University of East London
The BBC, once again, faces an existential threat. Part of what saved the BBC in the 1980s was opposition to free-marketeers’ plans from within the Conservative Government itself. This time there are Tory supporters, certainly, but most will accept the leaner, more ‘narrowly-focused’ BBC, carefully proposed by Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, a more direct descendent of Thatcherite ideology.
Whether conditions now are more challenging than in the 1980s will be an interesting conference topic, but facing them is urgent, and daunting. One such, is the close bonds between the Conservatives and the now much expanded Murdoch media empire. Jeremy Hunt survived revelations his office’s dealings with News Corp. over its planned takeover of BSkyB, but Nick Davies’ Hack Attack reminds us that BskyB also gave £3,000 to John Whittingdale’s local cricket team and that he employed two former Sky executives as special advisors for the Culture Committee he chaired before entering government. Recent revelations that Whittingdale’s current special advisor had been feeding stories to Murdoch’s Sunday Times promoted Labour’s Chris Bryant to call for ‘an immediate investigation into serious breaches’ of the ministerial code.
Successive UK governments have been closely aligned with commercial media interests, but rarely have countervailing pressures been so weak, and media policy-making so responsive. Labour’s embrace of the market included a social market defence of the BBC. By contrast contemporary lobbying by commercial TV, radio and newspaper groups to shrink (or eviscerate) the BBC meets a Conservative government whose criticisms of the BBC’s ‘imperial’ ambitions, ‘market distortion’, and the licence fee as ‘tax’, are more full-throated than any of its defences.
The Government’s Green Paper, while nuanced and ostensibly ‘open’ in inviting comments, nevertheless makes the corporate influence pretty transparent by integrally advancing the arguments of commercial players who seek the BBC’s market share, or its resources, or both. As well as the attack on the BBC we should also be worried about the uncritical account of commercial provision that is presented here and what that means for future media regulation. Commercial media are praised throughout – one exception is the statement that the BBC protects children from ‘excessive advertising’. The BBC is commended for offering news and other content that ‘would not be provided in sufficient volume by the market alone’ (my emphasis), but the reasons why public provision is qualitatively different from, and may be considered better than, commercial provision are either discounted or ignored.
An opportunity is being lost. What could be taking place is a public debate that starts from safeguarding the successes of the BBC today, and focuses on improvements and reform. That would engage what James Curran and Jean Seaton once described as traditional and radical public service perspectives, and combine these with a wealth of new ideas and demands that must win their place not only in UK arrangements but in the European Commission’s Digital Single Market agenda. It would encompass what the heads of public service media in Denmark and Norway called for in their letter to the Guardian (21 September): ‘Changes to the system should serve to strengthen the independence of the broadcaster, not weaken it’. It would be an agenda to defend, strengthen and reform the BBC.
One of many challenges to that comes from those diverse publics, including media scholars, dismayed by the BBC’s performance, including the many failings of an establishment-narrowed news agenda. Researchers at Cardiff University found that BBC coverage of the banking crisis was dominated by bankers and city voices; Mike Berry (2013) concludes: ‘The fact that the City financiers who had caused the crisis were given almost monopoly status to frame debate again demonstrates the prominence of pro-business perspectives’. Such important failings lead some to conclude the BBC is ‘not worth saving’. As someone involved in the work of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, who might be described as ‘critical friends’ of the BBC, I would not want to diminish those problems, or suggest they can be easily overcome. However, I do argue they are addressable, because of a central quality of the public service system: accountability. As a public institution, owned and governed by its users, the BBC is answerable for its activities to far greater extent than any commercial media service. Alongside its independence, accountability provides the basis for democratic reforms. By contrast the hasty ‘settlements’ imposed on the BBC in 2010 and July 2015, and Ministerial meddling over The Voice and News at Ten, reveal a discounting of the BBC’s public accountability by Government bordering on contempt, sending a worrying signal about the status of public consultation over Charter renewal.
Some suggestions for a BBC reform agenda (which the CPBF has set out more fully in its response to the Gov. consultation on charter renewal) include:
- Serving the nations of Scotland and Wales and the regions better (through decentralised governance, resources and services).
- Overhauling how the BBC is governed, including greater involvement by staff and unions in shaping the way the BBC is run.
- Protecting budgets for producing quality programming and content (free from advertiser influence, market pressures or political interference).
- Setting new standards for broadening coverage, by tasking the BBC with ensuring that its coverage reflects the breadth of opinion and outlook on cultural, social and political issues (and using more of its own, commissioned, and independent research to do so).
- Increasing diversity, training and access in the workplace to increase the influence and creative opportunities for Black and minority ethnic workers, women, young people beyond the middle classes, so as to better reflect social and cultural diversity across the UK.
A 21st century agenda for reform can develop these and other ideas to strengthen connections to the communities served. But that agenda is at risk from the threat to the very existence of the BBC. It is time to rally to retain a strong independent, democratically accountable BBC because that is the best foundation on which to gather the coalition for more progressive reforms.
Berry, M. (2013) ‘Hard Evidence: How biased is the BBC?’, New Statesman, 23 August. Available at https://www.newstatesman.com/broadcast/2013/08/hard-evidence-how-biased-bbc (accessed 28 September 2015)