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Blood and Sand and BBC reform

In 1908, Vicente Blasco Ibáněz wrote Blood and Sand, a novel about that most visceral of activities, bullfighting. It so captured the imagination it was made into a movie no less than four times, most famously with Rita Hayworth in 1941.

When it comes to BBC reform, it is tempting to draw in an analogy between the bull and the matador, perhaps in a videogame – you could pick your own side and your avatar. But let’s not do that.

‘Blood and Sand’ proved such an evocative phrase in English it also passed into the language for some years as an expostulation of exasperation as in: “Blood and Sand!, if you don’t do this right next time I’ll……”

This is where BBC reform comes in. It is an exquisitely exasperating controversy. This is because A: The BBC is in the DNA – the Blood – of Britain and the British body politic. And B: because of A, British politicians have a habit of huffing and puffing about the BBC but when it comes down to it they bury their heads in the Sand.

Today (May 12, 2016) the government publishes guidance on what will be in its White Paper on the new BBC Charter. Despite weeks (months) of lurid rumours and leaks, it doesn’t amount to much. Coverage this morning trends as ‘Government ducks out and the BBC dodges a bullet’.

Basically, the BBC keeps the licence fee with rises limited to inflation (for five years – therefore another argument in five years). The Charter is in place for 11 years. And:

The Trust goes – which is a bit like abolishing ashtrays on motorbikes so thoroughly had the Trust proved its uselessness – to be replaced by a unitary board where under half the members are appointed by government (see below).

Some stuff about distinctiveness and impartiality will be daubed onto its existing fundamental remit to educate inform and entertain.

And – big story for the red tops – ‘stars’ paid over £450,000 will be named. Good news for all the autocue readers who scrape by on £449,000 of tax payer’s money.

The iPlayer will be charged for – but no clues on how that will work (see below).

Local news organisations will be provided with up to 150 reporters to help cover local news. No real clues how this will work either.

That’s about it. As an example of a government and a great national institution facing up to a fundamentally changing world it is pathetic.

Pathetic but, I suppose, understandable.

The UK Tory government is in the business of staying out of trouble as it focuses everything on winning David Cameron’s rash bet on a ‘Brexit’ referendum – don’t forget he never intended to hold it; he thought another coalition government was nailed on. To swerve any controversy, they have recently done more U-turns than a Satnav with a split personality. So, they have ducked a row over the BBC – except to show a semblance of spine to the ‘luvvies’ the DCMS, having conceded everything meaningful, shoved in the notion the government will get to nominate a wedge of directors to the board. This is such a ham-fisted nod to increased government control it will raise the spector of State Media even among Tories, and is bound to be shredded during the debate.

So, game, set and match to the BBC? Basically they know (surely they know?) the current organisation and funding structure can’t remain unaltered for another 11 years. But they hope when the crunch time comes the government will be more of an interlocutor than an antagonist; i.e. they are hoping for anyone but the Tories.

Among the things the BBC kept was the criminalisation of non-payers of the licence fee – a feature that seems to make punishment for its non-payment more draconian than that of any other tax crime, including wholesale off-shore tax evasion. It also won the more vague right to introduce charging for the iPlayer on catch up and original content – technically it already charges for linear, but this is widely ignored. So, will the BBC have to have a conditional access system which will either deny online services to the next generations of media consumers – who will then forget it exists – or see them criminalised en masse as they can’t or won’t pay for it because they don’t understand why they should?

Trapped in an inflation indexed licence deal and saddled with extra costs, but refusing to radically rethink its global or local online presence or its radio reach, for example, the BBC must inevitably dip into our online pockets. So far this subject has been far from the centre of the Charter debate. But if it isn’t debated thoroughly and transparently with the public brought ‘on side’ mistakes will be made, mistakes from which there may be no coming back.

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