British Public Service Broadcasting

“When I was under house arrest, it was the BBC that spoke to me – I listened” – Aung San Suu Kyi

Poor Auntie Beeb!  These days it’s a defensive, long-suffering institution, revered by a fair smattering (especially those without a public service broadcaster providing independent quality outputs), but apparently despised by a fair number on all sides of the political fence.  The right tend to claim the Beeb is awash with lefty creatives.  The left view is that the alleged “liberal bias” is a smokescreen for subtle control of BBC output and views (see here.) Conspiracy theorists suggest it is an agent and mouthpiece of the state and the establishment, with which I agree only inasmuch as the coverage given to royal events goes way beyond the pail and is far more subservient than it deserves.

From my standpoint the fact that right and left criticise the Beeb for bias demonstrates clearly that the standard of interviewing is frequently strong and abrasive (though viewers would sometimes choose to couch questions in somewhat blunter terms), and the range of opinions cover a wide spectrum.  Good for Paxo interrogating all politicians and pricking their egos through well-directed questions, following in the great tradition of Sir Robin Day!

Declaration of interest time: personally, I am more than happy to pay the licence fee to enjoy BBC outputs without the bane of advertising.  For many stations that advertising is an economic necessity, and broadcasters argue it gives the audience a chance to nip out for a pee or to put the kettle on, though for me adverts are sufficiently annoying that I would go out of my way not to buy the products being advertised out of spite.  A great many on that side of the fence would choose to sell off chunks to private providers, reject the licence fee model in favour of advertising and/or various subscription options, of which more shortly.  Monolithic organisation in a multi-channel world, but for under 40p a day I would much sooner pay to keep the integrity and values of this wondrous organisation intact.

Let’s start by reviewing the BBC constitution to provide public service broadcasting.  BBC’s founding father, Lord Reith, summarised the role of the organisation in his original mission statement:

“educate, inform, entertain”

The BBC’s Charter has been updated at regular intervals to keep pace with the times, most recently in 2006, though that expires in 2016.  The BBC’s editorial guidelines summarise how the Charter impacts on its independence thus:

The BBC’s Editorial Values, and the Editorial Guidelines, are rooted in the Royal Charter and the Agreement.  The Royal Charter guarantees the editorial independence of the BBC and sets out its Public Purposes. These are defined as:

  • sustaining citizenship and civil society
  • promoting education and learning
  • stimulating creativity and cultural excellence
  • representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities
  • bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
  • in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

The Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter specifies that we should do all we can “to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality” in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy.  It also states that our output is forbidden from expressing the opinion of the BBC on current affairs or matters of public policy, other than broadcasting or the provision of online services.  The Accuracy, Impartiality and Politics, Public Policy and Polls sections of the Editorial Guidelines incorporate the BBC Trust’s code as required under Paragraph 44 (5) of the Agreement, giving guidance as to the rules to be observed in connection with Paragraphs 44(1) to 44(4) of the Agreement.

In addition, the Agreement forbids any BBC service funded by the licence fee or grant-in-aid from carrying advertising or sponsored programmes.  To protect editorial integrity and independence, the BBC has drawn up its own guidelines on standards for advertising and sponsorship for its commercial television and online services.

Given the breadth of its outputs and the different audiences for which it caters in each of its objectives, anybody would be hard-pressed to say they enjoy all BBC programming.  I’m not fond of soaps, quiz shows, reality shows or American sitcoms, though many others would sneer at the quality dramas, classic movies, historical documentaries and current affairs programmes to which I am drawn – takes all sorts, as they say.

Remember also that the BBC offers programming specifically targeted at “minority interest groups” (or market segments, to use marketing jargon) within our society, such as the Asian Network, Radio 1, CTTV, BBC Cymru and many specific magazine programmes targeted at smaller groups.  The sheer diversity is part of what makes the BBC what it is, and the fact that it is not governed by commercial interests influencing outputs promotes innovation.  That said, Lenny Henry has recently attacked the comparative lack of broadcasting by and for ethnic minority groups – see here.

Thinking specifically of any revised model under which the BBC operated with advertising or even on a voluntary subscription basis where number of viewers mattered most to revenue, these minority services would be under threat.  A great many would not care a tuppenny damn about that, but given the mission above the BBC has a requirement to be inclusive and provide services for all citizens, not just the majority.  It is a similar argument to bus services in remote areas – they may not be profitable, but without them the community could barely survive – and the Asian Network has already paid the price.

But traditional programming on radio and TV is merely one aspect of the equation – the goalposts are moving.  The requirement in recent for the Beeb to invest in innovative digital and online technology is providing a fresh challenge – though some consider this remit to be expansionist and getting away from the core values on which the corporation was founded.  Technology is expensive and also places the Beeb in commercial situations.  Should the Beeb “stick to the knitting” or develop a presence on every key platform?  Should services provided on new platforms be excluded from the licence fee and be self-funding?  Maybe the balance will tip when the Charter is renewed after the next General Election.

Against this backdrop, government has been waging war on what are seen as incompetencies and waste within the service – and it’s undoubtedly true that the Beeb has not helped itself in recent years with a series of scandals and cock-ups.  A full list is here, but in recent years they have included the appalling abuse by Jimmy Savile to which senior figures turned a blind eye, false accusations against Lord McAlpine and excessive severance payouts to disgraced executives. For that matter, News International and its executives are going through scandals relating to phone hacking, and the press is routinely sued for libel, but as a quasi-independent body created under the mantle of the state the Beeb must be seen to be whiter than white.

