… and Mark Thompson, the present director general, leading those negotiations? Much better than they were a few weeks ago.
In his much-awaited MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, Thompson skilfully deflected the incessant barrage of brickbats hurled at the BBC’s corporate flatulence by painting BSkyB as the real enemy of UK media plurality.
Get-back time at James Murdoch, head of News International, after his cruel gibes in last year’s lecture at the expense of the corporate bloater, of course. But more than that, Thompson has read his runes well. The times, they really are achanging.
The argument, beloved of BBC critics, that the corporation is stifling commercial competition falls to pieces once we begin to examine the success story that is BSkyB. A few deft brush marks from Thompson’s speech tell the tale well enough. Sky’s dominance is underlined by a marketing budget that is bigger than ITV’s programme budget; and subscription revenues of £4.8bn that “dwarf…all other commercial broadcasters put together.” Lurking not very far below the surface is the suggestion that in Rupert Murdoch we have a UK version of Silvio Berlusconi – owning well over 40% of our newspapers, and poised to buy out the 61% of BSkyB his organisation does not already own.
That last bit may be a bit fanciful, but there are certainly compelling elements to the Thompson narrative that argue for a strengthened rather than reduced role for the BBC. If there’s been a failure in public service plurality over the past 20 years, it’s not so much the overweening power of the BBC that has been responsible for it as the inability of the ad-funded sector – represented primarily by ITV, C4 and C5 – to build a countervailing digital subscription-driven complement to their free-to-air analogue offering. If BSkyB could do it, runs the argument, why couldn’t they? To which, once we dust down the sorry case study of ITV Digital, there is no very good riposte.
Moving on, and acknowledging the chronically weakened position of the free-to-air, ad-funded sector, there seems little sensible alternative to recognising a new balance of power if broadcast plurality is to be maintained. Unpalatable as it may seem to people at ITV, the BBC is now the best bastion it’s got against further encroachment from Sky – along the lines of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Thompson’s specific proposal – that Sky should pay the ad-funded channels for carriage of their content, rather than the other way round, which is what now prevails – is unlikely to gain traction. But it was shrewd propaganda, underlining the point – as it does – that Sky would not be where it is today without a big subsidy from free-to-air sector content.
What’s more, Thompson’s thinking chimes nicely with a change of heart by the regulatory authorities. Ofcom’s recent decision to open Sky’s lucrative but restrictive Hollywood first-run film offer to the Competition Commission is an indication of increasing concern that Sky is getting too big for its boots. It comes hot on the heels of an earlier probe into Sky’s sport offer.
A back-handed compliment, in a way. Sky has become the one to beat. A situation which, if nothing else, will give the BBC a breather for a while.