82. New Directions for an Embattled BBC

Blog#82- New Directions for an Embattled BBC

I find it ironic that the BBC, which has enjoyed such an exemplary record in public service communications, now should be under fire from the Conservative Party in part because it has been so successful. The Tories have felt uncomfortable with its power and status. They attack the BBC for being too large, ineptly run, unaccountable and opposed to free market economics. Furthermore, the daily press, and the Murdoch papers in particular, add fuel to the fire because they view “the Beeb” as an overwhelming competitor that diminishes their falling sales. Such negativity is rattling the BBC which, when added to great pressure from other quarters, has called into question its survival in its present form.

To pay for its excellent services and its 20,000 workforce, the BBC is dependent on the £145 ($ 225) a year in annual fees paid by each household in the UK.This charge has become increasingly resented by many citizens who feel they are being taxed for a service they no longer really need or want. They can get all the news and most of their entertainment on the internet for free. Why pay for a tv service which may soon go the way of record players, telephones and bookshelves?

The rapid inroads of broadcasting technology are perhaps even more threatening.to the BBC. New “streaming” groups like Netflix are barging-in, with much more flexible and cheaper offers. Netflix , which was launched just 3 years ago, already has been subscribed by 4 million of the UK’s 27 million households. The new generation does not want to be told what and when to watch the news or entertainment. They want to choose and select freely- which is easy with their new apps.

Structural reforms to the BBC hierarchy itself also pose a further challenge, this time an internal one. A complex and supervisory Trust and the group’s management wing are ultimately responsible but currently lack clear direction. The BBC is a comparatively small player in an online world which is borderless and global. Apple, for example, is more than 30 times larger than “the Beeb.” The Corporation’s managers are unavoidably at odds with its commercial rivals, especially in the United States. The Corporation has been successful in introducing its technologically advanced” I Players,” but seems somewhat adrift in a world of media fragmentation. Although the BBC ‘s World Service reaches some 200 million people around the globe, BBC’s managers have to operate in ecosystems designed by those with profit-making motives far removed from the BBC’s founding principles.

The Beginnings

Admittedly, I have been an admirer of the BBC and its ethos all my life and an outspoken critic of what I see as a sold-out American system.(1)The BBC has more than fulfilled the early hopes of its founder and the expectations of radio enthusiasts in the 1920’s. The US has failed to meet the idealistic expectations of such pioneers as Robert Sarnoff who said that the air waves belonged to the people and should be considered like a public library system. That was not to be. An inexperienced but highly motivated and ethical Scot, John Reith, was recruited some 90 years ago to launch a radio service when only a few thousand Britons had radios. Reith was to give the BBC its grand purpose: “Its status and duties should correspond with those of public service…the BBC should be the citizen’s guide, philosopher and friend…and help to show that mankind is a unity and that the mighty heritage, material, moral and spiritual, if meant for the good of any, is meant for the good of all.” (2)

This, writes the presenter Melwyn Bragg, was, in effect, the BBC’s Magna Carta. (3 ) Bragg points out that “when the BBC has strayed from Reith it has faltered. When it has[followed] his convictions, it has prospered.” In his lifetime, Reith established the BBC’s reputation for impartiality in reporting, as well as excellence in the areas of music, education, information and entertainment, His success was made evident in the steady expansion of communications until the BBC reached around the globe via radio, television and, after his death, the world wide web. Many critics now contend that the Corporation has become altogether too large. *

Today the BBC is an international beacon of conscientiousness selling nothing but exerting an enormous influence on religion, politics, music and the arts. The range of ideas and tones embodied in its programming has created a sense of national identity. It has the trust of millions of listeners and viewers. Globally, its format has resulted in profound cultural changes which have transformed our lives. Together with the rest of mass media it has deeply affected not only our outlook but also the way we think. ( 4 )

Attacking the BBC

The commercial enemies of the BBC, like Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, have set out to destroy the BBC not only because they believe it detracts from their profitability but also because they see it as an alternative model to their kind of capitalism. The Murdoch press habitually runs stories and editorial comment critical of an “elitist” and “wasteful “ body. Intolerant market fundamentalists hold that profit is the ultimate goal and that this should apply to broadcasting. Thus Tory critics of the BBC focus on its market impact even if the air-waves used to belong to the people. (5) Supporters of the BBC counter that, in effect, it belongs to the millions who pay their annual fees to run this vast Corporation.

