The BBC is its own worst enemy. For decades its leadership have stumbled from one crisis to the next, only offering any vision for the Corporation’s future when and insofar as it is politically expedient. This began with John Birt’s much maligned reforms, which first weakened independent reporting in the name of journalistic rigour, and then introduced a stifling market-based bureaucratic structure in the name of efficiency and entrepreneurialism.
The current Director General Tony Hall’s initial vision for the BBC coming out of the last Charter renewal was something of a return to that ‘Birtist’ agenda; the creation of BBC Studios representing a radical and unwarranted commercialisation.
Hall could argue, of course, that he had secured the BBC’s medium term future with his back room deals. He won a new Charter, and even if the BBC is still suffering from the cuts imposed upon it, it remains, and likely will remain for some time and by some way, the dominant media player in the UK and a highly trusted source of news.
The perennial political problems with the BBC though remain. Contrary to the claims, conventions, and culture of British journalism, the BBC is a state broadcaster. Its editorial culture is conservative, risk averse and deferential, and its reporting has always slanted towards governments and the broader Establishment. And there is an obvious threat to its longer-term future. The ever growing power of the dominant digital platforms, the popularity of subscription services, and changes in audience habits, especially amongst younger audiences, will continue to erode the BBC’s reach and legitimacy, if it is not able to sufficiently adapt. This is now a major concern for the BBC’s leadership, and there are innovations going on. But the vision coming out of the Charter renewal was one of a BBC that opens itself up to market competitors, rather than audiences, and operates within the market rather than as part of a public and democratic claim on our communicative systems. Far more ambition is needed. The BBC’s former Director of News, James Harding, was right, I think, when he remarked that if we were starting from scratch today we would create a British Digital Corporation to serve public good in the digital age.
Earlier this year I chaired a working group of the Media Reform Coalition that produced a set of proposals for BBC reform based around the democratisation and decentralisation of its governance, and an ambitious digital strategy. We argued that the BBC should become a democratic public platform and network, fully representative of its audiences and completely independent of governments and the market.
In recognition of the transition to digital public media, we proposed that the television licence be replaced with a digital licence fee based on internet access rather than possession of television receiving equipment. The new digital licence fee could be payable via an internet service provider, whilst to avoid payment falling disproportionately on lower income groups, could be pegged to households’ council tax bands.
To be successful, the digital transition we propose would have to be undertaking in parallel with broader public investment and regulation. The BBC would then become a central part of our digital future, delivering free to access programmes and information, and offering algorithmic transparency and the capacity for user-to-user interaction.
On the question of ‘governance’, we propose that governmental influence must be abolished altogether, and that the broader risk of ‘elite capture’ be addressed through decentralisation and democratisation. Programme making and editorial functions would be devolved to the nations and regions, and a system of localised, democratic management and commissioning established. National and regional boards would be elected by BBC staff and local licence fee payers, whilst the role of the BBC Board – also democratically elected – would be restricted to corporate-wide oversight, coordination and strategic planning. At least half of these boards would be women, and minority groups should also be guaranteed adequate representation. At the programme and production level, meanwhile, rigorously collected equality monitoring data would be published for all producers of BBC content, including data on social class, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, disabilities, and other characteristics.
To avoid any other channels of political influence, this new BBC would be put on a permanent statutory footing and an independent, non-market, regulator, acting solely in the public interest, would set the level of the licence fee, and periodically review its constitutional remit. Regulation would move away from a model in which the BBC is expected to provide what the market will not, to one in which public and democratic programme making, and rigorous professional standards, positively shape the broader media ecology. A major part of this aspect of our proposals is the repurposing of the BBC’s commissioning systems.
External commissioning, we argue, should be rebalanced, with the revenue currently going to large multinationals cut back in favour of smaller, independent producers. An increasing proportion of funding would also be earmarked specifically to support the development of alternative models of ownership in the media industry, with quotas introduced for commissioning to media cooperatives.
To open up the BBC further to its audiences, we also proposed that programme making be democratised, with existing initiatives built upon so as to allow licence fee payers direct influence over local commissioning. All such commissioning would be completely transparent, and programming would have to satisfy the BBC’s policies on diversity and inclusion, and would be subject to quotas stipulating a minimum proportion of news and current affairs programming.
The document we produced, which is being launched in Parliament in October, is described as ‘draft proposals’ and is intended to stimulate debate and discussion. We hope it will. If we are serious about exercising democratic control and oversight over our systems of media and communication – which everyone recognises is vital to democracy – then these are the sorts of measures that politicians, media professionals and audiences need to be discussing and developing – and fast.