The DCMS Public Consultation on the BBC’s upcoming Charter Review is a strange document, based on a set of contradictions so extreme that they are sometimes laughable. It begins with unexpected warmth: ‘The BBC is at the very heart of Britain. It is one of this nation’s most treasured institutions -playing a role in almost all of our lives’ (p.1). It frequently returns to the Corporation’s place at the heart of the nation’s culture, its contribution to the creative economy and its world wide reputation. Finally, ‘The rationale for a publicly-funded BBC that “informs, educates and entertains” as part of a wider public service broadcasting ecology remains strong even in the current media age. The Government is therefore committed both to the future of the BBC and to its underlying Reithian mission’ (p.3).
So that’s all right then… or is it? Having gone out of its way to state the positive, every point is immediately undermined. Every positive point is followed by the suggestion – albeit framed as a question- that ‘reform’ or ‘modernisation’ is needed. It becomes clear that the Government’s interpretation of ‘public service broadcasting’ and the BBC’s ‘Reithian mission’ is a very particular one. Of course ‘public service’ and ‘Reithianism’ have been subject to debate and contestation for the whole of the BBC’s 88-year history as a Corporation. Over the years, their shifting interpretation has had consequences for public policy, and has brought many an upheaval within the Corporation itself. Now it is possible to read this Consultation as an ambitious attempt to narrow their meanings and fix them once and forever.
Having recently looked at broadcasting policy in the 1980s, I would observe that the approach of the Document is underpinned by two key conceptual shifts which began in that Thatcherite decade and have had momentous consequences:
The first is the shift from the concept of ‘public service broadcasting’ to the concept of ‘public service content’. In other words the move from the view that broadcasting is in itself a public service, a service for all, available to all, to the view that that ‘public service’ resides in particular genres or forms of output. This view was crystallised in the 2003 Communications Act and is taken for granted in the current Consultation Document and in most of the public debate. As well as questioning the idea of universality, it leads to the difficult task of identifying precisely what ‘public service content’ might be. This has involved listing particular genres – news, children’s, arts etc- and it means turning a blind eye the creativity of television practitioners, ignoring the ways in which genres are constantly developing, overlapping, mutating and innovating. The Document is clear that the BBC’s licence fee expenditure should be limited only to ‘public service’ programmes and services and that their funding should be ‘protected’ (p.55).
Secondly there is the concept of ‘market failure’: a concept which gives automatic priority to ‘market values’ but recognises that these leave certain gaps in provision because they are less profitable. The suggestion throughout the Document is that the purpose of a greatly reduced BBC should be to fill those gaps.
The implication that ‘the market’ should not in any way be inhibited in its activities by public responsibilities has led to the situation where the ‘public service’ requirements which the commercial ‘public service broadcasters’ especially ITV and Channel 5, are expected to fulfil, are relaxing all the time. This means that their output is less varied and has developed significant gaps. In particular new commissions for children have virtually been abandoned. The Consultation Document suggests that, not only should the BBC fill this gap by making programmes, its licence fee could be used to supplement the income of these commercial companies. (Question 12, p.57)
Throughout, the tone of the Document makes it clear that the Government’s declared commitment to the continuation of the BBC is to a shrunken, underfunded, ‘narrowly focussed’ organisation. At every point the suggestion is that its current status should be questioned: its ‘public purposes’ are too vague, its genre mix is too broad, its funding is no longer appropriate and its commitment to universality is questioned.
Should the BBC continue to provide ‘programmes and services for all audiences, and on equal basis, across every platform’, the Document asks, or should it merely focus on ‘particular or underserved audiences’ (p.3)
Of course, a Conservative Government largely driven by free market principles, is deeply uncomfortable with a highly successful publicly-funded institution which appeals across the spectrum of the population, whether it’s the NHS or BBC. However, the Document suggests that ‘reforms’ are needed, not for ideological reasons, but practical ones, as ‘the context in which the BBC is operating has changed dramatically in recent years’. Since many providers are offering more choice for audiences, it asks whether ‘audience needs are better served by a more narrowly focussed BBC’ (p.15) clearly implying that, in the Government’s view they would. No more glamour and sparkle. Get rid of Strictly Come Dancing. The new competitive environment is a useful excuse for squeezing the BBC.
Legislation concerning the BBC is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, because of its constitution by Royal Charter, and paradoxically, for a Government committed to a small state, many of its suggested ‘reforms’ would effectively move the Corporation closer to Government control. The Consultation Document makes detailed proposals about its scope, governance and the types of programmes it is permitted to make, as well as the size of its income, and the ways in which that income is spent. In other words, this is a clear attempt to micro-manage the BBC. (See Question 10 on Quotas; Question 8 on genre mix etc). Not only would these moves effectively limit the BBC’s independence, they would make this shrunken, narrowly-focussed organisation near to becoming a state broadcaster.
‘BBC is formally independent from Government’ the Consultation declares (p.74) but, as the recent instruction to fund licence fees for over-75s makes clear, and as the tone of this document demonstrates, it is not actually independent. It should be.