The United States have proven that market competition does not necessarily drive up quality when it comes to media broadcasting.The bitter truth on both sides of the Atlantic is that although theoretically the market ought to offer more appealing programming and better value, it doesn’t. The BBC’s place in the national life of GB is that it is an unmatched national treasure. The lack of its equivalent in the United States is a national disgrace. NPR and PBS attempt to fill a huge gap but continually plead for financial contributions in the face of perpetual Republican hatred and politically driven cuts.

The BBC also has become a battlefield in which the establishment fights vicious cultural wars. As the Corporation is funded by a politically negotiated Royal Charter, the BBC inevitably has a paradoxical and contentious relationship with governments of the day. “Independent as it strives to be in its journalism,… it is caught up in the dynamics of high power beyond any other broadcaster,” wrote Charlotte Higgins.( 6)

Bias at the BBC?

Four fifths of Britons receive their news from the BBC and it is more trusted than any other news provider. However the power it wields in reporting and analyzing the news of the day is counter-pointed by immense vulnerability. As Charlotte Higgins noted: ““the relative attention the BBC gives to a story, or a point of view, matters enormously. By casting a powerful beam of attention to a subject it causes that story to become important, an issue of national moment; and other news organizations follow its lead. If it turns its gaze away, the issue can etiolate and fade from public consciousness.”

Internally this results in contentious debates on how much time is given to the views of those who deny climate change? Or how to report the effects of austerity on the nation? Inevitably the BBC’s commitment to objective and impartial reporting has been resented by the government of the day. How far should the BBC take its news against a government which controls its fate ? Admittedly, at the highest level, the BBC is concerned with not offending Westminster. This is where impartial journalism comes into conflict with survival instincts. And there is a limit to its public accountability. For example, it was most unlikely that the BBC would have given coverage to Edward Snowden’s extraordinary revelations as The Guardian did in 2013. The exposures were deemed too sensitive and damaging to both the intelligence services and the government.

The consequence of its reluctance to break the news leads many critics on both right and left to believe the BBC is hesitant to offend the establishment and is taking “political correctness” too seriously. The truth is that the BBC is not risk-taking or confrontational like Jon Snow and Channel 4 News. Robert Peston, the chief economist of BBC Newsadmits: ”There is a risk-averse culture that means when the BBC wants people who can break stories it has to look to recruit from the outside.”

Because the BBC is often characterized as having an institutional bias to the left, what actually can drive BBC news editors to distraction is sensationalist coverage in the Daily Telegraph or the Mail. Over time the criticism of these newspapers that the BBC is too leftwing has struck a chord. So BBC editors feel under more pressure to follow up stories in the Telegraph while ignoring those in the more left-wing Guardian, such as its relative dismissal of the long running phone hacking scandal in the rest of the daily press.

Governing A Public Service

There is general agreement that the BBC has become a top heavy corporation with both a supervisory trust and a management board. The trust operates out of a separate building with its own staff and budget and is asked to be separate and distinct from the BBC itself but when things go wrong, as in the case of the Jimmy Saville sex scandal, the trust is blamed for events that were basically the responsibility of the executive. As Evelyn de Rothschild has written :”Legally the BBC is a ‘public corporation,’ floating between the market and the state with a supervisory board and a management board tasked to behave as if they were running a company facing huge challenges.” Rothschild suggested they should run the BBC as a company that pays dividends in viewing pleasure.(7)

The new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, who is undertaking a study of the BBC for the government, is being advised by a panel of experts who are likely to recommend scrapping the BBC Trust on the basis that this oversight body should not be housed within the corporation. A former chairman of the Trust, Christopher Patten, called the Whittingdale panel “a team of assistant gravediggers “ appointed to help “bury the BBC that we love.” Michael Grade, who has been an executive with the major television networks in the UK, has commented that “The whole governance debate from beginning to end is crap because governance is no substitute for judgment.”

