A Beleaguered British Corporation: the BBC under fire

The welcome sign at BBC Television centre
“BBC Television Centre” by Mike_fleming, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Once held up as Britain’s favourite Auntie, the BBC was seen as a companion in good times and bad, providing a sense of stability and continuity for the nation and garnering global respect for the quality of its programming. In more recent times, it seems to have lost many of its allies and is fighting battles on many fronts.

Under constant attack from the right-wing press, accused of bias by both sides of the political divide, struggling to adjust to savage financial cuts and facing increasing competition from streaming services like Netflix and Prime, its future looks uncertain.

BBC on the back foot

A key concern for the Corporation is the fall in its youth audience. Fewer than half of those aged between 16 and 24 now watch a traditional live BBC television channel in the average week. The divide between older and younger viewers extends to their news source. Ninety-four percent of people aged 65 and over watch television news on a terrestrial channel, compared with just half in the 16 to 24 age bracket. In the face of these figures, there is, unsurprisingly, growing resistance to paying for a service that many don’t use. 

That presents the BBC with a problem: how does it continue to fund the range of news and entertainment programmes that it airs, if not through the licence fee?

A number of Conservative MPs offers a solution. Seemingly allergic to any institution with “public” in its title and remit, for many years a group of right-wing MPs has attacked the BBC for supposed left-wing bias and argued for privatising the broadcaster or for it becoming a subscription-only service. With poacher-turned-gamekeeper Oliver Dowden now in charge of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the threat to the BBC is very real. Dowden has recently appointed a panel to review the future of the broadcaster and one glance at the list of panel members provides a pretty clear idea of what their recommendations are likely to be. The group is heavily biased towards media figures connected to the Conservative Party, those from the senior ranks of commercial television, and includes the boss of Facebook in Europe. Missing are any representatives from viewers’ groups and public sector organisations. 

Even more concerning is the overt politicisation of the BBC’s management. Both the Director-General and the newly appointed Chair of the BBC Board are umbilically connected to the Conservative Party. Tim Davie, the DG, stood as a Conservative Councillor and was the Deputy Chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative Party in the 1990s. The newly appointed Chairman of the BBC Board, Richard Sharp, is a major donor to the Tories, a close ally of Rishi Sunak and a strong Brexit supporter. It may not be stretching reality too far to see these appointments, coupled with Dowden’s advisory panel, as attempts to soften up the Corporation to accept a dramatically reduced role in the future, and the possibility of being privatised or becoming a subscription service.

The heart of a nation?

It’s not a totally gloomy outlook, however. Paradoxically, the recent scenes of mayhem in Washington may have buttressed the BBC’s cause. They served both to expose the danger posed by right-wing media outlets that benefit from inciting anger and national discord, and the need for the crucial role that a trusted public service broadcaster can play in challenging fake news and offering an evidence-based understanding of events. 

The launches of Andrew Neil’s GB News and Murdoch’s version of Fox News, News UK, were seen as another, direct threat to the BBC, but perhaps no longer. The BBC is still perceived to be the most trustworthy news source of the terrestrial channels, in spite of controversy over its approach to balanced reporting. 

How can the future of a public service broadcaster that is still highly valued for the quality of its programmes and its news reportage be safeguarded? 

One suggestion comes from a very unlikely source. Jeremy Corbyn, in his 2018 Alternative MacTaggart lecture, argued for an independent BBC, placed on a permanent, statutory footing and freed from government interference. He proposed financing the Corporation partly through a digital tax on hugely profitable tech giants such as Amazon and Facebook, adding that BBC staff and licence fee payers should elect some of the board members, while the government’s powers of appointment should also be cut. In this way, the BBC’s management would, in the future, “become more accountable to the public and more representative of the country that it serves”. Could that happen? Only if there is a more farsighted government elected in 2024. Today, in the face of campaigns by Conservative MPs keen to dismember the Corporation, the public would do well to remember the immortal words of Hilaire Belloc: “Always keep a-hold of nurse / For fear of finding something worse”.

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