HE actually said nothing we didn’t know already. But the clue is in the timing of his remarks.
BBC director general Mark Thompson made a speech earlier today warning that the corporation will be forced to abandon its £400m move to Salford if it does not get the licence fee settlement it needs.
That’s always been the case. But it does no harm to spell it out in public when a government announcement on the licence fee settlement is imminent – and the trailers are not looking good.
In a clear message to the government, Mr Thompson said “realistic funding” was essential.
“From the start, the BBC governors have made it abundantly clear that they would only approve the case for Salford if it could demonstrate robust value for money, and the licence fee settlement made it affordable,” he added.
And this is the crucial bit:
“Indeed, in the event of a low settlement, I would not even be able to recommend it to them. We would have to find other, more modest, ways of increasing our investment in the north.”
He went on: “I am very committed to the vision we have for a new broadcast centre in Salford. I believe it is right for the BBC. Right for the UK’s creative industries. Right for the north – indeed for the whole country.
“One of the reasons that our plans for Salford have been greeted so enthusiastically in the north is that our partners see the BBC’s potential move as a catalyst for the much broader development of the creative industries, not just in Greater Manchester but in the whole region.”
If the government failed to come up with the money, some difficult decisions would have to be made about the BBC’s future plans, he said.
His stark warning came against the backdrop of recent deliberate Whitehall leaks about just how much the BBC might get – not as much as it wants, or says it needs.
The BBC had asked for a rise of 2.3 per cent above the rate of inflation in each of the next seven years from April 2007. This could have led to an increase in the current £131.50 fee to £180 by 2014.
But in a new move, the BBC has now revised its bid down to an annual rise of 1.8 per cent above inflation.
Some 1,500 staff posts and five BBC departments are due to move to Salford in the second half of 2010.
The original cost of the move was said to be over £600m. That was later reduced to £400m and is due to come down still further.
What’s happening now is some tough talking, in which the BBC is attempting to put pressure on the government and apportion blame if it’s not able to proceed with all of its future plans.
It is believed the government may have been seeking a firm commitment from the BBC to create its MediaCity in Salford before the level of the next licence fee agreement was set.
This has been resisted by the corporation. BBC governors insist they must be the ones to decide if the project is viable – once they know how much money they have in the coffers.
They first have to decide if the Salford project is value for money and then move on to consider whether the plans are affordable.
Mr Thompson made his comments in a speech widely seen as his last public attempt to persuade ministers before they make their final decision on the licence fee.
And he again made plain that the BBC would face hard choices if the government failed to come up with the cash. “What happens, I’m sometimes asked, if you don’t get the money you’re asking for? What will drop off the end of the list then?”
BBC Sport, Radio Five Live, Children’s BBC, New Media and Learning are due to move to Salford, along with 1,500 staff posts now based in London and 800 staff currently working at the BBC’s Oxford Road HQ in Manchester.
BBC Boss: Why We Chose Salford