It is easy to become frustrated with the BBC. On the right, the complaint has always been that the corporation is an overmighty behemoth staffed by overpaid lefties. In more progressive circles, there has recently been anger over the time devoted to climate change deniers (such as Nigel Lawson) and pro-Brexit positions. A serious disparity between the salaries earned by male and female employees has been a justified focus of criticism. It is right to hold this publicly funded organisation to account; it is right to pace the ramparts of its impartiality and independence. It is also right to keep a steady eye on what areas the BBC should operate in, and where it should draw back to allow other voices to flourish, whether they be local newspapers, the national press, or independent podcasts.
Nevertheless, however tempting it may be in the moment to taunt it as the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation” (or whatever the current anxiety may be), it is also right to take the long view of the BBC. That must surely mean defending its importance as a bastion of the UK’s democracy, culture and identity. The BBC was formed from a set of enlightened decisions taken during the birth pangs of broadcasting. In 1925, three years after the BBC was founded, the Crawford parliamentary committee took the view that the new wireless technology was so powerful and precious that on the one hand it ought not to be controlled by the state, and on the other, not abandoned to the market. And so the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation, to be run in the public interest. It would be financed by the licence fee rather than taxation, and so protected from the daily ebb and flow of party politics.
If one considers the conditions of the world we live in now, these decisions look especially prescient. Today, this promise of broadcasting in the public interest means not commodifying your data against your will, or giving you fake news. The threats to democratic discourse presented by the filtering of information via the algorithms of multinational companies have become obvious. We are beginning to digest how politics (in Britain and overseas) may have been influenced by the use of data acquired on Facebook and elsewhere.
But the BBC is vulnerable. For 40 or so years in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the television was the hearth around which all Britain gathered. It was the carrier of a common culture. That is no longer true. UK public-service broadcasting (including from Channel 4 and others) still accounts for 70% of content seen by audiences in Britain, but providers such as Netflix and Amazon are claiming more and more of viewers’ attention. The BBC is also gradually waking up to the fact that 16- to 30-year-olds are rapidly drifting away from it, as a recent speech by Tony Hall acknowledged.
This is bonanza time for audiences: never has there been so much high-quality material available to watch, whenever we like. But our voracious appetite for content should not blind us to the preciousness of the BBC, which has time and again over the years taken artistic risks to create brilliant, radical and innovative work that would be in the interests of no profit-driven private company. The corporation has, however, been assaulted in recent years. The decision by the former chancellor George Osborne to force the BBC to finance the licence fees of the over-75s – a cost previously borne by the government – was shortsighted. Whoever is in power at the moment of the next licence fee assessment must reverse Mr Osborne’s move to allow the BBC to make great programmes that will in turn enhance the reputation of the UK globally. As it is, this drain on the corporation’s finances (£750m by 2020-21) may presage its slow death, as the population ages and the BBC is harder pressed to fight off its rapidly consolidating American competitors.
The BBC needs to greet the future with boldness. If the television is no longer the carrier of the public sphere that it once was, then what is? One answer is, of course, the internet. What if BBC engineers were to build a mechanism for structuring and shaping audience’s experiences of the web, in the public interest? That kind of thinking would take imagination, patience and creativity – not just from the BBC, but from the government.
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