James Melville on why we must be careful what we wish for when it comes to making sweeping changes to the under-attack BBC.
The former Director General of the BBC, Lord Reith, summarised the BBC’s purpose in three words: to “inform, educate, entertain”. This remains part of the organisation’s mission statement to this day.
From the earliest days of the public service broadcaster, the prioritisation between mainstream entertainment and bespoke, niche content has always been a difficult balancing act. The BBC has, of late, spread its wings across multi-channel radio and television to achieve this balance in the face of ever increasing threats from other media outlets and, now it appears, the Government.
According to the Sunday Times, the BBC is to be “massively pruned back” and the licence fee scrapped and replaced with a subscription service. Senior No. 10 sources insisted they were “not bluffing” about changing the way the corporation is funded.
Plans being drawn up by Downing Street include forcing the sale of the majority of the 61 radio stations but keeping Radio 3 and Radio 4 and reducing its number of television channels, scaling back the BBC website and World Service and banning BBC stars from lucrative second jobs. The Downing Street source added that No. 10 is now on “mission: attack” against the BBC.
All of this comes days after the BBC announced that the licence fee would rise by £3 to £157.50 a year from April. The corporation is also facing a huge backlash after it announced its plans to scrap free licence fees for over-75s, which will affect 3.7 million pensioners, and to cut around 450 jobs from BBC News to complete its £80 million savings target by 2022.
The BBC is under attack and it is arguably now feeling the effects of the same sort of drip-feed negative narrative that the EU faced for more than three decades. There appears to be an ever-increasing number of BBC-sceptics crawling out from under the woodwork eager to have a pop at it but without understanding or disclosing the full benefits of the Corporation.
Be careful what you wish for. Because, despite its faults, the BBC remains the gold standard in multi-platform broadcasting that has something for everyone. £12.90 a month to get access to BBC content is by some distance the best value for money multi-platformed broadcast deal that we can get in this country. The BBC is a basic universal service and if the Conservative Government gets its way in making it a subscription service, it will start making the same case about health and education.
The alternative doesn’t bare thinking about. Do we really want a dumbed-down subscription service BBC that struggles to compete financially with the likes of Sky? Do we want Britain to be consumed by a Fox News-style of broadcast media ownership?
I’ve heard people argue “why should I pay the BBC licence fee if I don’t use the service?” Imagine making the same argument to justify not paying tax to cover public services such as libraries, hospitals or schools if a person doesn’t use them.
Not all Conservatives want to force commercialisation upon the BBC. Two Conservative MPs have warned Downing Street not to pick a fight with the BBC. Former Cabinet Minister Damian Green said such a radical overhaul would amount to “cultural vandalism” and that “destroying the BBC was not in our manifesto”. Huw Merriman, Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the BBC, warned No. 10 against “ramping up an unedifying vendetta” against the BBC, which should “not be a target”.
Yet, there are forces at work on both sides of the political debate seeking to undermine the BBC. The right-wing accuse the BBC of being elitist and with a left-wing and Pro-EU bias. On the left, many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters accuse the BBC of being a Conservative mouthpiece that displays a lack of neutrality and fairness. The BBC is dammed both ways.
It appears that many of the institutions that have served us well and are fundamentally forces for good – that serve to protect, inform or improve us – are under attack. They appear to be threatened by forces that do not have the best interests of the country at heart. Instead, they want to take control of these institutions and either destroy them or conduct a fire-sale to the highest bidder.
Attacking the BBC is also a useful narrative for Boris Johnson to claim that, yet again, he is curbing the influence of ‘the liberal elite’. It fits into the overall framing of a set-up to create a right-wing, libertarian bonfire of the vanities, in which there is a price on everything and real value is ignored.
With the BBC, the Conservatives are setting an elephant trap for all of us to unwittingly fall into. We must avoid doing so. Our cultural and information-based society will become a much poorer place without a strong and full operational BBC.
Some of the BBC’s key content such as documentaries, children’s programming, extensive news coverage and local radio would not be prioritised within the commercial demands of the free market. Advertising revenues are shrinking, while the broadcasting marketplace is expanding. The BBC under commercialisation would run the risk of being squeezed both financially and in terms of the high standards of production quality. One example of this is BBC Bitesize – the educational website designed to support the national curriculum (from age four to ‘A’ level). It is outstanding and there is no way that content like this could be funded without the licence fee.
Well over 90% of the population consumes BBC programming and content every week. From live broadcasting of major current affairs, state occasions, sport, arts and music, to the high-quality dramas, entertainment and documentaries, the BBC has enriched Britain for decades with a window to the world and a shared broadcasting experience that reaches out right across UK society.
The BBC, like the NHS, is a national treasure. We lose it at our peril.