Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Anxiety, marketing and the BBC
Corriere della Sera - July 14th 2007

For many years, the British Broadcasting Corporation has had the nickname in England of “Auntie”. It is partly affectionate, since everyone in a family should be fond of their Aunt, but partly critical, because in Britain it is thought that Aunts have a nasty tendency to give you lectures, telling you what is right to do and what is wrong, which is just what the state-owned broadcaster has often done. So imagine our shock this week to find that Auntie BBC has actually been rather naughty herself, faking a quiz on a children’s programme and, the biggest shock of all, falsely accusing our Queen of storming out of a session with a famous photographer. If even the BBC cannot be relied upon, how can anything be trusted anymore?

          Actually, let us admit the truth. Most of us who have ever had our photographs taken by a professional photographer were rather impressed by the story about the Queen. OK, we haven’t been snapped by Annie Liebowitz. But if we have been made to dress up, and stand in strange poses for the camera, we too have often thought of storming out. So if the Queen did so when Ms Liebowitz suggested she remove her tiara, it raised Queen Elizabeth in our estimation. “Good for her!,” we all privately thought; it is about time someone put those pesky photographers in their place.

          So the story did not damage the Queen. Just the opposite. The trouble was that it was not true. The BBC’s marketing people had jumped to a false conclusion based on seeing some film that was shown in the wrong sequence, and it then used the story to promote the programme. It is the latest in a series of embarrassments and criticisms: the children’s quiz; the biased radio reporting about David Kelly, the government weapons scientist who committed suicide over the Iraq war; and a special study that showed that the BBC’s reporting from the Middle East had been biased for several years.

          In today’s competitive media world, credibility is vital. If you lose credibility, you put your whole business at risk, especially if your business is concerned with news and current affairs. It is very easy for viewers or readers to go somewhere else for their news, if they don’t trust you.

          This is a danger for the BBC, even though the BBC is not a business: it is owned by the government and paid for by a special tax, levied on everyone in Britain who has a television. The biased reporting over David Kelly did not really do any damage, because the public mainly believed the BBC far more than they believed Tony Blair. Even if the BBC’s report was wrong, the public felt its attitude over the Iraq war was right. The issue with the Queen and the children’s programme is different, however.

          These two errors are embarrassing, though they are not fatal. They will be forgiven. But they do reveal the dilemma in which the BBC has got itself trapped. And that dilemma could eventually cause big problems for the broadcaster.

          Think again about the case this week over the Queen and the photographer. It was caused by a mistake by the BBC’s marketing department, which was over-eager to publicise a programme. But why should a public broadcaster be working so hard to promote its programmes? The reason is that the BBC needs support for the continuation of its special tax, and to get that support it feels it needs to show that its programmes are widely watched. The idea of a public broadcaster implies that it makes programmes that are special, of high quality, perhaps appealing to smaller audiences that would not be served by commercial stations. But a public broadcaster that depends on a special tax, which has to be renewed every few years, needs to have high audience figures. So it promotes its programmes, it runs quizzes on its childrens’ shows—and it makes mistakes.

          Despite those mistakes, the BBC is still the most accurate and trustworthy English-language broadcaster in the world, in my opinion. But if it is to remain so, it needs a stable source of income and to be given the right to act like a public service, not like a business. If it needs to be a business, it should become one and be privatised.


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