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The future of the BBC – now is not the time to think the unthinkable

February 9, 2020

If there was a national emergency in the US, where would you go to get a balanced assessment of the situation, advice and guidance? The sanctimonious bigots on Fox News, or the unpatriotic pinkos at MSNBC?

In the UK, you would probably go to the BBC.

Or maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe you would endlessly scour the web to to find someone who might tell you there isn’t an emergency at all. That in fact that the whole situation is a left-wing, right-wing, socialist, fascist, Russian, Chinese, American, Muslim, Jewish, Christian fabrication – you choose.

Sometimes I can’t stand the BBC, with its condescending efforts to appeal to my age group or any other age group for that matter. In an age of precise social targeting, relying on the talents of feckless commissioning editors from Islington who think they know what appeals to me seems to be the equivalent of wartime area bombing. Sometimes I feel that it treats me like a giant sloth waiting for my next bunch of leaves from the zoo keeper.

I can’t stand the way it juxtaposes the views of people like Nigel Farage with those who have actual experience of government, thus giving him a legitimacy he doesn’t deserve. How in the interests of balance it presents the views of crackpots and fools alongside those of people who know what they’re talking about.

And yet if I and others around me were in mortal peril, I would come home to mother, confident that the BBC wouldn’t parrot the government line that Dr Li Wenliang was a dangerous subversive.

How many other countries have anything like the BBC? A public broadcaster immune from the influence of owners with their own agendas to pursue. Admittedly it’s an imperfect entity under constant criticism for political bias one way or another. And now it’s under existential threat from a government that seems determined to “sort it out”.

The licence fee model is particularly under scrutiny. At £154 per annum it compares unfavourably with subscriptions to Sky, Netflix, Amazon and other “rivals”. In an era that understands the price of everything and the value of nothing, this factor makes the BBC particularly vulnerable.

But what of that value? For all its flaws the BBC is a vast repository of knowledge, handed down through generations of employees. It is also a vast repository of content, a finite resource that it licences to other broadcasters, but that would quickly become a dusty archive unless constantly replenished.

It’s a provider of minority content  – in Scots Gaelic and Welsh, for example, and regional content – that could be replicated by the private sector, but at the risk that the provider will be like the Sinclair Broadcast Group in the US, a media company with a pronounced ideological bent. If content in minority national languages were so much at a premium, we should ask why the the only broadcaster with channels in those languages is the BBC.

Then there are the advertisers. How often do they dictate the content that commercial providers create? Do we really want to sacrifice the only major broadcaster that is relatively free from those arbiters of taste, opinion and morals over which we have no control?

And what of values? Like most large corporations, the BBC has a mission statement and a set of values that it expects its employees to share.

Let’s look at the mission first. How many other broadcasters claim a mission to “act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”? Or more to the point, how many that might subscribe to such a mission actually deliver the impartiality, quality and distinctive bits? As for acting in the public interest, do Netflix, Sky and Amazon meet that criterion? No, they act in the interest of their shareholders.

Now for the values:

  • Trust is the foundation of the BBC. We’re independent, impartial and honest
  • We put audiences at the heart of everything we do
  • We respect each other and celebrate our diversity
  • We take pride in delivering quality and value for money
  • Creativity is the lifeblood of our organisation
  • We’re one BBC. Great things happen when we work together

The thing about values is that they exist on two levels. First, in the imagination of those who formulate them. They represent a wish, and not necessarily reality. Second, in the attitudes and behaviour of the employer and its employees. For them, corporate values are expectations placed on their behaviour and attitudes, which again might not correspond to personal reality.

In the case of the BBC, it has thousands of employees, many of them highly skilled with their own ideas that might be at variance with the corporate values. Just as the US senate voted to acquit Donald Trump, apparently for reasons of self-preservation and in contradiction of their oaths of impartiality, the BBC undoubtedly has people whose dominant purpose is to hang on to their jobs. They create inertia, fear of stepping out of line and unwillingness to take creative risks.

Does this organisation of imperfect human beings reflect its stated values?

Everyone will have an opinion on that, from people who love David Attenborough to those who believe that it swallowed the Brexit bullshit. From people who loathe reality TV to those who love its costume dramas.

If an opinion poll asked people to rate its performance against its values, it would probably score between 5 or 7 on each count. Not bad, but not stellar.

But consider what we would lose if the BBC was ripped apart and sold to the highest bidder. We would lose one of the few large organisations that can still truly be said to be British. No foreign corporation owns it and dictates its content and mode of operation. It is not independent in the sense that it’s immune to interference by the government of the day. But at least it has the buffer of an independent governing board that can fight its corner if need be.

The other organisation is the National Health Service, which is also under siege by ideologues who believe that any organisation under public ownership is inherently wasteful and inefficient. The same accusations are made against the BBC.

It may be that the BBC will eventually die through lack of interest, as each successive generation finds its own way to access content, mostly online. Yet it’s ironic that Brexit succeeded largely because the oldest generation voted for it, whereas it’s precisely those people who would find, if the BBC no longer existed, that they’d lost a faithful friend that sustained, entertained and educated them through thick and thin. A friend that was still there for them while all their other friends had died off.

That’s not a reason to save a failing organisation. But is the BBC a failure, except in the sense that it’s managed to piss off a bunch of politicians whose time has come? For all its flaws, it seems to me to be pretty robust. It does reach a wide audience even if its content doesn’t please everyone, including me from time to time. If it does need to be broken up for reasons above my pay grade, then there is one area that must remain under public ownership. That’s news and current affairs. Now more than ever we need a source of information devoid of lies and political manipulation. The BBC’s journalists don’t always meet that standard, but I’m convinced that they genuinely try their best. Would you say the same of Russia Today, Fox News or Sky?

Aside from any other consideration, the BBC’s content is sold all over the world. As we witness Britain’s political power ebbing away, we should never forget or undervalue the soft power that our premier broadcaster projects beyond our borders. If we have any doubt about this, we should consider the influence – often translated into economic advantage – that American entertainment has had on our culture over the past seventy years.

My message to the government is by all means seek to reform the BBC – every organisation needs a shake-up from time to time. But just because you can, don’t start thinking the unthinkable, because in this case the unthinkable might bring consequences that we deeply regret. We could rejoin the European Union, but we could never put such a complex ecosystem as the BBC together again once we’ve dismantled it.

From → Media, Politics, Social, UK, USA

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    I, too, listen to the BBC regularly.
    I, too, would be hard put to replace it.
    That said, one of the facets of it I would most miss is the occasional, but always very acute, snarky comment on what’s happening here in the U.S.

    Please, fight hard for all of us.

    • Thanks Debbie. Alas, words are my only contribution. America needs to find its own solutions, which I sincerely hope it does, especially in November! S

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