Monday, 5 July 2010

6 of the best?

When BP issues a press release or organises a press conference on the subject of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is reported for what it is - propaganda. But the BBC is in a rather different position - for it not only reports the news, it is also invariably newsworthy in itself. The size of the Licence Fee, the content of its programmes, the number and availability of its channels and radio stations, the salaries paid to its leading personalities, all these and more are of enormous interest and frequently controversial. Yet as a major news provider, unlike BP it is in a unique position, if not to control, then at least to shape the public perception of itself - for when it reports on itself, it does so with the veneer of objectivity, as though it were its journalists had no vested interest in how it comes across. All BBC reporting on the subject of the BBC should therefore be treated with extreme caution.

Today, for example, sees the publication of the "interim response" by the BBC Trust - itself a paradoxical body that portrays itself as representing Licence Fee payers rather, I suspect, as the Countryside Alliance represents the interests of foxes - to a recent BBC strategy document. This, in turn, was reported first and most comprehensively by the BBC's own journalists - who thus partly determined what points received the most coverage, and what were overlooked. The response is available online for all to read in its entirety (pdf) but it's safe to say that the vast majority of listeners and viewers won't bother.

So what does the Trust say? The headline news, according to the BBC's own reports as more-or-less faithfully reproduced by the rest of the mass media, is that BBC 6, a hitherto obscure digital music station whose threatened closure inspired a passionate online campaign to preserve it, is indeed to be saved for the nation. At one level, this represents a defeat for the BBC leadership, so one might expect the BBC reportage, if it was primarily a propaganda outfit, to downplay its significance. But of course, the news that the BBC is not to cut one of its services can easily be portrayed both as a triumph of listener power and as proof of the unique qualities that the reprieved station possesses.

Since its closure was announced, indeed, the station's audience has almost doubled. A cynic might imagine that the plan to abolish BBC 6 Music was a cunning ploy to increase its profile. More telling, though, is the audience profile of the station - its average listener is mid-thirties, educated, urban, affluent and computer literate, politically liberal, easily mobilised and articulate; its average listener, in other words, is quite likely to work for the BBC, or at the very least to know someone who does, which may explain why the oppostion to the plan was so widely and sympathetically reported. The campaign to save 6 Music, unlike the unsuccessful (and almost invisible) campaign to save the also-threatened Asian Network, was pushing at an open door.

Celebrating the reprieve of 6 Music also has the advantage, from the BBC's point of view, of drawing attention away from the more significant, and rather trenchant, criticisms contained in the Trust's response of the poor quality of some television programming. In fact, the fate of the two digital stations occupies a relatively small section of the document. That said, the tone is friendly and supportive throughout, stressing from the outset how much the Trust supports the Director General's aim to make sure the BBC's output is high-quality and distinctive and how much the corporation is loved by the public. Much of it could have been written by the BBC's PR department, and, for all I know, was.

The case of BBC 6 Music is interesting. I have no particular feelings about its distinctiveness and quality, since although being in the target demographic I don't listen to it. I don't doubt that it is well-loved by its small and growing band of listeners. I do however wonder whether its quality and distinctiveness require a whole radio station to sustain, and could not be accommodated by removing some of the junk currently to be found on Radio 2 (and which would otherwise swiftly be picked up by the commercial sector). And if 6 is as vital to the nation's musical life as some of its supporters have alleged, I wonder how we ever managed without it.

The answer, of course, is that 6 Music is a digital station, and the BBC shares the conviction of the government (of whatever political complexion) and of other parts of the broadcasting industry that there is a vital need to ditch analogue radio in favour of the inferior, costly and environmentally unfriendly DAB system. Almost no-one wants their FM radio to be rendered arbitrarily useless by government diktat, but that doesn't prevent the supposed voice of the public from joining in the cheerleading of this democratically outrageous policy. The document lets the cat out of the bag in this paragraph:

There are big challenges ahead for digital radio too, although the direction of future change is much less clear. The BBC’s newer stations were designed in part to drive digital take up. By 2010, we can see that take up of DAB radio has been slower than expected ten years ago and the BBC’s digital-only stations have not achieved the audiences or impact that was then expected, although the intention behind the Digital Economy Act was to provide new impetus. The BBC is already committed to playing a role in leading the UK radio industry to a fully digital future. A question remains about what that means in the longer term and what the potential is for internet-based radio platforms to evolve. If DAB is to be the future, the BBC can only be one player, alongside Government and the commercial industry, in deciding what the strategy should be for the future shape of investment in both infrastructure and services.

In other words, the digital stations are not important in themselves, but only insofar as they serve the aim of driving digital take-up and thus accelerating the process of destroying FM. Seen in this light, the battle to save Radio 6 has little to do with public service (for the vital aspects of the service it provides could be provided on the existing channels) and everything to do with saving digital radio itself. For many of its devotees, 6 has been the best argument for switching to digital radio - there is, after all, precious little else of value on DAB that is unavailable elsewhere. To improve the distinctiveness and quality of Radios 1 and 2 would be cheaper and would have the additional benefit of reducing unnecessary duplication of commercial stations, but it would not "drive digital take-up". In other words, it would serve the interest only of listeners, not of the government, the BBC and the rest of the industry.

The report describes the take-up of digital radio as "disappointing", a strange value-judgement for a Trust supposedly representing the interests of the audience. It can scarcely be described as disappointing from the point of view of a consumer who has decided not to waste their money on one, after all, only from the point of view of someone (not a consumer or licence-fee payer) with a vested interest in justifying analogue switch-off. It also acknowledges that the BBC has a "clear duty" to drive digital take-up through the provision of appealing digital-only services. Again, duty to whom?