As for waste, I doubt the Beeb is any more profligate than any other corporate, but like many of those it has been on a thrift campaign for some years, wearing a hair shirt, penny-pinching on all activities and turning an introspective gaze on its own navel, losing a proportion of jobs in the process.  Part of the same process saw a reduction in internal commissioning and an increase in commissioning from third party production companies, making the BBC much more like the NHS in the new era of commissioning services.  That’s not simply my view but that of a friend who worked at a senior level in the Beeb for a some years.

Indeed, retrenchment is in the air with the recent announcement by new Director General Tony Hall that BBC3 will be axed online and instead become solely an online channel to save money.  BBC3 has celebrity backing in the campaign for its survival, just as BBC6 radio station won many influential supporters in its successful battle against closure.  Some services may win reprieves, but the focus will undoubtedly turn to what is necessary to operate within a budget.

Why is this necessary?  In the last round of licence fee negotiations, the government not only froze the licence fee (currently £145.50 pa for colour and £49 for black and white) but also saddled the Corporation with an extra £600m worth of costs in relation to services that were previously subsidised – and the grant-in aid for the World Service may well be the next addition to that list.  Furthermore, government intentions to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee have given rise to widespread fears that many people will simply not bother to pay.

Granted the Beeb does have additional income from selling the rights to its programmes overseas, of sales of merchandise and other products, and indeed of borrowing on the open market up to a maximum of £400m (restricted because technically BBC borrowings would appear within the UK national debt), where other broadcasters have no upper limit on borrowing, but in that climate a shortfall was inevitable and duly appeared.  Clearly the licence fee provides neither sufficient revenue on its own, nor does it satisfy those who regard it as a tax by any other name.  Some, like me, think of it as good value (as I say, less than 40p per day), but the future is undoubtedly heading for change against the backdrop of a government looking to cut costs and minimise state intervention.  So let’s consider a few alternative options:

  1. Strip back the BBC to its core radio and TV broadcasting, spin off additional services, operate solely within the licence fee.  Licence fees may rise marginally in the next round of negotiations as a step towards more radical restructuring.  Possible but unlikely, given the current mission to support all outlets and embrace technological change – including iPlayer to provide repeats, for example.  In any case, analogue is a thing of the past and all services are digital and interactive.
  2. The status quo is most unlikely to continue, so some form of hybrid model may be adopted to allow the BBC to supplement income through other means.  This could include hiving some services into premium channels via subscription services, for example, or finding other creative ways to charge for some services.
  3. Migration towards a full-scale compulsory “membership scheme” in which services would be offered either as a single package.  The difference is that the BBC Royal Charter could then be revoked and the service offered greater autonomy, have greater freedom to borrow, and ultimately become self-governing.
  4. Ditto but as a voluntary subscription service at different levels, similar to Sky TV, with premium services, advertising and commercial footing, but retaining independence.  This would be further removed from government control, but stop short of full-scale privatisation.
  5. The preference for the far right would be wholesale privatisation via the sale of shares in the BBC and for it to compete commercially on the same terms as, say, ITV, Sky and other broadcasters.

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that progress will be slow and steady via (2) towards (3) and ending in the longer term with something akin to (4), but we shall see.  However, the differentiation of the BBC from private providers must remain at all costs, a beacon in broadcasting standards.  How would subscription work?  And would radio stations broadcast adverts so each was self-sufficient and that we could access BBC stations from our car stereos?

As with many things, the words of Joni Mitchell spring to mind: “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”  While there are plenty who deride the BBC for what it is and what it does, to very many viewers it truly is the envy of the world.  Elsewhere there are plenty of examples of state-owned broadcasters that simply provide unquestioning propaganda, and on the other side of the fence cynically deliver what advertisers demand in exchange for the fattest cheques.

More to the point, if the BBC were required to provide dividends to shareholders it is most unlikely that anything like the same investment in quality drama or cutting-edge investigative journalism would be permitted to flourish.  Would smaller channels invest in quality period drama like I, Claudius, Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and hundreds more (see here for a few) – all the stuff that is now endlessly repeated on the same smaller channels?  Undoubtedly not.  Would private providers fund the years of painstaking work that goes into David Attenborough‘s wildlife series, even if they were subsequently bought by every network across the globe?  Very unlikely!  Would other broadcasters have groomed for stardom a stream of the greatest talents in broadcasting through innovative shows like Monty Python in the late 60s and early 70s?  Never!  The alternative would be to fill the airwaves with even more cheap imports and substandard reality TV shows.

And ironically enough, a good number of the many channels now available fill their airtime with… BBC repeats.  This week alone I’ve seen old episodes of Jonathan Creek on the Drama Channel, and Floyd and Michael Palin‘s Around The World In 80 Days on the Travel Channel, and that is the tip of the iceberg.  Why do they do that?  Because the Beeb has always made some ripplingly great content, that’s why.

We should be grateful for the fact that Auntie Beeb, for all her faults, has given us and continues to give us many national treasures and institutions.  More than that, a substantial part of our heritage.  People of my generation were brought up on Blue Peter, Top of the Pops and many more iconic series.  The world may have changed and public service broadcasting with it, but this is an opportunity to provide reinvention for our venerable broadcaster to set high standards for coming generations.

Without a well-funded BBC there would be a massive drain in broadcasting quality, but the worst of all worlds would be if ever the UK reached the position the US now finds itself in with blatant bias from a privately-funded network like Fox News.  For me that is an eventuality worth paying to avoid.

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