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BBC under pressure over staff levels, cost-cuts

BBC New Broadcasting HouseA UK culture ministry official has said that the BBC is not implementing cost savings at the same rate as other private and public sector enterprises, and added the government thinks the public broadcaster should play a part in reducing the UK deficit.

hugh harrisSpeaking at the Westminster Media Forum Future of the BBC event in London yesterday, Hugh Harris, director of media, international, gambling and creative economy at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, said that while the BBC had reduced staffing levels, it had not cut costs at the same level as other public organisations in the UK.

“In the first two years of the BBC’s efficiency programme there was a 1% reduction in headcount,” Harris (pictured left) said. “Clearly there are many other private sector and public sector organisations facing efficiency challenges that have looked more aggressively at issues around headcount.”

There is a fierce debate in the UK over the future of the licence fee, with many believing a settlement had been reached earlier this year, with the BBC getting an inflation-linked increase in the annual fee and the corporation, in turn, footing the bill for the free licence fee for the elderly in the UK. That transpired not to be the case, however, with culture secretary John Whittingdale saying the future of the BBC remains an “open question”.

“I would invite you to have a close look what was written in the agreement,’ said Harris. “Certainly the licence fee funding element of it was made conditional on the charter review into the purposes and scope of the BBC, so it is not as though any final decisions have been made around what funding the BBC will really need to have to fulfil its purposes, and that debate could end up going either way.”

Addressing the BBC covering the cost of the licence fee for the elderly, he said: “The governments view is that it is appropriate that the BBC makes its contribution to the deficit reduction. However the numbers play out, we’re about to have a spending review in a few weeks time, and I can tell you there will be plenty of bits of the public sector that are hit a lot more hard [than the BBC].”

A BBC spokesman defended the Corporation’s record: “Our savings record has been acknowledged by independent experts and we will be delivering over £1.5 billion of savings a year by 2017,” he told TBI. “There will be more tough choices ahead and we’ve already said we’ll be cutting 1,000 more posts by creating a simpler, leaner BBC to ensure we focus on what really matters – delivering outstanding programmes and services for our audiences.”

The government’s Green Paper (a preliminary report) into the future of the BBC has elicited 190,000 responses, the DCMS official said. It is looking at the future shape of the BBC and its funding. Harris said a key challenge is assessing whether the licence fee remains the ‘least worst’ option for paying for the BBC.

james heathSpeaking at the same event, James Heath (pictured, right), director of policy and charter at the BBC, said the licence fee covers the cost of 40% of investment in UK-originated content, despite accounting for 20% of overall TV revenue in the UK. He added the licence fee remains the best and most popular way of funding the broadcaster.

“We continue to believe that despite its imperfections the licence fee is the best way to fund the BBC, and the only mechanism that can retain a universal, independent, accountable BBC, investing in British creativity and delivering high quality programming at an affordable price,” Heath said.

“All long term polling shows public backing has grown for the licence fee over the charter period, not just our [research], but a poll of polls shows the licence fee comes out strongest and subscription the weakest.”