Reversing strategy 

4 July 2010

Since the recently proposed BBC cutbacks (6 Music/Asian Network closures and website downscaling) were originally leaked to The Times newspaper ahead of publication, it’s unsurprising to learn of another ‘leak’ from The Times, which is now reporting that BBC Radio 6 Music has been awarded a stay of execution pending “more research”.

Edit: 6 Music has now been saved from closure by the BBC Trust, although this fact wasn’t clear at the time the entry was originally written.

(Because you now have to pay to access The Times website courtesy of the Murdoch paywall experiment, here’s a report from that provides some of the details.)

Of course the significant boost in listeners that 6 Music received as a result of all the closure publicity was perhaps the most significant factor that would trigger a climbdown, and any so-called stay of execution for “more research” probably alludes to waiting to see if 6 Music can continue to maintain its new-found popularity.

(The next set of RAJAR listening figures could be critical in this respect for the continuing survival of 6 Music, so don’t break out the champagne just yet.)

And if 6 Music is saved from closure, there’s still the question of what else will be cut back in order to make equivalent financial savings if required (however minimal in the grand scheme of things), especially as the BBC is now spending more than an additional £10m a year on leasehold costs for its recently-sold buildings.

A few individuals have claimed that the BBC has refused to grant freedom of information (FOI) requests relating to the supposedly ‘real’ reasons behind the 6 Music closure proposal, with the refusal apparently being personally signed by Sir Michael Lyons (the head of the BBC Trust).

It may be the case that the BBC should normally be permitted to withhold information if it relates to aspects of commercial confidentiality for whatever reason(s), but it’s equally arguable that if information directly pertains to the closure of public services then any right to withhold that information should be automatically waived in the public interest.

Closing any radio station is a major one-off, long term decision that’s significantly more important compared to (for example) the commercially sensitive, day-to-day scheduling decisions that surround BBC One television programmes in primetime, even if the latter occasionally gets screwed as a result of an ongoing turf war with ITV1 in particular.

Regardless of outcome, this still leaves us with what superficially appears to be a very poorly-written BBC Strategy Review document that wilfuly seems to ignore the real reason(s) why 6 Music was chosen for closure in preference to 1Xtra which did have a similar audience size and budget.

At least when compared to 6 Music, 1Xtra is musically less distinct and has direct commercial competition (Choice, Kiss, etc.) along with a degree of overlap with Radio 1, yet 6 Music was directly criticised in the report for similar reasons despite an overwhelming lack of real world evidence for such accusations.

This seems incredibly unfair, all things considered.

Given an absence of hard facts together with numerous questions that may never be satisfactorily answered, we’re left with nothing but speculation, which in turn leads us to the possibility that other factors may be at work here that have nothing to do with commercial strategy at the corporation whatsoever.

For example, it’s perfectly possible to conjecture that various government departments/security services could have privately told the BBC to keep 1Xtra operational in order to maintain some form of ‘establishment’ link with young Asians so as to reduce any risk of them being ‘radicalised’ (hence becoming terrorists) as a consequence.

Which is perhaps a reasonable assumption to make under the circumstances, but undocumented reasoning doesn’t provide any excuse whatsoever for the incredibly poor structure of the strategy review document that might have been caused by some last minute editing (perhaps certain sentences relating to 1Xtra were hurriedly removed).

So 6 Music may end up being saved, but any resulting impact on the rapidly diminishing credibility of BBC management may be harder to ascertain, at least in the short term.