Whittingdale told Parliament in July that “With so much more choice in what to consume and how to consume it, we must at least question whether the BBC should try to be all things to all people, to serve everyone over every platform or if it should have a more precisely targeted mission.” He hinted the BBC might be breaching its charter principles by claiming it needs to go after 90% of viewers. BBC officials admit that they do seek to make the good popular and the popular good. However, their most popular entertainment programs are those which are most criticized by the Culture Secretary. Numerous supporters of the BBC believe that the Tories are on the wrong track, that they should be endorsing the enormous global influence of their most important corporation. Indisputably, the BBC’s huge staff has been a key driving force in a vibrant creative sector of the media industry over the past forty years. This should be appreciated instead of attacked.

Where Next?

Conservatives in the UK would like the BBC to become not only smaller and less expensive, but also more middle of the road, conformist and comfortable with market capitalism. The problem for the BBC has been how to convince the right-wing politicians and the press that it’s programming is changing while at the same time assuring its multi-national audiences that it is not. An evolving BBC is likely, but will it reflect Britain in a different way? Change is on the cards and the BBC, as well as its audiences, will have to accept continuing mutability.

The BBC crosses cultural boundaries by integrating differing perspectives. Although the Tories may be in denial, the BBC’s impact has brought people and nations closer by supplying the background for greater social and cultural understanding. I believe that in some ways the BBC could emulate the path of that newcomer, the internet, which was launched as a free global means of communication. Indeed the internet might eventually provide the BBC as the route towards a low cost charge for some of its varied entertainment services. *

The BBC’s programs are building blocks for a larger body of understanding universally shared, Its offerings sway across cultural boundaries and develop an appetite for ever greater cross-fertilization. In many ways it could become a Cloud collaborator in a University of the World. Certainly its educational efforts have been appreciated as a powerful supporter of freedom of expression and planetary democracy. The BBC already encompasses many avenues of thought and disciplines which come together in its varied presentations to open the world to millions of listeners, viewers and readers. To further such advances, I believe the BBC could eventually cooperate with the United Nations to expand its outreach.

The BBC (in its entirety) should take pride in being an arena for responsible broadcasting in an era of chaotic social irresponsibility. The BBC stands for promoting understanding, excellence , information, and education in apposition to making profits with mind-corrupting commercials. Early on the BBC became a pioneer in creating a truly global organization while strengthening its regional UK services. This example should become universal. The desirable direction for the service is clear: The BBC’s international status should be strengthened and enlarged for the benefit of all. Towards that end it could eventually be leading a Global Broadcasting Network! This will only be possible because no other world body is now as trusted as the BBC News.

  1. ( 1 ) Yorick Blumenfeld, One Viewer, (1959)
  2. ( 2 ) John Reith, Broadcast Over Britain, (1924)
  3. ( 3 ) Melwyn Bragg, The Observer, June 14, 2015, pp. 34-5
  4. ( 4 ) Peter Watson, The Modern Mind, (2001) p.769
  5. ( 5 ) Charlotte Higgins, This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC ( 2015) Higgins, in her outstanding book on the world’s best broadcaster, has examined at length the BBC’s origins, its evolution, its place at the heart of the nation’s psyche and its survival in increasingly competitive era.
  6. ( 6 ) Charlotte Higgins, “Is the BBC programmed to self-destruct?” The Guardian, May 14, 2014. p.31
  7. ( 7 ) Evelyn de Rothschild, The Financial Times, April 18,2015
  8. * The domestic BBC services include: BBC1,2,3, & 4 TV as well as the BBC TV News Channel ; Radio encompasses Radio 1,2,3,4, & 5 live in addition to local radio stations across the country; It’s web entry is BBC Online
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