Monthly Archives: March 2015

Should sacking Clarkson mean the BBC lose their charter?

With over one million people signing a petition for Jeremy Clarkson to be reinstated by the BBC, representing two thirds of the amount of people who watch an average show, and a 25th of the entire license paying public, should the BBC lose its charter for not therefore renewing his contract? Well the answer is obviously no. The BBC should not lose their Royal Charter and publicly funded status because of sacking a man who assaulted his co-worker. But the subject raises some interesting considerations in terms of the corporation and its responsibility to the public at large.

After the incident of the alleged assault, the BBC had to take action. There is no denying that Clarkson seems to lack self control and, after so many incidents with the presenter over a prolonged period, they had to stamp on his behaviour. He left them in an untenable position, but that a million people very quickly signed a petition to reinstate him clearly shows that the public thought he shouldn’t have been sacked because of it. What that actually means is that one million people couldn’t imagine a worthwhile Top Gear without him involved. They are right to think that, the idea of a Top Gear without Clarkson, and therefore without May and Hammond as well, would clearly mean that the show will have to undergo a reinvention. But the main consideration this raises here is, when should a publicly funded organisation, with responsibilities to the public at large, listen to a public outcry and when should they feel that they can go against the public opinion and act on their own beliefs?

The BBC’s Royal Charter details under what conditions it should be allowed to be publicly funded and the debate has raged for quite sometime about whether or not it still meets the requirements handed to it. The basic premise is that the corporation should produce a range of content to meet the large majority of the interests of the general public, catering for minorities, niche audiences and the general populous. This should be delivered under the three principles of educating, informing and entertaining. It is this foundation which means they operate multiple channels, with multiple focuses and run specialist radio stations that cater for Pop, Classical, News, Alternative Music, etc. It is also the reason why regional news used to be a key and substantial part of the news delivery on the BBC. For many decades the main reason for the Royal Charter was to make sure that the limited television service available to the public, limited to only a couple of channels, provided a variety of content that everyone could enjoy (at least parts of), rather than producing content that would only ever appeal to a small proportion of the population.

Whether or not the BBC should remain publicly funded is a debate that has raged on for quite some time. Since commercial television became a power, and freeview means that hundreds of channels are available and specialist content across these channels caters for almost everyone, there have been questions asked about whether the BBC continues to fulfil a vital roll. What is clear is that the corporation is no longer required to provide varied content simply because it would otherwise not be available. In fact, the reality is that people now get the vast majority of their specific needs from other networks and specialist channels that far better meet our taste needs. With this in mind, the BBC should be more focused than ever at producing content that meets their requirements under the charter. But are they? Do they meet the needs of the general public and are they even listening to the public? Are they even asking the public for their opinion? In my opinion the answer is no.

The nature of the BBC is that in so many ways it is an outdated institution that needs to be reformed. Many would argue they have kept current but that would be in their output, but in the way the institution operates it is still very archaic. At the end of the day they need to make sure they are meeting their objectives and they need to put the public first. That means listening, and not just to the one or two people who are writing in to points of view, but to every one of the 25 million license payers.They should be required to undertake a census style research program, which is a rolling project that aims to have feedback from the majority of their license payers. This would be the only way to guarantee they are on the right track.

A good example of this is the BBC news output, which in many ways you could argue is industry leading. But as I mentioned before, one of the major benefits for people in the past has been the regional coverage. This used to be a substantial part of the news broadcasts but recently has been reduced to a five minute bulletin like segment, which barely scratches the surface of local needs. To replace it they have increased coverage on things like major sports. It is a clear example of where the public have been put behind the pandering of executives to higher profile stories. It is also an example of where they are clearly not meeting their requirements under the charter.

The BBC needs to become a more agile institution rather than an old fashioned corporation. This means listening to the people it serves and having people in positions of authority who are new thinkers rather than old hands. This means reform and a change in culture. It is imperative that they become more independent, driven by opinion and less wasteful. And that means actually understanding what people want and what they need. It needs to be more regional and more on demand.

The problem with the BBC is that is sits in a system that has allowed it to stay stagnant and pretend it is evolving when below the surface it is not. It suffers from the same thing as the NHS, the rail network and the power network, where profits drive decisions rather than customer needs. All of these institutions need to be reformed. The public need to be put at the heart of their delivery rather than relying on the opinion of those who are out of touch, or have never been in touch. If a strategy of understanding actual needs was at the heart of all of these organisations then there wouldn’t be any debates about profit-mongering in the NHS or power suppliers not passing on cuts in prices. Perhaps one of the parties vying for government at the moment should focus on that, instead of arguing with each other over things that don’t really matter. But then, if there was ever an example of an institution that doesn’t actually listen to the general public, then government is it!

The art of copyright

Last week an American jury decided that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had breached copyright with their song Blurred Lines, by copying Marvin Gaye’s song Got To Give It Up. The official reasons were “for similarities based on inspiration and not replication” which sets a very worrying precedent.

The case was brought by the Marvin Gaye Estate,  and has been led by a group of lawyers who are reportedly pursuing a number of cases along similar lines. In this case it has resulted in the artists of the biggest selling song of 2013 having to pay in excess of £5million in compensation to the Marvin Gaye estate. After they’d won the case, Nona Gaye gave a teary statement where she said she finally felt free of the hold that Thicke and Williams held over them. It seems pretty heavy for someone who was only eight years old when her father’s song was released. I wonder whether she would have been so bothered if the court case had been against a small emerging artists and wasn’t worth over £5million to her!

Skepticism aside, the main issue here is that someone has lost a copyright battle not because they have replicated someone else’s work, but because they has been judged to have had similar inspiration. So they have lost not because they have copied Marvin Gaye’s work, but because they have had similar inspiration. In a world of art, where it is impossible to be completely original – there will always be similar works out there – the ramifications are huge. Does it mean that a composer who has never even heard another track before, but unwittingly produces something with similarities, has breached copyright? Similarly, if I was to be inspired by the sun setting over London and wrote a song about it, would I be breaching copyright for Waterloo Sunset based on inspiration? Ok, these examples are a bit silly, but the principle stands and now there is a legal precedent for any lawyer to see an opportunity for a quick buck.

This week on BBC Radio 4 they have been discussing the possibility that one of J.S. Bach’s Cello concertos might have been written by his wife, rather than him. The only suggestion of this is the interpretation by one man of the note scribbled on one of the manuscripts which says ‘written out by’ his wife. Anyone who knows about music will know this is referring to her work copying the original music out onto sheet, but it is a convenient opportunity for another conspiracy theory. Any competent cello player will attest to the consistency in style of the suite, which almost certainly supports that Bach himself wrote the piece. Why do I raise this? Well the argument is not dissimilar. The idea that one person could write something that was ascribed to another is not only plausible, it happens all the time. But similarly it is also possible for someone to compose something that is very similar, or in places the same, to another piece without ever having been exposed to the other piece.

The joy of the arts is that it is creative. It is inspiring to see and listen to and is inspired by a variety of things. When you start to apply limitations, such as the idea that inspiration itself can lead to copyright, then this will only serve to stifle that creativity. Copyright exists for very good reasons. It prevents people copying work and claiming it as there own – replication. But the idea that you could claim someone has copied your work because they were inspired by the same thing is ludicrous. It serves only the claimant and no one else.