John Elworthy on the future of the BBC

eastenders09:21 Tuesday 12th May 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: Would you pay to keep the BBC? Is it worth it? This morning, after the appointment of a new Culture Secretary, there have been fears for the future of the Corporation, mainly in all the newspapers, but we thought it was worth investigating it. David Cameron appointed MP John Whittingdale, who in the past has said the licence fee is out of date and like a poll tax. He’s suggested a subscription style payment scheme would be a better idea. .. John Elworthy is the newspaper editor for a string of papers in Cambridgeshire and the Fens. Morning John.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Good morning Mr Stainton.
PAUL STAINTON: Do we need a huge overhaul?

JOHN ELWORTHY: Well I think we need a bit more than that. I wouldn’t wish redundancy on anybody, particularly not in the media, but I would make an exception with the bloated echelons of the BBC, and I would start at the very top, and work very quickly through the middle ranks, and leave decent broadcasters like you and a few other people to get on with the job. That’s where the problem is.
PAUL STAINTON: Oh bless you. Bless you. I’m not fishing for compliments by the way. You can be as hard on me as you want. (THEY LAUGH) You look at some of the figures. You look at BBC1 gets £1400 million a year. Radio 5 gets £72 million, Radio 4 £119 million. Local radio has to share £150 million between 44 radio stations. We’re on air for the price of a cup of tea a day.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Look Paul, every other media organisation, and the BBC ought to be included in this, has had to re-evaluate their existence in this modern age, had to cut costs, had to prune to the bone their overheads to survive. And there’s not a day goes past when I don’t read in our own trade journals about another newspaper suffering. And some of that suffering has been caused by the relentless growth of the BBC in the regions. So just park that for one moment though. Realistically it is incomprehensible that in this day and age and in a multi-channel era. I think I’ve got about 40, 50 channels, and I just live with Freeview. But those people who are getting 150+ channels, they ought to be able to pay which ones they want to receive, and reject those ones which they don ‘t want.
PAUL STAINTON: So you agree with John Whittingdale then that it’s a poll tax, an unfair poll tax?
JOHN ELWORTHY: Well you’ve got to look at what underpins the funding of the BBC, why it came in. And it might well have been necessary that we had an impartial national broadcaster when it was first begun, but we have OFCOM now. We have plenty of regulatory bodies to assume the mantle of oversight of a balanced product, which is what the BBC strives to be. But then ITV has to be, SKY TV has to be balanced in its output, and therefore you can’t throw the old chestnut about an independent body such as the BBC being different from the rest. Because boy, are you not different from the rest. The only difference between them and you is that I can choose whether I pay for them. and I don’t have any choice about paying for you. And I think that’s what’s gone up the nose of a lot of people. And they don’t have to be the rabid monsters who populate some of the right wing tabloid press to feel like that. I think it incensed now many people, perhaps not the older generation, I think they still hanker back to some good old days which may or may not have existed. But for most modern people everything should be a matter of choice. The BBC isn’t a matter of choice, therefore in the modern age it, de facto therefore you, are an anachronism Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: Well I see it. I see your argument and I see what you’re saying. It’s unfair as well I think is what you’re saying, when so many local newspapers have struggled and downsized and gone to online or weekly and lost a lot of staff, and the BBC by and large pretty much untouched.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Well when I began in this industry, some years ago .. and funnily enough I’m in Peterborough this morning, and that’s exactly where I began my career, and I won’t tell you when but it’s several decades ago .. there wasn’t such a thing as local radio. There was a regional radio offering, a very low cost BBC operation covering the East of England. When I d rive round and look at some of the palatial studios and facilities now being churned out by the BBC, if that little bit that I see is representative of the greater whole that I know exists, then boy have you escalated in your ambition over the last thirty or forty years. And that’s what I think is wrong, is that you’ve become fat too ambitious for the remit that this country gave you when you were started up.
PAUL STAINTON: So you pare it down. Where would you start? You mentioned at the top you’d get rid of management, would you? You’d restructure the whole of the BBC, would you? Would you lose local radio or keep local radio?
JOHN ELWORTHY: I would keep a source of local radio. I certainly wouldn’t keep what I would consider a quasi-monster offering that we’ve got at the moment. I would certainly think that there is some more joined up local radio that is feasible. I would certainly believe that in terms of some of the programme outputtings a lot more independent producers should be given a chance. And I would certainly question whether we need as many channels as we’ve got. And I’d certainly question whether we need as many music channels as we’ve got. And it should be a commissioner of programmes rather than an instigator of them. And therefore you should also find your realistic way in the market place by being a lot more commercially proactive.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. So it would need to pay for itself would it? It would need to pay for itself. What about the services that perhaps couldn ‘t, like local radio perhaps? Would it have to go?
JOHN ELWORTHY: Well you keep saying local radio. For goodness sake, there are lots of other local radio stations kicking around.
PAUL STAINTON: No I’m just asking. If services couldn’t pay for themselves, would they have to bite the dust, whether it’s local radio or whether it’s Radio1?
JOHN ELWORTHY: Right, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? In the terms of commercial radio, you have to go and put a business proposition to a group of like-minded people to invest behind you. With the BBC that investment is taken as read. And I think the quality threshold for any expansion has got to be looked at, but I also think why not re-evaluate the whole purpose of the BBC? And if that means things like local radio, which I happen personally to enjoy .. in fact I don’t listen to a commercial local radio station. You’ve made it impossible for any other local commercial station to offer what you’re offering simply because you’re doing it in greater volume, you’ve got greater resources, and therefore you are in a non-competitive environment. So you can’t pretend that local radio competes on an even footing with commercial radio, because that’s absolute nonsense. You need to find a way of justifying the licence fee. I don’t think there is a way of justifying in this day and age. Therefore good luck to the new Culture Secretary. I look forward to his workings in this direction.
PAUL STAINTON: I’m laughing nervously. The one argument I’m going to throw at you then is you look at the last election. Some of the national tabloids, borderline propaganda for political parties. Don’t we need an independent press? SKY gets the accusation that it’s Murdoch bent.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Hang on a minute. We have an independent press.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Of course we have an independent press. It’s a free market independent press. It’s the press that allows an entrepreneur. In Prickwillow in Cambridgeshire they wanted to go and start up the Prickwillow Times, as indeed did Eddie Shah. I worked for an entrepreneur in the ’70s and ’80s and launched a Sunday newspaper. It didn’t work, but he launched it. But he also launched a series of successful free papers and did it very well, and a lot of other people did so too. Why shouldn’t the commercial pressures, the commercial infrastructure that is there for every other business, be applied to the BBC? What is it Paul that makes your lot such a sacred cow that cannot be touched, up until now?
PAUL STAINTON: Let’s leave that question hanging John. What is it that makes the BBC so special? Is it special, or should it have to play by the rules that everybody else has to play with?