Martin Campbell: The BBC must brace itself for big changes

Former chief adviser to Ofcom Martin Campbell has a view on the upcoming changes at the BBC.

“Today, the BBC, and radio in particular, must brace itself for changes. Big changes.

It will end in tears, as it always does. And the BBC only has itself to blame.

The BBC has never understood money, and its cutbacks in the past have proved costly, particularly with regard to reputation. Endless reports into where the BBC can make cuts, which have probably cost a small fortune alone, skip merrily over the areas that need real attention such as the monolithic management structure, over-manning in specific areas, transport costs and salaries for talent that help tighten the financial screw week by week.

The BBC structure is not fit for purpose in 2020 but cutting bits out and turning bits around will only aid the crumbling. It needs to take the drains up and while it would be ludicrous to build it up from square one, the base make-up of what the BBC is for, who it is for and how it goes about delivering its remit has to be addressed before the knives come out. I fear that won’t happen.

The World at One, Newsnight and Today will undoubtedly have their formats changed and reporters jettisoned. The paperwork will show “enhancement”, “improvement”, “relevance”. I can see the press releases now. Heaven forbid the real issues should be tackled.

Take Dominic Cummings’ so-called government “boycott” of the Today programme. It’s nothing of the sort. I haven’t been to Mothercare for years. At my age, why would I? I didn’t “boycott” it. I didn’t add to its problems by staying away. I didn’t need to go there.

So it is with Boris and his ministers. Why would you go onto the Today programme when there are so many other outlets like LBC, Sky and talkRADIO who take their listeners and viewers with them with sensibly tough interviewing from which you can actually learn something.

The Today Programme has become a sad parody of itself with its determination to get a controversial soundbite at the expense of a structured interview. Its interminable “must stop you there to go to a boring promo for something irrelevant” and its exasperatingly pious emphasis on gender issues and annoyingly predictable tendency to highlight political correctness at every opportunity.

It’s not only news programmes that are taking this line. You hear it from Woman’s Hour to the Archers. It is dull and does not achieve what one assumes the producers and presenters are trying to achieve.

Outside the Today programme there are basic journalistic rules that are simply being ignored. For instance, the same story with no re-writes and no updates running hour after hour on TV and radio. Time was when the smallest commercial radio station wouldn’t have tolerated the same story being read more than twice. But here, on national TV, the same story can run and run with the same package hour after hour, even if the content has clearly become overtaken by events.

There is no excuse for this, but I wouldn’t mind betting that upcoming changes won’t address it.

The BBC will, I’m sure, look at “central commissioning” and “digital content”. Good for them. I interpret this as probably finishing up with everything sounding the same, and chasing younger listeners and viewers. Dogs chasing cars come to mind.

Of course these are all areas that need attention, but all the signs are that this new shake-up will ignore the canker that’s eating away at a fine institution. The BBC produces some fabulous programmes, but I fear for the future of such content if the cuts being made this time round echo the cuts of the past.

Accusations of bias abound. I’ve always felt that it’s too big an organisation to become institutionally biased – unless you’re talking about expenses claims – but again it doesn’t help itself as it strides down the Woke road at every opportunity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that such an approach often means the point of the interview is ignored, and apparently unaware of how boring it has become for the listener and viewer. It is not a question of not being PC, it is a question of perspective.

If I was advising Boris Johnson on his media approach I, too, would be telling him not to bother with Today. I take no joy in that.

But who on earth thought it was a good idea for reporters and presenters to unveil their personal views on the news? If it infringes their human rights to be told to keep their personal traps closed then it’s no wonder that people think the news and programmes are biased. Is it not part of a journalist’s skill to be able to present things in a balanced way without going home and opening up social media to let us know their “real” (and invariably predictably left-wing) views?

The BBC is special. It does not behave as if it is special. Some years ago commercial radio succumbed to a collective madness that went something like this : Our main competitor is doing so-and-so. So, we must do so-and-so. Result : Everything sounded the same.

We have Netflix. The BBC should not try and become Netflix. We have YouTube. The BBC should not try and recreate another YouTube in its race to be “relevant”. We have commercial radio. It must not be allowed to spend our money chasing audiences which are well served.

It must recognise its remit for what it is. However, Tony Hall’s successor and his lieutenants must not be allowed to cook up their plans behind closed doors and then whip the curtain back to reveal their plan. The Government should be involved with them. The future of the BBC is the hands of both. The present stand-off is probably just showboating. We must hope so. They both need a clear picture of where the BBC should go and have talks together. If they don’t the BBC will be wandering into the wilderness after 2027 … with my money.”

Martin Campbell

The author is a media adviser with Media Objectives, a former chief adviser to Ofcom, and commercial radio manager

This article first appeared in eRADIO – the weekly radio newsletter. Click here to receive future editions.

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3 Comments
  1. Radio Geordie says

    If the BBC was run like a commercial operation, it would’ve gone bust decades ago.

    That was what the old ILR system was good at – doing the same as the BBC with a much smaller budget.

    Its also why I said the other week that had he lived, John Myers would’ve made a brilliant D.G.

  2. Joe Smith says

    I wouldn’t take much notice of what a former chief adviser to Ofcom thinks.

  3. Harry Eaton says

    “Fran Unsworth, head of news and current affairs, said BBC News has been “super-serving” middle-aged, middle class audiences and must go after young viewers and listeners from all backgrounds.” Sounds like a plan. Focus your output to an indifferent audience who probably don’t pay a licence fee away from those who participate and pay

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