The recent resignation of BBC director Tony Hall has once again thrust the question of the role and the future of the BBC into the spotlight.
Hall’s resignation comes at a time when redundancies, cuts and reorganisations are being announced, along with calls for a rethinking about what the BBC does and how it does it.
On 29 January it was announced that 250 jobs were to go among journalists and production staff. The scrapping of the popular Victoria Derbyshire Show, announced a few days previous, is indicative of what this will mean for the programme schedule.
Although the reasoning behind these cutbacks is usually couched in terms of “making savings”, “reorganisation” and “bringing the BBC into the 21st century” (etc.) the real reason is the continuing hostility of neoliberal free marketeers and the government, particularly of Boris Johnson and his principal adviser – Dominic Cummings – to the whole idea of public service broadcasting.
The left shouldn’t stand aside from all this. Whatever its faults (and they are numerous) the BBC is still a major player in TV and radio broadcasting in the UK and has done more than any other media organisation to set a “cultural agenda” in the UK.
It also has an undoubted international reputation. Once in Romania I was the guest of a family in the city of Timişoara who told me how, during the dark days of the Ceaucsescu dictatorship, they hid in their cellar to listen to the BBC World Service, a “crime” for which they would have served a lengthy prison sentence if caught.
Today the BBC stands accused of liberal bias or right wing bias. It has the Jimmy Savile scandal still hanging over it. With its vastly overpaid executives, its female staff discriminated against and a growing threat from new forms of electronic media and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, it has its back against the wall.
The BBC was denounced in Robin Aitken’s book The Noble Liar published last year – spoiler alert, it is utter tosh. It is also defended by such as Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee, who called (rather feebly) “…for this national treasure to be saved” (Guardian 17 December 2019).
Once the future of the BBC and television in general evoked considerable interest and debate on the Left. In 1962 Raymond Williams wrote a Penguin Special Britain in the Sixties: Communications, and in 1972 Brian Groombridge, Television and the People: A Programme for Democratic Participation. Both argued for a radical re-thinking of television to make the medium more democratic and more participatory and, in the process, diminish the power of those in control.
None of that happened, but in the 1960s and 70s the BBC shed many of its “Auntie” connotations (patronising, strait-laced and boringly middle-brow) and introduced new, challenging dramas by writers like Trevor Griffiths.
There appear to be three alternatives for the BBC today:
1. To carry on in the same way, albeit with a trimmed down staff and service (probably favoured by BBC execs, if no-one else)
2. Deregulation (favoured by Johnson, Cummings, Michael Gove, Rupert Murdoch etc.)
3. To stand firmly with the idea of public service broadcasting while reinvigorating these ideals and redefining and discussing what they mean.
Option 1 might work at some rudimentary level, but would almost certainly some kind of truncated “mini” service, with limited programme-making capacity and a reliance on a predictable menu of game shows, cookery programmes and soap operas and not much else.
Deregulation would be a disaster in terms of diversity, choice, quality, impartiality and the ability and inclination to inform.
Scrapping the licence fee has been a favoured hobby-horse of many conservatives for years. Back in 1982, Douglas Hurd, later to be Home Secretary, said that the licence was not “eternal”. On Wednesday 5 February Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said that the licence could be scrapped in 2027.
The Tories like to promote the idea that no-one in the UK supports the licence fee. But on the evidence, opinion seems divided. In Switzerland a referendum in 2018 rejected a proposal to scrap their licence fee by a crushing 72%.
If the fee is scrapped, then the BBC would likely follow what happened to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the USA when government support for public broadcasting – never very great – was substantially reduced during the Nixon era. US broadcasters were then forced to rely on public donations, subscriptions and grants (often from small businesses) to maintain their reduced services.
Nixon loathed PBS with a vengeance and, according to witnesses who worked in the White House, he would frequently become apoplectic when confronted with the “liberal” bias of the public broadcaster.
Nixon wasn’t called “Tricky Dicky” for nothing, so one of his tactics was to make a lot of noise about the need for “localism” in public service broadcasting. That sounds very democratic and caring. In fact it meant that the often small PBS stations had to work with smaller budgets and could not put out the programmes they wished.
Nixon also strengthened the role of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB – a body which was originally created to advise, co-ordinate and oversee public service broadcasting). Putting his own appointees in key positions, the role of the CPB shifted to one of supervision and control.
PBS never really fought its corner, but instead made numerous concessions to Nixon. It ended up broadcasting programmes such as the dreadful “topical affairs” show The McLaughlin Group, in which four white middle class male suits (including right-winger Pat Buchanan) shouted at each other for an hour.
It refused to broadcast a Woody Allen TV comedy, The Politics and Comedy of Woody Allen, presumably because he took the piss out of Nixon. It also declined to broadcast certain current affairs programmes and documentaries, including one in which banks were criticised by an unemployed man, on the grounds that this was biased against “finance” (I kid you not!).
The capitulation by PBS before Nixon’s onslaught was almost total. In this respect the record of the BBC is not dissimilar.
The BBC could also respond by introducing advertising to make up for the loss of revenue from scrapping the TV licence.
That would bring in such problems advertisers influencing programming decisions by refusing advertising on specialised or minority programmes on the grounds that the limited audience doesn’t warrant it.
In any case, who in their right mind wants to be interrupted every ten or fifteen minutes with a “word from our sponsors”?
As things stand at the moment, the scrapping of the licence fee would result either in the death of the BBC or its drastic reshaping into a form which would satisfy no-one except neoliberals.
Other “solutions” such as a “voluntary” licence fee, proposed by the BBC’s £1.5m-salary-earning Gary Lineker, are non-starters – just shut-up Gary!
A pay-per-view solution would be too complex and probably wouldn’t provide the regular income stream that a national broadcaster needs in order to plan ahead.
