ETN: Do You Know Enough About Your Trade Association?

It should be safe for me to assume that you have some idea of the existence of BETA. It may be something of a leap to expect that, as a consequence, you’re reading this as a representative of a BETA Member company. I hope you are but you may not be. You may not even know, one way or the other. Whether member or not, do you feel confident that you know enough about the body that represents your industry?

I sat on the BETA Council for over twelve years and, to me, it’s a quintessentially British institution that manages to combine world-leading expertise and professionalism with a noble, amateur ethos. Like Schrödinger’s cat, it exists simultaneously in a competitive environment and the realm beyond mere commerce. It’s a benefit-laden private members’ club, an upholder of safety standards and a powerful lobbying force for an entire industry. It stands up for the interests of the retailer and also those who would supply them, even when the two positions can seem incompatible. BETA is, in many ways, a litany of contradictions that defy simple definition. For all of these reasons, it seems that it has an unrivalled capacity to polarise opinion, “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t”.

BETA_only_colourI’ve met non-members who’ve claimed it’s an ineffectual body that’s happy to charge for membership but offers little value and questioned if they’d done enough research to justify that position. I’ve also encountered staunch members who were frustrated at the limits of BETA’s influence or what they deem to be its over-inclusivity and wondered if they think they’re paying to be part of a cartel. Like the BBC, BETA only seems able to demonstrate its impartiality by displaying an uncanny ability to court equal dissatisfaction from all sides – which, when you think about it, takes some doing.

To me, it’s a telling comparison because there are lots of similarities between the two institutions. I love the BBC but I’m well aware that there are many who do not. I’ll be the first to admit the Beeb is not perfect but I wish it wouldn’t spend so much time justifying itself to those who happen to dislike paying for it. Of all the taxes I’ve ever paid, my ongoing contribution to maintaining it is the one I make the most gladly. Having done so, I still accept that merely buying a TV licence gives me no divine right to complain the second the schedules include something I might not want to watch, however expensively-produced. The BBC is consistently included in independently-compiled lists of the world’s most-trusted brands and it seems to command a level of affection overseas that’s wholly disproportionate to its reach and appeal. Does any of this sound familiar?

There’s also the issue of ‘mission creep’ in a changing world. Yes it’s important to have a clear vision of one’s raison d’être from the outset but robust self-definition can be a hampering factor when changes occur that the writers of the constitution couldn’t possibly have foreseen. The BBC’s website has undergone several culls of material since deemed ‘non-core’ to its Reithian principles in order to demonstrate value and retain overall relevance. Equally, BETA has had to exercise some re-enlightenment from time to time to accommodate an explosion in the number of forms of selling. Both institutions must also tailor their offering to a changing demographic, continually challenging all the safe assumptions of the past. In the case of ‘Auntie’, it’s all about ensuring minority communities are commensurately given a voice. Similarly, today’s less stereotyped horse world must be more effectively understood and represented. I remember one particular late-night debate at which I argued about the dangers of BETA aligning itself too closely with the pro-hunting lobby simply because that’s what it had always done.

And then there’s the issue of what BETA doesn’t do. When commercial disagreements occur between parties, I’m afraid “it’s business”, governed ultimately by the law of the land. There’s obviously a limit to what BETA can do in such disputes. It can advise its members but don’t expect it to stand in binding arbitration. BETA can’t enact any level of direct enforcement beyond rescinding a membership – and even then only where clear infractions have occurred.

I suppose the most easily-thrown hand grenade is the belief that BETA is somehow a secret club, more interested in its own self-enrichment than fulfilling any greater purpose. Again, just like the BBC, BETA’s stakeholders are entitled to regular disclosure of all the finances, something that, oddly, most conspiracy theorists seem not to have taken the trouble to establish. When I was first invited onto the Retail Committee by BETA’s founding father, Antony Wakeham, he promised me no benefit from my involvement beyond “altruism” and, I have to say, he was true to his word. For each meeting attendance, I was able to claim the princely sum of £35 in expenses – if you think that’s a sign of a gravy train, try getting from Wigan to London and back for that amount!

