The BBC’s new Director-General, Tim Davie, needs to be bold, argues Roger Mosey
Some BBC director-generals are a reaction to their predecessor. After the remorseless strategising of the John Birt years, Greg Dyke was chosen to bring the human touch to staff who felt unloved. When Dyke turned out to be a little too populist and freewheeling for some, the governors opted for a more cerebral traditionalist in the form of Mark Thompson.
But, now, we appear to have a continuity candidate: Tim Davie is one of Tony Hall’s key lieutenants, supported by many senior colleagues and representing a known quantity, with 15 years of BBC board experience. The truth, though, is that he may have to be a revolutionary: the external and internal pressures on the BBC mean that “no change” is no longer an option.
BBC executives are fond of Lord Hall, but many have been bothered by his avoidance of the tougher strategic decisions that they believe are overdue. “I think Tony himself accepts that it is time for something different,” murmurs one. These decisions cannot be avoided, because the financial outlook is bleak.
It isn’t known whether Hall plans to emulate the Labour politician Liam Byrne MP and leave a letter behind saying, “There is no more money”, but there is certainly no magic money tree outside New Broadcasting House.
The financial worries include: the long-running issue of free licences for over-75s, which has been costing the BBC an extra £40m a month during the coronavirus crisis; the worry that decriminalising non-payment could cost hundreds of millions; an absence of dividends from BBC Studios, as a further consequence of the pandemic; and undelivered savings from the last budget round after Hall withdrew controversial plans to cut BBC News.
Further politically toxic savings need to be made in the nations and regions. “They are royally screwed,” says one corporation finance expert.
This would be a grim picture even without the likely long-term trends. The BBC has come into its own during the pandemic as an institution that can bring the nation together, and it has been buoyed by increased consumption levels even among younger audiences.
But it seems improbable that those will endure. Consent for the licence fee will remain shaky if the media habits of the young resume their regular pattern. That, in turn, feeds the bloodlust of the Tory right, who see a way to diminish the corporation by extolling the virtues of drama and entertainment on YouTube, Netflix and the rest.
‘The continuity candidate… may [be forced] to be a revolutionary’
One well-placed corporation figure notes that two reviews are looming – the 2022-23 licence fee negotiation and the Charter mid-point review – and that “time is short to make a compelling case, and to get the BBC seen as a critical investment”. The national and international economic meltdown makes that task even tougher.
And yet… the BBC still has a much bigger budget and a more guaranteed income stream than its UK commercial rivals. ITV or Channel 4 can only dream of £5bn a year coming into their bank accounts.
One critic says the financial crisis in the BBC is partly self-inflicted: “It created an inherently unstable economic model in the digital era, cemented by the BBC’s inability to stop doing things while it continued to add more and more.”
The question for Davie, then, is whether he can get the size and shape of the organisation right, and match that to its core funding, in a way that has eluded his predecessors.
One former senior television executive outlines a possible approach. “BBC drama has stayed in the game despite being outspent tenfold by its competitors,” he says, citing shows from The Night Manager to Normal People, “because the quality of commissioning and production has stayed up to par. But what the BBC doesn’t need is three or four terrestrial channels to spread its drama across.”
Another figure with experience of running BBC budgets concurs: “If ever ‘fewer, bigger, better’ should apply, it’s now.” The corporate strategists will, of course, be reluctant to saw off limbs if this undermines the commitment to universality. But that may be forced upon them, and it could even be an ultimatum that the corporation needs.
Which parts of the BBC’s output should, in future, be funded by the state for the good of the state – and which might be discarded or be paid for directly by new financial models? A seasoned observer suggests: “Tim getting on the front foot with this kind of initiative could change the weather.”
Also at the top of the Davie in-tray will be the future of BBC News. He, himself, is not a journalist, but it is a curiosity of the Hall regime that the outgoing DG – a very effective director of news under John Birt – has not seemed sure-footed as editor-in-chief, from his unfathomable defence of the Cliff Richard coverage to persistent crises about impartiality.
Trust ratings are still high, but being eroded; and one of Hall’s colleagues who is normally stout in the defence of the BBC describes the current position on employees’ use of social media as being “like the Wild West”, with an urgent need for management control.
The particular problem for the BBC is that many of its staff’s Twitterings reveal the metropolitan, “Remainer”, liberal bias that its critics have always suspected; and there is a battle ahead, too, to counter that perception about the mainstream output. It is fine for the BBC to be a liberal organisation internally, and it still needs to do more to increase the diversity of its staff. But it is not acceptable for the BBC on air to morph into a news organisation like MSNBC in the US, which is open about its left-of-centre position.
Recent research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford finds that there is still a public demand in the UK – 76% of those surveyed – for news to be “neutral”. Davie should stick on his wall Matthew Syed’s recent piece in The Sunday Times, which argued that any corrosion of the BBC’s reputation for impartiality “is of unusually grave importance.… This could yet destroy the BBC itself, turning a great organisation into a facet of polarisation rather than a bulwark against it.”
Related to that is the imperative to make devolution real, and to reflect the whole of the UK. The BBC has been good at moving staff into the nations and regions, but much less effective at giving them real power. Almost all the top decision-makers still sit in a small piece of real estate in W1A. It is time to give authority and budgets to the likes of Glasgow and Salford in a way that can allow them to overrule a London view, rather than the other way round.
‘Pressures on the BBC mean that “no change” is no longer an option’
There are, of course, many more pages in Davie’s “to do” list. Much of it about regulation and distribution and influencing legislation: the kind of stuff that is a hard slog but vital if public service broadcasting is to retain its prominence in a digital era.
And he will have to cope with the usual storms that accompany any DG. One current executive notes that we should never underestimate how difficult the job can be and how much firefighting is involved. He cites the amount of management time spent on the equal-pay debacle.
Davie will, therefore, need luck. But he also has the opportunity in his early days to set an agenda and seize control of events. He will, I hope, do that.
Change is coming – like it or not.
Roger Mosey is a former head of BBC Television News and is now the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge.