Regulation

Strictly Comes the new BBC

I have a love-hate relationship with the BBC.

Love its shows. Whether it’s Attenborough, Match of the Day, Night Manager or Newsnight on TV and Danny Baker on Radio 5 Live. And it’s mostly impartial politically.

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Tell me straight Tom: will the government keep the Beeb independent? Dunno, Hugh.

But hate its arrogance and waste. When making announcements at several previous employers, I was called sometimes by up to five BBC journalists asking exactly the same question within a few minutes of each other. Then there was the presumption that its pre-eminent status would always demand the first interview. I took these as symptoms of wider profligacy and self-importance. (And that was not just me swallowing the Sky propaganda for which I was responsible for a few years).

So, at first glance, today’s government proposals on the BBC go some way to remedy this.

There’s to be a much tighter Whitehall rein than before with six people appointed by government to a new Board of twelve or more people to steer overall editorial direction. Ofcom, my old employer, gets to regulate the Corporation. The National Audit Office is handed the accounting role.

With a new mission “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high‐quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain”, over 60% of its shows are to be put out to tender so its in-house creatives are kept on their toes.

But the debate will centre not on which luvvies’ feathers have been ruffled by this but on editorial independence free from government interference.

Sceptics will ask, at its crudest, will so many government appointees really allow probing factual and news programmes which might embarrass the very government which appointed them?

Can pioneering shows like Panorama and Horizon feel confident they can keep exposing failings of public policy that make Ministers look shifty and uncomfortable?

No government would be foolish enough to simply appoint a raft of its own Party stooges onto such a Board to achieve this. Even in the bygone days of BBC Governors, Tories always appointed a mainstream trusty Labourite and Labour put a housetrained Conservative on the broadcaster’s ruling body.

So now the Government has to prove that it wants independence by appointing people beyond its own partisan ranks with a record of understanding the rapidly shifting broadcast and digital landscape combined with an awareness of business, regulation and reputation.

Like for Channel 4, the government could even delegate the appointment role to Ofcom. It now regards the body as “the widely respected and experienced media and telecommunications regulator” when, in opposition, Mr Cameron threatened “With a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist.”

Only with genuine independents with a diverse range of backgrounds and skills will it have the strict rules in place to ensure the Beeb keeps being trusted and stays relevant.

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Plotting a safe regulatory course

Google has been in the news this week with the EU issuing antitrust charges over alleged abuse of its dominant position with its Android operating system. Luckily it had Microsoft’s earlier tussle with Brussels on similar charges to draw on.

It also has its own superb team to handle such matters. They’ll be busy in the next twelve weeks.

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How close to the regulatory wind can Google sail?

The online giant knows ignoring regulation destroys businesses. If your CEO relegates its management to a remote part of the company, s/he’s going to be moved on pretty sharpish.

I have been a regulatory poacher and gamekeeper. Fishing for a break from competition authorities to reward enterprise when at places like Sky and Millicom, and forcing through changes to help markets work more fairly when working at Ofcom.

It requires a lot of intellectual heavy lifting. I recall one very senior official telling me that part of the regulator’s job was to know more about the companies overseen than the companies knew themselves. That’s why his organisation was stuffed full of PhDs and MBAs (who often then got poached to the poachers’ side) who dug deep and thought hard.

Back inside the company, smart lawyers and economists ran models demonstrating the fairness of its commercial stance and the iniquity of our competitors’.  I’ll never forget the CEO’s 7am call to me from an airborne plane to say we’d been let off, just, by the competition regulator after an inquiry. There was only a cosmetic wrist slap and some grandstanding to endure.

We were a basis point away from further action – showing just how well-tuned the business was. My CEO had made sure that the regulatory team were fully across all the firm’s activities and embedded knowledge and practices there to avoid fines, disposals and public opprobrium. So the company maximised profits by sailing as close to the regulatory wind as allowable without capsizing and drowning it in ruinous anti-trust penalties.

But such scrupulous management is not enough by itself. Demonstrating strict adherence to the rules to investigating authorities is indispensable. But too narrow a legalistic approach can weaken the case. Compliance needs to be matched by smart communications too.

One barbed remark, from a super-smart senior colleague managing such matters at one company, highlighted this for me as a communicator by asking “What value are you adding to the company on this exactly?”.

I was quite offended. But, on reflection, it was fair. He had a very dim view of the press and media. He had supreme confidence in his own intellectual ability and a sneering attitude to his peers at the regulator. He believed only his team’s objective evidence would be admissable and would win the day with them.

I did the autopilot speech about broader strategic reputation management also subjectively influencing such matters. Such soft talk met with derision.

So I took him by a reluctant hand to do some tactical briefings for broadsheet and business media whilst gently turning up the volume on our innovation and others’ competition. It was the classic convert opponent-to-neutral and neutral-to-support operation. The fruits of such labour duly appeared: less hostility and even some signs of support.

That, with many other activities, made the job of the regulator easier when adjudicating our case. They’re not purely po-faced pointy-headed institutions. Even they have a persona and care how they are perceived. The “public” ground had been prepared sufficiently well to enable it to make a reasoned judgement without being accused of bias or incompetence.

Of course we protested at its suggestion of any anti-competitive behaviour just as our rivals complained too. Result: happy regulator, not pleasing anyone and thereby being seen as fair and impartial.

That’s the course Google will be plotting. Stand by for some clever comms from them in the next few weeks as it deploys its considerable firepower. Anchors away!