12 November 2020

Overprivileged, out-of-touch BBC must commercialise to survive

By Christian Wakeford MP

The BBC needs to change. It’s not just the seemingly endless list of fiascos over salaries, free licences for the over 75s or the treatment of Princess Diana by Martin Bashir, to name just a few. And it’s not just the notable downturn in the quality of its content. It’s that it seems more concerned with trying to reinvent itself than with addressing the real reasons people are switching off. It’s time for a serious rethink of how our state broadcaster conducts itself in day-to-day decision making, and the kind of example it sets.

A good place to start would be its own staff. Despite its many drives for diversity the BBC’s payroll remains almost comically overprivileged. Staff are twice as likely to be privately educated than the national average – 14% compared to 7% – and 61% come from families with a professional background compared to 33% of the general population.

So it’s no wonder that ‘Auntie’ BBC is overly concerned with the metropolitan bubble and out-of-touch with the majority of the population, as well as many of its core viewers. One major example in recent years is how the BBC misunderstood the mood of the nation in the lead up to the Brexit referendum. No matter which side of the referendum you were on, it is clear with hindsight that the BBC did not appreciate the depths of feeling within certain communities. It is this disconnect with the British public that also infected the Labour Party, leading to its worst election result since the days of Margaret Thatcher, as the oft-hyped ‘impregnable and unsinkable’ Red Wall fell to the Conservatives.

It is not just the backgrounds of BBC staff that are causing problems. Despite publishing annual reviews, the organisation is actually becoming less and less transparent. In a recent change, the accounts and important details for all its disparate TV channels and radio stations were merged together. This means that it is now impossible to accurately make a cost breakdown by channel or assess the relative merits and costs of different parts of the broadcaster’s content.

Despite its flaws and failures, the BBC continues to receive its whopping sums of public money without meaningful conditions or performance guarantees. There is very little transparency around what BBC staff are being paid and no information on how pay levels are decided. It is so bad that I suspect thousands of staff members could lose their jobs and the organisation wouldn’t even notice. Of course, these would only be those on the lower end of the income scale – not the fat cats at the top of the bureaucracy or the overpaid ‘stars’. The salaries of the ‘celebrity’ presenters are used as a convenient glitzy sideshow to divert attention away from intrinsic flaws in its salary structure and financial affairs.

The BBC has also thrown away its original tech and brand advantage to upstarts like Netflix and Amazon Prime, to the extent that streaming services are now the dominant providers of TV and film for many in the UK. Auntie is now having to play catch up. To do this it needs to adapt and take on many of the commercial attitudes and working practices that have allowed streaming services to pull away.

Defund the BBC is right to campaign for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, and to strip the broadcaster of its outdated and unpoliceable right to tax watching live TV. Only then will the BBC grasp what it needs to do to thrive.

To return to its place as a beloved British icon, the national broadcaster must change course – and fast. Loyalty and respect are earned and must be maintained: the BBC must stop taking things for granted.

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Christian Wakeford is the member of Parliament for Bury South.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.