It is well known that Dominic Cummings is a man with a mission. His aim? To deconstruct or bring under the control of government some of the most respected and valued institutions in British political and cultural life, including the Civil Service and the BBC.
A short-lived think tank set up by Cummings in 2003 suggested that right-wingers should start a campaign to undermine the credibility of the BBC and labelled the broadcaster the ’mortal enemy’ of the Conservative Party. It also urged the abolition of impartiality rules in broadcasting and supported the creation of a Fox News-type equivalent. Cummings’ allies in this campaign over many years have been parts of the popular press and the Murdoch media, who bitterly resent the influence of the BBC and believe that the current broadcasting regime in the UK prevents fair competition.
The government’s decision to pass responsibility for funding the (very popular) free TV licences for over 75s to the broadcaster led, as it must have known it would, to the BBC deciding that the cost would be impossible to bear and therefore abolishing the scheme. More brickbats thrown at the Beeb as a result.
So how did we get here? An institution that is as British as a ’nice cup of tea’ – revered around the world since its inception, that carried the nation’s heart and soul and boosted morale during wartime, that has produced so many superb programmes and enormously popular soaps – seems to have become the hate target for many people in recent times.
Key gripes are the licence fees, and overpaid managers and presenters, as these comments from Seaford and Newhaven Facebook noticeboards exemplify:
“Why should I be paying for a service that I do not use? It’s about time this service is modernised to match its competition, with the management being paid according to its viewing figures.”
“The BBC licence fee is basically a tax that we are not getting value for money for … a lot of people on the BBC have political views that are not welcomed, plus overpaid presenters …”
There are equally passionate defenders of the BBC:
“In these times when misinformation and fake news are everywhere and sweep across the country via social media in minutes I think the BBC is needed more than ever to counter that … I trust the BBC to fundamentally be telling the truth, which is more than I can say of any other media outlet … I think that the BBC provides great value for money and is a national asset we should all be proud of. I am very sad to see it under attack by this government.”
It seems very clear that the current funding model and very possibly the structure of the BBC will need to change to adapt to the 21st century media scene. With digital rivals like Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple spending eye-watering sums on content that the BBC has no hope of matching, with increasing numbers of people using streaming services and fewer under-25s turning to BBC channels for entertainment, there are many threats to the continued existence of our national broadcaster.
The positive case for the BBC gets far less public airing in the current frenetic climate. And yet this climate, the current deep social divisions and an increasingly individualised and atomised society are exactly why we need an institution like the BBC that is capable of covering the interests of all communities and of bringing the country together. Has it strayed too far from its original remit to ’educate, inform and entertain’? Possibly. Has it confused ’impartiality’ with ’balance’ in its coverage of key issues? Has it been seduced into paying outrageous sums to attract celebrities to its programmes? Maybe. But none of these issues are irresolvable.
So what should happen now? The BBC needs to be ring-fenced from government attacks and freed from political interference, from either right or left. (No more appointees favoured by the government in power.) Before the renegotiation of the BBC’s Charter in 2027 a commission – or even better a Citizen’s Assembly – should be set up to review and advise on different funding models which free the BBC from being vulnerable to government interventions. Examples exist. Germany, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland all have respected public broadcasters financed from a much fairer taxation system. A deep-dive review of the broadcaster’s structure and reach should also take place over the next five years.
The country needs to regain its shared affection for ’Auntie’. And we should recognise that the future health of our democracy depends on the existence of an impartial and engaging public broadcaster which continues to make ground-breaking programmes, presents informed analysis of current events and tells the truth without fear or favour.