompson:

There is - self-evidently - a market failure in much of the news that the world needs. It is this failure that the Grant-in-Aid seeks to address.

But at some point in the future it doesn't seem entirely improbable that politicians will look at the BBC's commercial news output and ask themselves why this market failure doesn't apply there too. Thompson cites a survey covering Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey which found that "80 per cent of people asked said that the BBC made them think more positively about the UK". But that's the BBC, not necessarily or specifically the World Service.

The move from short wave to other delivery mechanisms makes the World Service more like the commercial operations in another respect; broadcasts become more vulnerable to censorship and to self-censorship. There's a simplicity to being able to beam the voice of freedom and impartiality from offshore, but that vanishes when El Presidente can just tell your local FM or broadcast partner, or ISPs to pull the plugs on you. If you're dependent on local pipes, then you'll frequently find yourself having to deal with your own equivalents of Google's China question.

The BBC closed numerous Central and Eastern European services after the fall of communism, and Thompson points out that the rise of "a lively and diverse press and broadcasting sector" in the Czech Republic meant that the need for a BBC service had receded. The need for uncensored news in Iran was however growing. Hence BBC Persian Television, launched in early 2009, funded by the FCO and delivered via satellite. This might seem a viable way forward for the World Service, but the funding issue is clear - it costs £15m a year, whereas the whole FCO budget for the World Service £272m for 2009-10.

In contrast, BBC Worldwide alone made £85.7m on revenues of £1bn in 2008-9, and according to Thompson will have profits of around £140m in 2009-10. So it costs getting on for four times as much to run BBC Worldwide as it does to run the World Service. That's a pretty low profit margin, considering that Worldwide sells a lot of stuff that's already been paid for elsewhere, but the numbers indicate the extent to which the new commercial arms are eclipsing the historical custodian of The Mission. Costs and revenues for BBC World News and bbc.com are entirely non-obvious, but it's a fair bet that Auntie contrives to spend an improbably large amount for a relatively small net on each.

Essentially the BBC runs a well-provisioned, sizeable 'commercial' elephant that it is attempting to obscure with the small, underfunded remains of an organisation whose glory days were in the Second World War and the Cold War. Ultimately, heart-warming and patronising* tales about The Archers of Afghanistan (pdf) won't be enough to do the trick. ®

* We particularly commend the section on the Taliban:

When the Taliban controlled the country, they allowed New Home, New Life to continue - though a group of them did turn up at the studios in Kabul, demanding to see what was going on.

When it was explained to them that the BBC's commitment to impartiality meant that we'd really prefer it if they didn't barge in, their faces fell. "Every week you let in cows, goats, chickens – we've heard them – so why not us?" This, I think, is the first recorded encounter between the Taliban and a BBC effects disc.

Magic voice box brings word of Great White Mother to Fuzzy-Wuzzies? That your point, Mark?