The licence-fee party is over
Published in: Daily Mail
For weeks now, Britain has been consumed by a crisis over public sector excess. Revelations of MPs flipping allowances and claiming for duck-houses have changed the course of politics. With forecasts of savage cuts ahead, an age of austerity has dawned.
Could someone please tell the BBC?
The five-day annual Glastonbury rock festival and mud-fest finished last night. The BBC sent more than 400 people to cover it at an estimated cost of £1.5 million.
Yes, you read that right: 400 --comprising 125 staff and 150 freelancers working as presenters, producers, directors or technical crew, plus about 130 short-term contractors hired by the BBC to provide rigging, security and other support.
To be fair, a huge outside broadcast event such as this can't be covered with a handful of staff. But 400-plus? Was there not inevitably a vast amount of duplication?
In its defence, the BBC says it broadcast some 117 hours of television coverage of the festival, plus more than 60 hours of radio output.
To which one can only ask --why? Glastonbury might be popular among the young, along with a bunch of superannuated hippies vicariously revisiting their lost adolescence, but it hardly caused the nation to cancel its social engagements en masse in order to sit at home glued to the telly.
The BBC says that last year's festival broadcasts attracted 14 million TV viewers and six million radio listeners. But that was over several days. To put it into context, some 12 million people tuned into the Wimbledon men's final last year, lasting one afternoon.
It's hard not to conclude that Glastonbury -- or 'Glasto' as various BBC presenters knowingly call it -- is an event with particular appeal for those of a certain age who were teenagers in the Sixties and Seventies. Which, by an amazing coincidence, just happens to be the age of many senior BBC executives.
It's also hard not to conclude that it was a bit of a junket for those senior BBC executives reported to have been given free Glastonbury passes. Were these also vital to the broadcasting of this event?
This is but the latest example of how the BBC flings public money around. Last year, it sent no fewer than 437 people to cover the Beijing Olympics -- 124 more than were actually in the British Olympic team. Similarly, last year's U.S. presidential election was covered by 175 BBC staff.
Sure, the BBC has many more outlets than, say, ITN or Sky. But the duplication of effort between programmes seemed to owe more to the prospect of a giant jolly for equally giant egos than to the requirements of journalism.
It's the apparent contempt shown to the public that causes such offence. That's why the recent revelations of the lavish pay and expenses for BBC executives have caused such outrage.
These showed that the Director-General, Mark Thompson, receives a basic salary of £647,000 (£816,000 last year with bonuses) and that no fewer than 47 BBC executives were paid more than the Prime Minister's salary of £195,000.
Documents extracted from the BBC also revealed that it had paid £364,000 in expenses to its top 50 executives over the past five years -- including, bizarrely, a response to a claim for £500 by the (equally bizarrely styled) Director of Vision for the cost of her stolen handbag.
Only half this amount was actually paid -- but why should the Director of Vision have been paid anything at all? Why on earth should the licence-fee payer stump up for her handbag?
To cap it all, since 2005 the Corporation has spent more than £250,000 contesting freedom of information requests -- in other words, actually charging the public for trying to keep secret how it spends the public's money.
And just like our corrupt MPs, the BBC denies flatly that it has done anything wrong. Mark Thompson seeks to justify his enormous salary by claiming he could get more than three times as much in the private sector. What arrogance.
With whom, precisely, is he comparing himself? Are his own skills as great and as rare as this unknown fabulous creature on around £2 million per year? And is he really saying that his job is four times as important as the Prime Minister's?
In any event, the comparison is absurd. There is no equivalent to the Director-General of the BBC because there is no valid comparison with the private sector.
The BBC provides job security and a gold-plated pension. In the private sector, if you screw up, you are shown the door. In the BBC, you will probably get promoted.
Just as egregiously, Mr Thompson also defended his own expenses claim of £ 2,236.90 to fly his family home from their holiday in Italy when he had to return to deal with the scandal over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Given that his family would otherwise be abandoned, he said, it was 'rather understandable' they felt they should come back, too.
Well no, actually, it's not understandable at all. If he had been working in that private sector he cites to justify his salary and had returned from holiday to deal with a crisis on his watch, the idea that his company would also pay his family's fare is, to put it mildly, fanciful.
And to expect the hapless licence-fee payer to pick up the tab for the inconvenience to the Thompson household as a result of the abuse of the licence-fee in hiring the foul-mouthed Ross and Brand in the first place -- and furthermore paying Ross £6 million a year for the privilege of degrading public service broadcasting -- takes the proverbial biscuit.
I should declare a mild interest in all this, because I regularly take the BBC's (extremely modest) shilling for appearances of one kind or another. I am also aware that the BBC plays a unique and historically vital role in British public life.
And I also know that a very large number of BBC employees survive on very low salaries and contracts with no job security, let alone holiday travel perks. What must they be making of this gold-plated gravy train trundling merrily along above their heads?
What so upsets people about the attitude by MPs and the BBC is that they seem to think the money being funnelled into their pockets is somehow nothing to do with the public, who are given no choice but to pay up.
And it's not even as if the public is getting value for that money, with the BBC producing so little of any creative brilliance and so much puerile dross, swearing and smut.
Instead, the money is paying for legions of endlessly duplicating middle managers or senior executives with absurd non-job descriptions such as Head of Diversity or Head of Compliance.
As David Elstein, the not entirely disinterested former head of Channel Five put it, the whole lot of them could be replaced overnight at half their current cost and no one would notice any change in quality. (Actually, Mr Elstein is wrong: the quality might go up).
The Director of Vision's handbag is the BBC's duck-house. The BBC has become so big and bloated that it has lost all sense of what public service and accountability actually mean. And as with Parliament, the public just won't stand for it any longer. The licence-fee party is over.