We live in an age where information has never been more freely available so there’s really no excuse for not knowing more about BETA and what it can do for you. As this is an opinion column, I’ll end by giving you mine: BETA is run by a dedicated team of talented, knowledgeable people, led for almost twenty years by, Claire Williams, who, I assure you, is nothing less than an absolute star. It is guided by a broad selection of highly-experienced, poorly-rewarded Council and Committee members who, above all else, care deeply about the future of your industry – perhaps occasionally, a little too much. BETA may not be perfect, it may cost a little more than you’d prefer and it won’t ever be a panacea to cure all ills but it’s what we have – and, I might add, it’s an asset much-envied by those in many other industries. Please don’t ever take it for granted.

BBC: Britain’s Biggest Controversy?

– Oh, he’s not going off one one about the BBC again, is he?

Well, yes I am, I’m afraid.  Normally, I’m motivated to assault my keyboard (and your attention) by the need to defend dear old ‘Auntie’ in the face of some current slight or attack on her being.

This time, it’s slightly different.  My trigger to this particular polemic is not to decry the latest piece of perceived BBC-bashing: the Government’s insistence that all BBC employees earning over £150,000 must be listed in the interests of ‘transparency’.  Much as I love the BBC and I’m suspicious about the thinking behind this development, I happen to agree with the idea.

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It’s right of course that taxpayers can see how their c.£3.75 billion is spent each year but it’s hardly fair to infer from that that the BBC has been utterly opaque about its finances until now.  For many years, The BBC’s Annual Reports have been available to download and/or read for anyone with an internet connection and enough inclination/nosiness so to do.  This year’s version runs to 168 pages of often glossy prospectus-like self-promotion but as ever, it is required to include a high degree of financial information.

This compulsion to transparency, I imagine, is both a blessing and a curse to the BBC Trust.  For example, thanks to the report, we can find out that the Beeb spent an astonishing £45.5m on Human Resources (HR) over the last year, up from £43.1m the year before, both seemingly massive numbers.  With a total income of £4.8bn last year, this HR figure amounts to almost 1%, which seems much less significant.  Whether or not you believe this figure is still far too high is of course up to you, but either way, you’re better informed by having this information available to you – as you would be, either way, by knowing that Gary Lineker, Claudia Winkelman et al are this band or that above £150k pa (the declarations will be in bands of 50,000: £150k-£200k; £200k-£250k etc.).

As with any form of information, it’s fair to say that the information alone is not the whole picture.  There is also context.  For instance, the BBC Report shows that the World Service is currently costing licence fee payers £261m and the cost of actually collecting the licence fee come is at around £115m.  So what?  Well did you know these two areas were, until recently, not covered by the licence fee but by other parts of the Government?  Some might say that it was a rather underhand trick to suddenly burden these liabilities on the corporation without allowing any recompense.

Equally, you might take the view that these things were already being paid for by your taxes anyway so what difference does it make what part of the public purse they come under?  That’s a fair point but it’s also then rather harsh to draw too many conclusions about the Beeb’s levels of like-for-like efficiency when these two new overheads account for around 10% of the licence revenue.

There’s also a point to be made here about the fact that most of the £115 fee collection costs (which, let’s face it, are likely to be mostly comprised of pursuing dodgers) are being borne by us, those who do pay our licence.  It’s non-payers we should be directing our ire towards for this, not the BBC for being forced to include the provision in its accounts.

With effectively a £380m millstone placed around its neck, it was hardly surprising that the BBC wasn’t able to stop The Great British Bake-Off defecting to Channel 4 earlier this week.  If only the Corporation had had to spend ‘just’ £105m a year on stopping licence-dodgers, it would have been able to fund the £10m shortfall to keep one of its most popular programmes of recent years.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps it was not just the increased cost that did for the GBBO contract; it was more the fact that the increased cost would have been scrutinised because of the BBC’s ever-heightened commitment to transparency.  It can be argued that the loss of a flagship programme was therefore the right thing to happen and a sign of responsible management and cost control.  Will Channel 4 manage to maintain the quirky-yet-comfy style of the departing Mel & Sue?  Will Paul & Mary judge the new format to be too crummy for their taste?  Will the inevitably fully-laden ad breaks ruin it?  Like the contestants, we’ll have to wait to see how it turns out.

I suspect that, on balance, we’ll miss the BBC version and, in its absence, our hearts should grow fonder for the Corporation that bestowed it on us in the first place.  The same goes for the other divide-crossing crowd-pleaser The Voice.  Auntie Beeb has a proud history of conceiving and developing formats into a mind-boggling list of national treasures from Watch With Mother to Strictly Come Dancing – and far too many in between for me to reel off.  There’s no reason to believe that it isn’t capable of creating something else, just as popular – or even better.

