David Blackburn

If the BBC won’t cut costs, then Hunt must

If the BBC won’t cut costs, then Hunt must
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From a completely selfish standpoint, I’m pleased that the BBC has saved 6Music. The decision does, however, raise a pertinent question: why is one of the public sector’s mammoth institutions seemingly impervious to spending cuts? Never mind DfID and the NHS, ring-fencing Sue Barker is simply inadmissible.

Mark Thompson, the Director General, has identified the barest modicum of cuts. The BBC’s ‘gold-plated’ pension scheme might be limited (subject to union agreement), which will save roughly £50million. But the BBC has awarded 70 percent of its employees a £475 annual pay rise. Few companies in the private sector, especially broadcasters, can afford such generosity. It’s that same with presenters’ pay. Thompson and Alan Yentob have declared the era of high salaries dead. But the Corporation still hoped to retain the eminently dispensable Christine Bleakley with £450,000 – a colossal bribe not to join Adrian Chiles for breakfast.

Pensions and salaries are by the way. The BBC’s size and purpose are the issue. To put it crudely: should BBC programming be Reithian and diminutive, or populist and obese? The turgid squabble between Thompson and Sir Michael Lyons over presenters and petty budget constraints (beautifully described by Neil Midgley) does not address this question – a vital one, as its answer will determine the licence fee renegotiation in March 2012.    

Which brings us to Jeremy Hunt. The Tories were strident and bellicose last autumn and they threatened to break up the BBC Charter. But the weakest flames produce the most smoke: Hunt’s axe is no more than a cake-slice. Having consulted a little law, he found that the Charter cannot be amended until it expires in 2016.

For the moment, Hunt is limited to cosmetic reforms within the scope of the Corporation’s existing structure. He has asked that the National Audit Office be allowed greater access to the BBC’s accounts, that a non-executive chairman be appointed to the BBC executive and that the BBC Trust be renamed the Licence-Fee Payers’ Trust. Good luck finding 20 percent cuts with that insipid arsenal against determined unions. Yet cuts must come. Thompson and the BBC Trust have 21 months before Hunt returns with an altogether grander weapon: the license fee.