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Move to cut Last Night of the Proms after royal death ‘was difficult’ – BBC boss

The Guardian logo The Guardian 27/09/2022 Mark Sweney Media business correspondent

The controversial move to cut Last Night of the Proms was the most difficult decision made during the BBC’s extensive coverage of the death of the Queen, the corporation’s director general has said.

Tim Davie also said that the BBC licence fee – which is frozen at £159 annually for two years under the last settlement with the government - should have been boosted in line with the soaring rate of inflation despite the cost of living crisis affecting households across the country.

“The BBC should have had an inflation settlement,” he said, arguing that the licence fee model is still “there to beat” as the best funding mechanism for the corporation. “I would have liked inflation this year.”

In a wide-ranging interview at the Royal Television Society’s London conference, Davie also said the BBC is looking at further cuts, with the funding of the BBC World Service’s foreign language services cited as an example.

Davie said that the BBC had learned lessons from its coverage following the death of Prince Philip last year, when the corporation received more than 100,000 complaints and a backlash against the cancellation of programming such as Gardeners’ World.

“You always learn from past events – never, ever take off Gardeners’ World, ever,” he said. “One of my claims to fame is I generated the most complaints in 24 hours in TV history. We had enormous decisions decisions to make – do you put on Strictly Come Dancing, what do you do here, do you do satire.”

The BBC cancelled the last two nights of Last Night of the Proms out of respect for the Queen, who was a Patron of the Royal Albert Hall, although many thought it should have gone ahead as a tribute.

“Last Night of the Proms was the most finely balanced one. In the day the Premier League had come off [TV]. We were a little worried about broadcast trucks, there was an enormous amount to cover. That was a 50/50 call [taking Last Night of The Proms off air], we probably made the right decision, but you could argue it either way.”

Asked about further cuts to BBC services and programming Davie cited the future of funding of the BBC World Service.

The service is currently funded from the UK licence fee as well as some grant funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

“The World Service is growing, it is outstanding value for money, but there is a question,” he said. “We currently spend £250m to £300m of UK licence fee money on foreign language services. I think there is a question of who funds that. That is a question with the FCDO, who currently put in money. I do think it is something we should be looking at over time, in terms of how that funding works.”

Davie has previously said that the corporation will initially reduce licence fee spending on the World Service by around £30m by the start of 2023/24, but protect the full breadth of languages offered.

In a separate session Alex Mahon, the chief executive of Channel 4, pushed back against the assertion that the broadcaster should be more like Silicon Valley giants, saying that Amazon warehouse workers “have to wee in plastic bottles”.

Mahon’s comments are likely to put pressure on what has to date been a fruitful relationship with Amazon UK, which include striking deals with the US giant to jointly stream sports such as Emma Radacanu’s US Open final victory.

Amazon has also previously been a headline sponsor of Channel 4’s biggest show, Great British Bake Off, paying an estimated £5m in a one-season deal in 2018.

In an interview at the Royal Television Society’s London conference, Mahon was asked what her response would be to those that ask why Channel 4 can’t be more like the global tech giants such as Netflix.

“Is that what people say, we could be more like Amazon?,” she responded. “People in warehouses running around without toilets. They have to wee in a plastic bottle. I suppose that’s an option. That’s what happens in the Amazon warehouses.”

Workers and labour groups have long decried Amazon’s working conditions and high employee turnover amid high injury rates.

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