Will Lord Patten Save the BBC?

If you have handled the minefield of the Chinese Communist takeover of Hong Kong as the last Governor, then surely the machinations of the BBC should be a piece of cake for Lord Chris Patten, the newly appointed Chairman of the BBC Trust, perhaps.

Lord Patten is a skilled diplomat, albeit one who, in his own words, “hardly ever watches television” but he will have his work cut out at Auntie if she is to survive intact. It is fair to say that the Corporation is experiencing one of its all too regular corporate nervous breakdowns. The BBC will recover and survive, it always does. But in what shape? That is the Big Question.

Their big problems are the Tories and Rupert Murdoch. Sometimes one and the same thing. The Conservatives are not natural BBC allies. Late last year, in just over a week, they forced Director General Mark Thompson to accept a ‘good’ licence fee settlement, which meant 16% cuts in real terms in the BBC  budget over six years. Thompson and the BBC took on not just paying for the normal BBC services, but also the World Service, S4C and paying for Jeremy Hunt’s local TV experiment out of the static licence fee. Only the kitchen sink was not thrown in by Hunt and Chancellor George Osborne to that deal. That 16% has now become 20% or even higher as reality hits the BBC. Bodies are being thrown out in scores, swathes of producers are being made redundant, BBC online is to be cut back by 25%, BBC local radio is said to face 700 redundancies and daytime programming may soon go from BBC2. Salami slicing is the order of the day, though losing a whole service or channel, BBC Three and Four are hot favourites. Must be the nuclear saving option for Thompson and his team. Writes John Mair…

So Patten is joining a Corporation which, whilst confident on-screen and on air, is riddled with paranoia about losing jobs. He says that “there will be a hell of a fuss” but BBC Staff ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of their own ‘cuts’, ’savings’, putting quality first’, or whatever term they decide to employ for the coalition or their own organisation.

Then there is Murdoch and Sky. No longer the Antipodean upstart but now firmly the elephant which fills the British broadcasting room. Sky’s revenue is now getting on for double that of the BBC and rising. The diet of films, sport, news, sports news, US imports and not much else has proved attractive to the British subscription public. Many of the technical innovations – like 3D television – which previously would have come out of the BBC, are now only afforded by Sky. It won’t get better. Just two weeks ago Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt waved through the Murdoch bid for the rest of BSkyB on the Murdoch promise (or fig leaf?) of the guarantee of the continuing independence of Sky News. The Sky elephant will soon be too big for the room and will be looking for new homes. The BBC may have to move.

So, Chairman Patten has to balance all of this: Tory cabinet ministers who are rampant and barely contained by Lib Dem ’partners’, a demoralised and shrinking BBC and a Sky operation for whom literally the Sky is the limit. The Chinese and Hong Kong surely was no dress rehearsal for this?

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He invented and runs the Coventry Conversations. He is a former BBC producer. Here he presents his views on the appointment of Lord Patten as BBC Chairman.

Many Thanks to Fresh Outlook.

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