Friday, May 21, 2010

Auntie Matter

The wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted the news that the BBC’s 6Music may close at the end of next year has abated somewhat , but the awards last week for Adam & Joe’s and Jarvis Cocker’s shows have brought the station’s mooted demise into sharp focus once more. Coincidentally, the station’s defenders have another 5 days or so to register their protests with the BBC. If you feel so inclined, you can do so here.

The BBC has been a curious anomaly since the introduction of independent broadcasting in 1954, and never more so than now, when broadcasting is becoming ever-more fragmented, catering to niche audiences on lower and lower budgets. What, now, is the BBC’s role? Is it to compete with the large independent broadcasters (ITV, Channel 4, Sky, Capital etc. ) and imitate their output (talent shows, reality shows, shock docs), thereby satisfying the viewing and listening desires of the majority of the licence payers? Or is it to offer an alternative to the mainstream, thereby leading to accusations of obscurantism and elitism? How can it continue to square the circle between being, in effect, a state broadcaster and yet remaining editorially and politically independent? And can its funding mechanism (effectively a compulsory tax on television ownership) be justified in an age when many liberal democracies are seeking to move services out of the public sector and into private hands where, the arguments runs, they will be better administrated, more efficient and less of a burden on taxpayers?

The latter question, at least, was answered for me when I watched an episode of Michael Moore’s TV Nation in the mid-90s on BBC2. In an early segment of the show, Moore ridiculed the BBC’s antiquated funding mechanism, and conducted a vox-pop on a suburban American high street to ask whether the interviewees were aware that one had to pay a licence fee to own a television in the UK. Naturally, said interviewees were aghast at the thought of state encroachment on what they saw as a fundamental right, i.e. the right to slob out in front of the goggle box. They couldn’t believe it, and said so quite forcefully. Later in the same show, Moore broadcast a documentary piece about the then-current Detroit newspaper strike, and mentioned in an aside that this segment had had to be cut from the US edition of the programme, as the network on which it was being shown had business ties with the newspaper. At no point, needless to say, did Moore join the dots between these two disparate stories, and realise that the reason why he could make reference to the strike on the BBC is precisely because of the fact that it’s not owned by private interests. The BBC's role, in this instance, was thrown into sharp relief. Because it's (largely) free of vested commercial interests, it can be (and often is) a haven for the uncommercial and the marginalised. Which brings us back to the matter in hand.

The whole debacle surrounding the proposed closure of 6Music (and, lest we forget, the BBC Asian Network) is, of course, at least partly political, being widely viewed as a sop to the likes of the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press (and, by implication, an incoming Tory government) over such issues as Sachsgate and various phone-in anomalies. These papers (and the party they support) are naturally opposed to the state, and this distaste for anything that smacks of socialism can be seen in the bogeymen that regularly feature in their pages: social workers, progressive education, Labour-run councils... To the likes of the Daily Mail, the BBC is of a piece with these organisations, taking a lot of money from the public to do a job that could be done far more efficiently and successfully by the private sector.

Bizarrely, the BBC has colluded in this deception, citing (as part of its justification for closing 6Music) the notion that the station is encroaching on commercial radio’s audiences. I’ll address the specific folly of that statement in a moment, but for now, can we please bury the broader canard that public=bad, private=good? Even the Labour party had to adopt this Thatcherite mantra over the last 13 years in order to get (and stay in) power. And despite all the events of the last two years, Labour were still fundamentally committed to devolving power away from the state and towards the private sector: cf. the Private Finance Initiatives, the continuing privatisation of utilities and transport, the selling off of state assets to private investors... All this despite the catastrophic failures of, for example, the selling off of HMRC to Mapely, National Express walking away from its obligations running the Edinburgh to London line, the disaster area that is Capita, the banking crisis... I could go on, but if you ever get Private Eye, I probably don’t need to. And as for the accounting con-trick that is PFI... I’ve visited any number of PFI secondary schools, and they’re all, without exception, crap: lowest-common denominator architecture built of the cheapest generic building materials, all in the name of maximising profit. Who cares if the implicit message to pupils is “we don’t care about you or your education. We’re just going to give you the minimum we can legally get away with”? And yet we (or least our politicians and press) are still wedded to the idea that public ownership is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

To return, then, to the specifics of the proposed closure of 6Music: one reason proposed for its closure is the BBC’s mission to provide quality and distinctiveness*. You could argue that this is precisely the BBC’s raison d’etre, i.e. that it should be distinctive from commercial offerings and shouldn’t feel the need to compete. Another reason given is the financial one: that the relatively small audience that 6 enjoys is expensive when worked out on a per capita basis (its small audience, as the report handily obfuscates, is of course due in large part to its transmission method, i.e. via the web and DAB radios only, not the FM radios most of us have at home or in the car). Yet, strangely, the BBC seems to argue against itself on both the commercial and qualitative fronts when it proposes to migrate many of 6 Music’s shows to Radio 2. To quote Thompson in the report that the BBC commissioned on the station:

The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is distinctive. However, although it has achieved good growth in recent years, it has low reach and awareness and delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio. And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact. Given the strength of its popular music radio offering from Radio 1 and 2 and the opportunity to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 2, the BBC has concluded that the most effective and efficient way to deliver popular music on radio is to focus investment on these core networks.

In other words, Thompson thinks that the best way for the BBC to 'maintain quality and distinctiveness' is to take a high quality and distinctive (but relatively low in listenership) radio station and merge it into lower quality and less distinctive siblings, and therefore make the latter less popular. Christ, even I’m confused. As for the argument that 6Music is somehow eating into the commercial market (and that, by implication, Heart FM is just itching to play Parliament, Bogshed, Arvo Part and Burial rather than heavy-rotation Simply Red, Whitney and Boyzone), that particular fallacy is demolished rather effectively by Steve Orchard of Quidem:

Commercial radio can never replicate 6 Music’s cultural value – it’s not viable for us to do so. The commercial landscape has featured many fine rock music stations that have never made any real money – over time we water them down and gently shepherd them back towards the traditional commercial heartland. We will gain nothing from this closure yet the music industry will lose much.

It all rather seems that the closure is a fait accompli, and that Thompson is throwing around excuses full of public service buzzwords to obfuscate his real reasons for closing the station, i.e. to provide a sacrificial lamb to the incoming administration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of the Beeb alone. Unfortunately for him, its small listenership is not taking this lying down, as you’ve no doubt heard by now. If you were on the fence up until now, and I haven’t managed to appeal to your head thus far, it’s time to appeal to your heart. Just go to the 6Music webpage ( and take a look at the track listings for any random show by Don Letts, Gideon Coe, Marc Riley, Craig Charles, Adam Buxton, Bruce Dickinson, Guy Garvey, Stuart Maconie, Tom Robinson or Jarvis Cocker, and ask yourself where you might hear diverse playlists like these on commercial radio. And ask yourself whether the station is worth saving.

Finally, if you’re still not convinced whose side to take, just watch Mark Thompson’s humourless response to Adam Buxton’s offer of a fight here..

And enjoy this mash-up of the Thick of It, Jeremy Paxman and “Thommo”:

And then, finally, ask yourself, "Am I really going to side with this guy Thompson?" If the answer's no, for any reason, please address your concerns to the BBC Trust here.

*"The BBC should concentrate more than ever on being a creator of quality. It should focus even more than it does today on forms of content that most clearly build public value and that are most at risk of being ignored or facing underinvestment. It should take significant further steps towards building the distinctiveness and uniqueness of its programmes and services."

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