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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

No more downloads from the BBC

By Norman Lebrecht / February 7, 2007

There is a conflict of opinion in the upper corridors of the BBC. The optimists are saying, ‘things are not as bad as they were after Hutton.’ The realists reply: ‘that’s right – they are much worse.’

Lord Hutton’s verdict three years ago into the circumstances surrounding the death of deep-throat Ministry of Defence official David Kelly swept away the BBC’s director-general and chairman, and left the corporation dangling in a storm of Blairite bile. But there followed a counter-wave of public support that forced the politicians to back off, saw Michael Grade made chairman and Mark Thompson director-general and steered the BBC to a plateau of safety with the ten-year renewal of its royal charter.

That was then, this is now. Grade quit two months ago in disillusionment with the new governing set-up to join the rival ITV, Thompson failed to secure the level of funding he said the BBC needed and the public responded negatively to his inflated licence-fee bid. No candidate with insider cred has emerged among the 23 applicants who want to chair the revamped BBC Trust, which has replaced the Board of Governors. The future has never been so uncertain and the mood upstairs at Broadcasting House, already bleak, is about to get a lot darker.

A week ago, in a little-noticed ruling, the headless BBC Trust, chaired for the time being by Chitra Bharucha, a Northern Ireland clinical haematologist, sent up a signal of how the BBC will be administered in the years ahead. Rather than being broadly supervised by laisssez-faire governors, it is to be regulated by knuckle-rappers who will rein in the BBC from entering public controversy and unfair competition, stifling its freedom of action.

The question facing the Trust last week was whether the BBC could continue offering free downloads of music and programmes, a key element in its I-player internet strategy. Ofcom, the state regulator, had already pronounced sombrely on the matter, warning that certain types of download - such as book readings and classical concerts - posed a potential threat to commercial operators. Books, said Ofcom, should be excluded from downloads and, as regards to music ‘the BBC should specify much more tightly the range of classical content they propose to make available.’

That seemed fair enough. Radio 3, which scored 1.4 million hits for its Beethoven downloads in 2005, took note of the caveat and limited itself to planning free single movements and short extracts to accompany its Tchaikovsky week – akin in length and lightness to what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call ‘musical lollipops.’ The record industry had no objections. The trust, however, cracked down.

In a ruling that is literally incomprehensible, Dr Bharucha and her chums argued that – contrary to the Ofcom statement – ‘it was Ofcom’s view that classical music should be entirely excluded.’ All Ofcom actually said was that the BBC should ‘specify’ its range of classics, but that was not enough for the policemen of the Trust.

They have decided that there must be no music downloads from Radio 3 any more, despite their overwhelming popularity and the fundamental justification that since the public pays for BBC orchestras it should be entitled to access their work. It means, for instance, that Radio 3 cannot continue with such admirable educational tools as ‘Discovering Music’ which is aimed at schoolchildren, or offer free extracts from the British Composer Awards which introduce rising talent to a wider audience.

The ruling effectively chops the legs off Radio 3 in a fluid market where record magazines, national newspapers, orchestral websites and any Tom, Dick and Harry in a back bedroom can all offer classical music for free. Only the BBC is forbidden to do so, clamped in chains by the very Trust that is supposed to supervise its best interests.

The ban will not go through without a fight. It is, as the pen-pushers put it, ‘subject to consultation’ and there are indications that Mark Thompson, privately a classical fan, will put a strong argument to the next chair of the BBC Trust whoever that may be.

There is also the voice of the listener to be taken into account. Protests have started sputtering on the Radio 3 message board and there is an address - - for the public to tell Dr Bharucha what it thinks.

Whatever the outcome, though, this marks the beginning of a new era for the BBC, an age of clipped wings and shortened horizons in which inexpert individuals appointed by an interfering government will destroy vision and make producers work to rule.

It hardly matters who becomes chair of the Trust. A restrictive precedent has been set, and it substantially limits the BBC’s operating freedoms in the decade ahead.



CD of the week

Bruckner: 7th symphony Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (ATMA Classique) ****

This is the finest Bruckner I have heard from a young conductor since Franz Welser-Möst started shaving. The Canadian in charge is 31 years old and has just been appointed to succeed Valery Gergiev in Rotterdam. He shapes the gigantic Adagio at the heart of this work, a tribute to the dying Wagner, with austere and respectful restraint. The performance as a whole is marked by a fastidious refusal to emote and a structural certainty that seems uncanny in a maestro of such little experience. Within the massive score, he teases out decorative details from the woodwinds and lower strings, cleaning up the old warhorse as if it were about to run at Ascot. The opening of the finale is positively frisky and the playing of Montreal’s second orchestra is flawless, world-class. Nézet-Séguin is unquestionably the talent to watch. He makes his London debut at the South Bank on March 9; miss it if you dare.

Norman Lebrecht

>Buy this CD at S.R.I.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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