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Dream team brings back hard experience

THE INSTALLATION of Michael Grade and Mark Thompson as chairman and director general respectively of the BBC has attracted a lot of attention. They have been described as a ‘dream team’ set to rescue the BBC from all the troubles arising from the Hutton report and the summary removal of Gavin Davies and Greg Dyke from their posts.

 

Much has been made of their past history with the BBC and that they will provide a ‘safe pair of hands’, but what many seem to have forgotten is that they have both also been very successful chief executives of Channel 4. And I believe we can expect them to have learnt from that experience in ways that will markedly affect their behaviour back at the BBC.

 

I wonder, for example, how long it will be before the BBC is subjected to regulation by OfCom. It seems rather odd for the UK’s official broadcasting regulator to regulate everything except the BBC, which is dominant in so much of the nation’s TV and radio.

 

Mark Thompson discovered that having an external regulator was actually quite useful at Channel 4. It allowed the board to defend the company, without the concern that it was also the regulator of it — the root cause of the difficulties with the BBC governors over the Kelly affair.

 

I suspect that the opportunities for independent production will also be strengthened considerably. Greg Dyke was on record as saying that it wasn’t the BBC’s job to “make independent producers rich”, and the BBC has consistently — and disgracefully — failed to achieve its 25 per cent quota for independent productions.

 

From their experience at Channel 4, where every programme comes from an outside production company, I suspect that Grade and Thompson will conclude that the best way to keep the BBC’s own production capability on its toes will be to introduce a higher level of competition from producers outside the BBC.

 

There is no question that independent producers can and do produce excellent public service programmes. I’m certain that, in future, we will find that the 25 per cent quota will be comfortably exceeded. One thing that Mark Thompson did shortly after arriving at Channel 4 was put in place severe staff reductions. Over 200 jobs were cut from the 1150 or so, thus reducing bureaucracy and freeing up money to be spent on programmes. Such had been the build-up of staff over the boom years of the late 90s that the organisation had undoubtedly got a bit flabby. He also introduced open-plan office working at Channel 4, releasing a chunk of expensive office space. The effect of the cuts was, in general, an improvement in the performance of the channel.

 

Nobody has said it yet, but I would be very surprised if a substantial cut in the 27,000 people who work at the BBC was not now on the cards.

 

But one of Mark Thompson’s remarks while at Channel 4 will surely return to haunt him. During the severe advertising downturn in 2001/02 when ITV, Channel 4 and Five’s advertising receipts suffered, he said that the BBC was “wallowing in a jacuzzi of cash” — referring to the generous and guaranteed funding set by the BBC licence fee. Now he has taken over as director general, he has immediately to justify the jacuzzi of cash as being not nearly enough.

 

Indeed, as he has already pointed out, the BBC is borrowing heavily this year.

 

Ian Ritchie is a non-executive director of Channel 4.

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