Clearly the future of the Central Office of Information, which has been around since 1946, is even more precarious than I – or I suspect its chief executive Mark Lund (left) – had imagined.
Not content with imposing an emasculating 40% cut on the COI’s 737-strong workforce, the Government is now openly toying with the idea of casting its eviscerated carcass onto the bonfire of the quangos.
The decision, which will not be finalised until the end of November, is in the hands of cabinet office minister Francis Maude. Maude’s views on the subject may readily be gauged by his recent actions. He has floated the idea of the BBC airing COI campaigns free of charge – presumably in place of the many self-indulgent programme trailers and cross-channel promotions which now clog our viewing. Indeed, he has gone further. Since media buying would, to the extent that campaigns are aired by the BBC and not commercial channels, become redundant, he has taken the logical step of opening negotiations with WPP over M4C’s £200m centralised media buying contract.
Strip out centralised media buying, and it is very difficult to see what else is propping up the rationale of the COI. Specialised consultancy advice? Increasingly unlikely. Such industry knowledge will be a rare commodity once the organisation has been cut to the bone. And if that is so, the road to dissolution begins to look like a four-lane motorway. As with other quangos facing the axe, any essential functions will be transferred to alternative organisations – here, the bigger-spending departments of state such as the DoH.
All this would be a terrible blow for commercial television (especially ITV, which carries the bulk of COI campaigns). But it is doubtful whether agencies (beyond M4C and the media buying community) would shed anything other than a few crocodile tears. Someone still has to make the ads; and Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide, has made it abundantly clear that his agency for one would be right behind the Maude proposal. Others may be more muted, but it’s unlikely they will disagree with him.
If Maude gets his way, it will be the realisation of a terrible irony. Previous COI ceos – namely Carol Fisher and Alan Bishop – have fought tooth and nail over the past decade, ultimately successfully – to suppress a secession by departments of state.
But will Maude actually go through with it? Don’t underestimate the BBC’s ability to kick up a stink over this: it doesn’t like the Maude Plan any more than ITV, although for a quite different reason. The whole issue threatens to become mired in a heated “public interest” debate, pivoting on the BBC’s impaired political impartiality. What with the brouhaha over BSkyB (to refer, or not refer, Rupert Murdoch’s bid), I doubt that the coalition government will have the stomach to take on an alienated ITV and truculent BBC as well. No doubt about it, though, it’s a thin thread the COI’s future hangs by.