Editorial – Monday 20th January 2020
Tony Hall’s unexpected announcement that he is to step down as director general of the BBC this summer means that one of the most important jobs in British public life will shortly be up for grabs. The post is not for the faint-hearted. Lord Hall’s immediate predecessor, George Entwistle, managed only 54 days in 2012 before giving up, after a series of errors related to the Savile sex abuse scandal.
Mr Hall’s departure will be more orderly, though it is unclear whether the timing is of his choosing. In a message to staff he wrote that “if I followed my heart I would genuinely never want to leave”. But the argument that the corporation needs a new leader to steer it through a government-ordered “health check” in 2022, followed by charter negotiations five years later, makes some sense. It is possible that the next director general will face the biggest fight of the corporation’s life.
Whatever happens over the course of this parliament, the licence fee is secure under the current royal charter until 2027. But the corporation, which celebrates its centenary in 2022, faces growing pressures on several fronts, notably competition from the US streaming giants and hostility from rightwing politicians and press. The challenge is to find effective ways of pushing back, of abandoning its defensive crouch and getting on to the front foot to advocate for its continuing and vital role in our nation’s civic, cultural and economic life.
It is to be hoped that a well-managed, unrushed succession could form part of this process. The aim of the BBC’s board, when making the appointment, must be to ensure that they get the fairest possible hearing from the government. Boris Johnson has already said that he plans to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, while a destructive row over the funding of licences for over-75s rumbles on (the BBC agreed to stump up the £154.50 fee for those in receipt of pension credits, while the government wants all over-75s to enjoy free TV, but has so far declined to pay). Meanwhile sexism continues to make headlines with reports of a settlement reached with the radio presenter Sarah Montague following on the heels of Samira Ahmed’s success at an employment tribunal.
Bad blood left over from December’s election has not been wiped away. The demagogic approach to news taken by Mr Johnson – for example the “People’s PMQs” livestreamed on Facebook – has created unnecessary strain. But these arguments, though important, must not poison the bigger conversation that needs to take place.
There are some hopeful signs. After falling to 18% (compared with 55% for Netflix and Amazon) the iPlayer’s share of the crucial video on demand market has risen. A new paid-for BritBox streaming service has launched, amid belated recognition that regulation must take in global as well as local context. Last week’s announcement of a new tech hub in Newcastle, and plan to locate two-thirds of BBC staff outside London, was welcome as well as overdue. Although the competition in drama has never been fiercer, BBC output continues to be strong, with Fleabag and Killing Eve among recent examples. In natural history and children’s TV it is a world leader.
Huge challenges remain, not least the BBC’s diminishing appeal for younger adult audiences. But in an age of division and continuing controversies over pervasive misinformation, and at a moment when the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland looks certain to be tested, the BBC must be bold in championing the principle and practice of 21st-century public service broadcasting.
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