Quantity or quality - which way for BBC

As strike action looms, its charter awaits ratification amid fears of a soaring licence fee and it continues to adapt to the digital age, a sea of change is afoot at the BBC.

As strike action looms, its charter awaits ratification amid fears of a soaring licence fee and it continues to adapt to the digital age, a sea of change is afoot at the BBC.

It is at times like these - as they prepare to face the public amid a storm of controversy - that the governors must rue the organisation's status as a publicly accountable body. But after the events of recent years, most notably the David Kelly affair, controversy is something that they must be well accustomed to.

Over the past year they have met licence payers at public meetings in Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast. At each of the events the topics discussed have ranged from programme quality, impartiality to digital access and getting value for money from the licence fee.

Now, with 150 members of the public ready to take part in the annual general meeting at The Forum in Norwich, tomorrow, the corporation's chairman Michael Grade could have chosen a better time to claim top executives are “underpaid”.

Mr Grade said senior staff, including director general Mark Thompson who earned £619,000 last year, were working at a “discount” rate. This as unions prepare to ballot workers on strike action in an increasingly bitter pay row and despite last week's annual report revealing huge salary increases.

His comments - including: “It is difficult for staff dealing with not just a reduction in staff numbers but a transformation in the way of working at the same time” - were ill-advised to say the least.

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Some 10,000 BBC employees are to vote on whether to strike with union officials saying they were angered by the level of the salaries of top managers when most workers were being offered pay rises of 2.6pc. Unions are also opposed to plans to change the pension scheme and the loss of more than 1,100 jobs in the past year.

Although the public may sympathise with the unions, there may be mixed feelings about the streamlining of the corporation and the restriction of pay increases - after all this in an organisation paid for directly by the public and as such an organisation which must provide value for money.

If, as indicated yesterday by culture secretary Tessa Jowell, the BBC is indeed to be denied a rise of 2.3pc above inflation - amounting to a fee of more than £180 a year by 2014 - the public must accept difficult decisions need to be made.

It is perfectly consistent to oppose a significant increase in the licence fee while also opposing the apparent inequalities between executive pay and pay for the BBC foot-soldiers.

However, opposing that same licence fee increase while at the same time criticising Thompson's policy of cutting jobs and curbing costs, is a more difficult position to maintain.

The demands for a larger fee contribution come against a backdrop of change at the BBC and within the broadcasting industry as a whole and as such at a time when huge resources are needed.

With the switch to digital television and the associated increase in demand on programming, the governors and management would argue it is necessary to either cut costs or increase the charge - or perhaps both.

On face value this is legitimate justification. The question which of course remains is just how much value for money is the public getting.

The inflation-busting licence fee demand is largely justified by the cost of the digital switch. Roughly 25pc of the population is yet to make the switch, a figure which is undoubtedly higher in rural areas such as many parts of East Anglia.

In many cases this is not a matter of choice but a situation forced upon them by their location and lack of provision. In many cases it is the most vulnerable and isolated who are yet to gain access. Why should these people pay for the production of programmes they will never see?

Then there is the multi-million pound investment in BBC Local TV which promises to bring super-regionalised content. Does the BBC really have a remit to spend so much in an attempt to monopolise a market already well-provided for by a combination of its own regional offices and private companies?

At the same time the National Audit Office (NAO) is to be given the power to look into financial efficiency at the BBC. Ms Jowell said: “We are in discussions with the NAO about how we examine the BBC's future efficiency as part of the licence fee settlement so we can get an established baseline against which to judge the BBC's future efficiency programme.”

While a question mark hangs over the efficiency of the corporation, is it really legitimate to agree to pump more money into it? The public should first be satisfied their money is being spent properly before being asked to hand over even more of it.

The AGM takes place between 7-9pm. It is ticket only. The meeting will also be streamed live over the Governors' website, www.bbcgovernors.co.uk, and a summary of key themes and issues will be posted there after the event.