Is 6 Music really on death row? Nobody actually knows for sure, and speculation and paranoid rumour have been rife for some time. But it’s looking worse this morning than it did when I left the building at 10am on Wednesday. Well, the news broke last night, when the Times announced that 6 Music was to close and those that were still up went a bit nuts. The full story, by Patrick Foster, is here, but the thrust is this: the BBC will close two radio stations in an overhaul of services to be announced next month. The piece uses the word “will,” not “might” or “may” or even “is expected to”. Its unequivocal tone is what makes it so scary.
We all know that DG Mark Thompson is being forced to make cuts to appease readers of the Daily Mail and the Tory government-in-waiting, who think that the £3.6 billion annual licence fee is being wasted on some programmes and stations that they don’t watch or listen to. The bashing of the BBC has long been a national sport among the media conglomerates who control the Rest Of The Media, corporations with fingers in multiple pies that chuck money at redesigns and failed ventures every day but are only accountable to their shareholders. Because of what used to be called “the unique way in which the BBC is funded”, the private sector want the BBC to be cheaper and better and have the means to lobby for this outcome; the own all the newspapers. Any medium reliant on advertising income is suffering in the recession. They’re bound to be pissed off that one of their major competitors doesn’t have to rustle up ads. (Except the likes of Radio Times, for whom I also work, which is run out of the profit-making wing, BBC Worldwide, as a wholly commercial venture – more blurring of the public/private lines that started under the previous Tory government, who demanded the Corporation pay for itself. It’s since come under fire to making too much money. A lose-lose situation. Close some things down, quickly!)
The Times piece says, “In a wide-ranging strategic review, [Thompson] will announce the closure of the digital radio stations 6 Music and Asian Network and introduce a cap on spending on broadcast rights for sports events of 8.5 per cent of the licence fee, or about £300 million. He will also pledge to close BBC Switch and Blast!, leaving the lucrative teenage market to ITV and Channel 4. But BBC3, which is aimed at 16 to 35-year-olds will not be touched.”
The question is – and it really doesn’t matter in the broader scheme of things – how come Patrick Foster has read this report, which is due to be made public next month? There are jobs at stake here. This is not about me – I just freelance for 6 Music, and have been thoroughly enjoying doing so since just before Christmas – most of the people who work at the network, day in, day out, doing a death-defying job with less resources and less warm bodies than any other comparable 24-hour music network while attracting some of the biggest names in music and receiving full support of the record industry, are on staff, or contracts. I worry for these people first, and for the loyal listeners second, with my own interests a long way down the list. I am like one of those media conglomerates – I have fingers in many pies; that’s how the self-employed survive. To axe 6 Music and Asian Network – that’s two entire radio stations, think about that for a minute, it would literally strip away two options on your DAB – seems sensational to me. I understand that cuts must be made, and that you can make an argument for or against any of the digital services (“Why don’t they just shut BBC3?” say wags – but BBC3 is a fantastic training ground for new talent, whether you watch it or not – I don’t listen to Radio 3, but I want it to exist), but my guess is that it’s a lot less complicated to do the maths by chopping out entire organs than to put the body on a better diet.
The report has been drawn up by the BBC’s director of policy and strategy, John Tate, who apparently co-wrote the 2005 Conservative manifesto with David Cameron. I present that simply as a fact. It seems – if the Times has actually read the report – that BBC2 gets a budget hike as long as everybody stops spending money on posh imports, like Mad Men. Frankly, as long as somebody shows Mad Men, I can live with this. (Most of my US imports are watched on FiveUSA and Hallmark anyway.) I’d rather not watch it with adverts, but I can always wait for the box set, or speed through them – oops, look at me contributing to the commercial sector’s woes with the fast forward button Sky put on my remote control for me. It’s so confusing!
I thought 6 Music’s death had been greatly exaggerated, having emerged from the BBC Trust report with a clear brief: to ramp up the specialist music content. Brilliant. We can do that. (I speak as someone who co-hosts a Saturday morning show where the onus is very much on the other stuff.) It seems my optimism was misplaced.
Of course, we should all sit back and take a pinch of salt; the Times pieces is necessarily written and published from a stance of wishful thinking, and may not turn out to be gospel. Rupert Murdoch is easy to paint as the villain, as he’s foreign and he broke the unions and gave us Page 3, but he also gives me House and Caitlin Moran, and as a media ogre he’s no more against the BBC than whoever runs the Guardian Media Group, a media conglomerate to whom I happily give £1 every day, and more than that at weekends (I paid a pound!), and for whom, very occasionally, I work. I do the odd piece for the Times. I subscribe to Sky. It’s complicated. But I love the BBC to the very marrow of my bones and always have done. Anything that chips away at its authority, its creativity, its inclusivity, its ability to inspire, its mission to serve and its dominance in the specialist fields of excellence and stimulation is, to my mind, bad. If they’d announced that they were closing 1Xtra and CBeebies I’d be just as pissed off, and they literally do not cross my radar. It’s not just about my friends losing their jobs, it’s about a prevailing storm.
Batten down the hatches, lovers of diversity and cleverness. As I always say, those who seek to give the BBC a good thrashing for being a Communist and having some croissants at its meetings and paying really good presenters some money for doing their job will be the first to write to the letters pages of the Times and the Mail and the Telegraph when the Today programme is sponsored by Immodium Plus.