There has been some talk of a “subscription system” (something like the method used by Netflix) with one estimate suggesting this would cost a subscribing household about £20 a month, just over £8.00 more than the license fee (currently £154.50 per annum). It is likely that administration costs would also be higher.
The Media Reform Coalition has made a series of proposals about reforming the BBC (see box for summary). They include the replacement of the licence fee with a digital license fee based on access to the internet rather than possession of TV receiving equipment.
However, for the Tory right and neoliberal free marketeers much of this is by the way. They really only have one aim: to destroy the BBC and thereby kill the whole idea that television and radio broadcasting should be a public service.
The crunch is due to come in December 2027, when the BBC’s Charter is up for renewal. There is also a mid-term review in 2022.
The old idea, beloved of the BBC hierarchy for so long, that public service broadcasting needs to be uplifting, entertaining and educative – the ethos of its founder, the fundamentalist Presbyterian John Reith — is now outdated. For too long the heads of the BBC (and/or their one-time supremo, the Postmaster General) have decided what is good for us, often in a middle-class patronising manner sometimes insulting and discriminatory against women and minorities.
An example was the appallingly racist Black and White Minstrel Show, broadcast from 1958 to 1978, where white singers “blacked up” to perform gospel and minstrel type songs usually associated with the American South.
For years the BBC resisted calls to scrap the show, even responding to a letter from the now-defunct Race Relations Board with the comment that black people should stop moaning and “just shut up”.
I remember as a child and into my teens that you stopped watching TV after about five o'clock on Sundays. The great and the good at the BBC had decreed that this time was reserved for religious programmes. Despite abundant evidence that society was moving away from religion and becoming more and more agnostic or atheist, they persisted in boring us to death with Songs of Praise (from 1961 to the present day), The Sunday Half Hour (on BBC Radio 2 — scrapped in 2018) and self-righteous homilies from Thora Hird (on Praise Be!).
Even today, despite a name change (the “Religious Affairs Department” is now “BBC Religion and Ethics”), the BBC refuses to countenance inviting an occasional secular voice on to their regular religious slot Thought for the Day, despite complaints and requests from the National Secular Society and others.
During the 1984-85 miners’ strike the BBC manipulated footage of the Orgreave confrontation to show that the miners instigated a charge by mounted police by throwing stones at the police ranks. In fact the opposite happened.
It took the BBC 25 years to apologise, using the standard – but very lame excuse – that there had been errors in the editing process.
Distortion and manipulation of this kind, especially on trade union activities such as strikes, and a general hostility to the left, is well-documented. The academic studies of misrepresentation of strikes and left politics by the BBC and other media are matched in their rigorous detail and damning conclusions only by the obdurate refusal of the BBC to discuss or even acknowledge them.
Yet if Johnson, Murdoch and the rest are allowed to destroy everything that is even halfway decent in the BBC, then our media landscape will truly be a “wasteland”.
I think we should argue that the BBC is worth defending while at the same time calling for radical changes. The Media Reform Coalition’s “Draft Proposals for the Future of the BBC” (originally drawn up in March 2018) provide an excellent basis for discussion about what these changes should be. Thanks to the MRC for allowing us to reprint extracts from their proposals:
• Rather than consisting of government and board appointed ‘establishment’ figures, the BBC should be managed by a board consisting of executive directors elected by staff and non-executive directors elected by licence fee payers.
• The licence fee system should be maintained but radically reformed, with the rate set by an independent, non-market, regulator.
• Regulation of the BBC must move away from a ‘market failure’ model in which the BBC is expected to provide what the market will not, to a model in which public and democratic programme making, and rigorous professional standards, positively shape the broader media ecology.
• To make the BBC more accountable to the public it serves, programme making and editorial functions should be devolved to the nations and regions. • The BBC should develop the capacity for user-to-user interactions, providing a shared space free from the commercial imperatives to fuel controversy where plural world-views can be articulated and brought into dialogue
• All BBC content should be made available to licence fee payers in perpetuity. Internationally, the BBC’s radio programmes and podcasts should be made freely available on BBC digital platforms, as should the majority of television news and current affairs programming.
• In-house production guarantees should be restored to ensure the BBC remains a public source of independent programme making and a provider of training and expertise.
• BBC’s global audience in 2019: 426 million per week.
• Annual income of BBC in UK (2019): £4.71 billion (of which £3.69 billion comes from the license fee).
• In the 3rd quarter of 2019 BBC1 reached 55 million viewers. Its nearest challenger was C4 with a reach of 51.1 million, in third position was BBC2 with 49.6 million.
• On average it is estimated that UK audiences spend 2 hours 45 minutes with the BBC every day.
PBS in the USA used to broadcast a regular TV series called Rights and Wrongs which focussed on human rights issues around the world, precisely the kind of programme a public service broadcaster should be engaged with.
In the spring of 1996, in its fourth season, the Rights and Wrongs production team made a programme in the series, Snakeheads and Slaves, in which two US journalists (one of whom was Chinese-American) examined the role of the notorious Snakehead gangs in China and elsewhere in procuring slaves to work in the west, usually as prostitutes. In an astonishing coup for the programme they secretly taped high-ranking Chinese government officials offering to introduce the journalists to a team of slaves.
However, it became almost impossible to find commercial funding for the programme. China was just opening up to foreign investment and potential backers shied away not wishing to jeopardize their chances in this lucrative market. The production team approached 40 potential corporate sponsors but none were interested. Even the PBS vice-president of programming, Jenifer Lawson, ran scared, saying that human rights is an “insufficient organising principle” for a series (whatever that’s supposed to mean). The programme was eventually aired after some money was scraped together from various foundation grants but, it seems, with a limited distribution .