BBC Governors Meeting, Norwich. What Happened?

It’s taken longer than anticipated to get round to summarising the events of last night’s meeting in Norwich. Whilst I was there I was suddenly stuck by an overwhelming responsibility to do it right, based mainly on the fact that I was convinced (and will remain so until Technorati tells me otherwise) that I was the only blogger present. So, there I was stood in the mezzanine floor of the Forum watching a preview of the BBC’s HD output (via a Sky box and 50” plasma) when I thought I’d take a panoramic of the stage set-up [left]. This sparked off an intention to take loads of pictures and add them to Flickr, but I got side-tracked by the debate.

The Governors present were, obviously Michael Grade plus Ranjit Sondhi, Anthony Salz, Deborah Bull and Jeremy Peat. But the big surprise for me was to find (Director General) Mark Thompson sat in the front row along with a substantial number of the BBC Exec'. Previously in my mind the subject of Emily Bell’s ire on the Guardian Unlimited podcast, it was nice to finally put a real-life person to the distant victim. I had hoped, with Mark present, that the debate and discussion would centre around the BBC’s well-documented digital future but I hadn't counted on the people of East Anglia.

Silly me, the demographic was entirely skewed in the direction of the retired complainant. In the same way that I’d watched the outlying villages spill into Norwich to celebrate the Championship promotion in 2004 complete with wooden rattles and knitted scarves, so here tonight were the villages of the East. In place of the lithe and hungry farmhands cheering on the Canaries were the walking-stick wielding OAPs - all of whom seemed to have an unwavering belief that the BBC is “not what it used to be”.

Here we were, with News Presenter Jane Hill batting questions from the floor toward the panel ranging from the reception problems in Kings Lynn to the reception problems in Sheringham; and from the over-paid Jonathan Ross (roundly hated with some vitriol) to the under-payment of Test Match Cricket. I thought I was going to cry. Where was the praise for the World’s finest website? Where were the celebrations of exceptional programmes like Planet Earth, Extras, The Office, Bleak House. Where was the acknowledgement of the consistently high standards shown on Radio 4 and the ever-increasing efforts made to broaden digital coverage?

Instead we dwelt on the horrors of celebrity television (not so prevalent on the BBC) the nightmares of no isobars on the weather map (beautifully riposted by Michael Grade) and the apparent “racism” of using “95%” of the evening schedule to show “Americanised” TV. Now I should, at this point, acknowledge that some of these points were rather valid: Jonathan Ross, Moyles and Wogan are over-paid, cricket should be on the BBC (but that’s for Tessa Jowell to sort, not the license payer or the BBC Governors) and Only Fools On Horses was a mistake – regardless of the charity motive. It’s just that the views we heard were not truly representative. The sinlge element of conversation that really struck a chord with me (and not because it was delivered by the chap sitting beside me) was an attempt to raise the awareness that choice is not as universal as the BBC might have us think.

I have naively assumed that the breadth of choice the BBC promote is a positive thing for everyone. An ever-increasing number of channels are emerging both in linear television, analogue, digital and online. But this seems rather worthless when you think of invalid viewers, “trapped” in care homes with no choice but to watch what’s on, when it’s on. They may represent a minority in percentage terms of the viewing figures but given that they don’t have the same ability to choose, their voice needs to be heard incredibly loudly.

As we advance to a state where linear, analogue-broadcasting is marginalised we must ensure that provision is made to safeguard the rights of those without choice to receive quality news, information and entertainment. It’s keeping one eye on the rear view mirror as we hurtle into BBC 2.0.

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Mark at the end of the session in between a glass of orange juice and a wild mushroom canapé, and I challenged him on the intentions to add advertsing to international versions of BBC sites. It was, I emplored, crucial that this was done as sensitively as possible and did not, under any circumstances, leak onto the British versions of the site. I stated I was proud of the BBC’s digital offerings, having downloaded clips of The Apprentice onto my phone and subscribed to BBC podcasts, RSS feeds and am a player of celebdaq. I have even linked to the BBC Accessibility site as part of my work. I stressed how important it is that the license payer funds this as efficiently as possible, if the BBC needs to justify it’s global face with some un-obtrusive ads, so be it, but it must not become MySpace and it must not become MSN.co.uk. (Ok, so I admit I didn’t have time to say it all like that but I think I got my point across).

Oh, and one final note, Emily I’m not sure he listens to Podcasts (there was no flicker when I asked him which he listens to) but he certainly reacted when I mentioned your name. I’m not sure I’d call it a smile, perhaps more of a wry grin.

UPDATED (21:15, 15th July) : Report on BBC News, "Grade Defends BBC's Independence"
UPDATED (18:42, 23rd July) : Finally corrected the typos in this post. Links here to my follow-up post and the news that this blog was featured on BBC News "The Editors". Finally, the comments on this article mention that the Webcast is now live (RealPlayer required).

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Alex Barnett said...

So, you emplored to Mark on the topic of commercialized BBC...what did he say?

smorgasbord-design said...

To be honest Alex it wasn't revolutionary. He assured me it was a hard decision to make, that it was not set in stone to be permanent and that it would be understated, no degradation of the quality of design etc. However, it was essential to ensure the British license fee payer was not seen to be subsidising a global information resource. For my part I would be quite happy to do that as I pay a bit towards Her Majesty and she's well respected round the world too.

William said...

In case you hadn't checked the Governors website recently they've since added the full webcast of the evening.

Having watched it I sadly have to agree with your comments on the audience and the line of questioning - though we are a democracy so who are we to pass judgement on what's important to other people.

Had I made the journey up I would probably have asked about the number of bits of the BBC that have been sold off or outsourced over the years - particularly in terms of technical and craft skills.

I'll certainly try and go next time.

Anonymous said...

The dominance of US content is also reflected in news coverage. We seem to hear way too much about US events - not enough about our near neighbours France and Germany and Denmark and Belgium and....

smorgasbord-design said...

If anyone can shed any light on the recent high number of visitors I'm getting from the BBC's internal forum: talk.gateway.bbc.co.uk I'd love to know what the post was about ... email john at smorgasbord hypen design dot co dot uk, Thanks!