I think Stephen Fry best stated the BBC’s value during his 2008 lecture on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting (it’s well worth watching all 43 minutes but the bit I’m quoting comes right at the end) when he makes the point that, in some other countries, there seems to be enough funding for enriching floral displays on roundabouts, posing the question “why don’t we do that?  How pleasing.”  The point is that such countries can afford to do it  because they choose to make it a priority.  He likens the BBC and its core values (to educate, inform and entertain) to a million such roundabouts and something which we as a nation can agree that we can afford – and if we don’t we may only truly discover its value when it’s too late to recover.  I’ve seldom agreed more with anything else I’ve ever heard or read.

Oh, and one more thing: if the Government’s recently-renewed thirst for transparency is to be the driving force behind another requirement of the BBC’s proberty, we taxpayers must then surely look forward to a similar, consistent, ascending commitment to demonstrating value and equal transparency when it comes to the rest of the Public Sector.

I’ve blogged before about how voters should be given the same consideration as shareholders, with all the access to structured reporting that that entails.  Thus we can eagerly await similar levels of dedication to scrutiny in the case of NHS (with a c.£100bn expenditure, a 214-page report, a lesser amount of financial information and salary information pertaining only to its Board members.) and after that, who knows: Parliament, the Armed Services, the Civil Service, the Police, the Prison Systems and, one might presume, all the privately-owned organisations that depend on Public Sector contracts for, let’s say, 50% of their revenue.

Or would it be too cynical to suspect that that won’t happen?

Archived: If You Must Complain, Do The Math(s) First!

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:12

Every so often, a story arises that supports my own adage that ‘common sense isn’t that common’. Here’s this week’s new entry:

As you may know, last Saturday was a wall-to-wall Six Nations day on BBC1. Having expensively acquired the rights to cover the tournament, the BBC naturally wanted to extract maximum value for its (make that our) outlay. In days gone by, the games were, rather quaintly, held simultaneously. This of course divides up the viewership over the 80 minutes and requires multiple channels to cover all the games. Obviously the Beeb wanted a better solution than this and presumably, it was agreed during the negotiations that the fixtures would be staged consecutively. A broadcaster-friendly format benefits the paying TV company but it also gives maximum exposure to the tournament.

What we arrived at, then was the inevitable succession of games strung together across the afternoon/evening. Now I’m not a big fan of Union. I’ll watch the odd England international but not that intently. I do however accept the fact that there were three matches on in a row, decided not to watch them and I got on with my life.

What I couldn’t believe was that 124 people complained about this to the BBC. They responded by pointing out that a combined 15m viewers watched the three matches – and then that they apologised anyway!

How arrogant would you have to be to moan at the BBC because they’re not showing something you like on just one of their channels? You can safely assume that scheduling decisions are made for ratings purposes and that viewers will always outnumber complainers overwhelmingly so you can never expect to be in a majority. Of course, you may seek to gain the moral ground of having registered your dissatisfaction but if you’re only posturing, why the hell should anyone else listen to you or take you seriously?

Compare the maths with the 2005 UK General Election. A total of 27.1m people cast their vote, a factor of 1.806(rec) of last weekend’s 15m viewership. The 124 complaints similarly scaled therefore equates to 224 votes in the last election. Not only is that less than half the representation of any party in 2005, it’s only 3.5% of the figure that voted Monster Raving Loony and less than a fifth of the number who voted Communist – and they still got an apology!

Continuing the politeness, the BBC’s Director of Sport, Roger Mosey attempted to draw a firm but diplomatic veil over the issue in his blog. I know we’re/they’re paying his wages and I understand he’d like to avoid appearing unprofessional in any way, but it’s gone far enough. I don’t mind saying it for him:

If you don’t like something on telly, turn it over or turn it off. If you do like something, bear in mind that perhaps not everyone else will. You have no credibility in complaining about sport one minute but expecting us all to watch yet another panel-based ‘celebrity’ format talent (sic) show the next. Guess what? In the real world, all but 9.16m of the country (on 19/12/07)didn’t watch Strictly Come Dancing, but mostly we’re intelligent enough to know that there’s a ratings reason why it exists. We mostly find something else to watch or maybe even do something else.

It may be called Auntie Beeb, but this lot would seem to think of the BBC as more of a nanny. Grow up you sad acts!

Incidentally, I’d love to know what the Male/Female and Age Range split was of these 124 whingers. Please speculate at will… 🙂