Why we must save the BBC

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The government released its Charter Review for the BBC in the summer, and in it, it is an attack on the BBC. It would be short-sighted to suggest that the corporation remains an untouched relic – even since the last review in 2006, media culture has changed in unthinkable ways, so change and develop it must – but not at the expense of what it does best.

The changes, which are expected to have a profound effect upon the £3.7bn that the licence fee brings in each year, mean that there are likely to be cuts across the board. One of the major changes is that the BBC will have to absorb free tv licensing for the over-75s, a social welfare levy that should be assumed by the government. At an estimated cost of £750m, some 20% of the public revenue it receives, services and programming are likely to be hit hard. The licence fee has been frozen since 2010, and just like the NHS, a good way to illustrate its flaws is by underfunding it and waiting for it to fail.  The silver lining to this is that the licence fee will be protected until 2020, but another Conservative term in office, will almost certainly seek to change its methods of funding should they gain a big enough majority.

Adjectives that are most frequently applied to the BBC in public discourse – in if only in verbatim form – seem to be ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘bloated’  – but what is the real value of the BBC to the average consumer? The licence fee of £145.50 per year has of course been seen as steep and not providing ‘value for money’ to the licence payer as critics suggest – but the beauty of the beast lies in its diverse appeal to a broad range of public tastes, an institution that has the remit to go beyond market dictates. 40 pence a day buys the consumer access to 4 television channels and 10 national radio stations, as well as regional radio and a website full of information – undoubtedly great value for money.

Quality and excellence are often compromised by cost-cutting and other means of seeking to squeeze the golden goose until she starves. Removing funding or budgets might work for a private company seeking to reward its shareholders, but the BBC is an entirely different creature. What is clear is that anything seen as ‘social’ or ‘public’ has become synonymous with being burdensome and wasteful in our collective consciousness – which stems from the mass privatisation of British industry in the Thatcher administration of the 1980s, but Thatcher did her very best to bring the corporation to heel during her time in office too.

The Conservatives have form when it comes to having a yearning to neuter it or remove its public service remit. In 1926 Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, wanted to commandeer the BBC’s radio broadcasting facilities to give the government’s viewpoint on the mass-walk out of workers that had started with miner’s and the miners’ union (NUM). The Prime Minister at the time, Baldwin, vetoed this idea – insisting that the BBC should remain independent of government interference. The government toyed with the idea in the late-1930’s of taking over the BBC with the approach of war in Europe and the idea of domestic and external propaganda. The BBC’s monopoly on public broadcasting ended within a decade of war as television became the emerging medium. Winston Churchill and the Tories were in government again, and had removed both its monopoly status and its invincibility to state tinkering, directly or indirectly.

It would be remiss to mention The BBC has endured its political strains with Labour, but not to the extent of an existential crises it has with the Tories. In 2003 Labour fell out with the corporation over the Iraq War and the sexed-up dossier. Yet the British right-wing are happy to classify all the individuals who work for the BBC as ‘pinko-metropolitan champagne socialists’ despite the fact that the government appoints the Board of Governors. Lord Patten, a former Tory MP, was Chairman of the BBC Trust until last year. Political Editor Nick Robinson is a former Chair of the Young Conservatives.

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It’s ironic that many (usually on the right) who call for an end to the ‘television tax’ – and with it the end of public service broadcasting as the BBC currently is, are usually the ones to bemoan multiculturalism and/or the loss of ‘British values’. To see the BBC as just a TV station is hugely simplistic and offers services too numerous to list, or to ignore when arguing against its publicly-funded form.

Many on the left believe that the news agenda of BBC journalism has been deferential to the policy of the Conservative-led coalition government, and to the Conservative majority government of this parliament. There have been glaring omissions on key news items, such as austerity protests that have been ignored by the news-gathering departments of the BBC, but whether a Question Time panel is too white, old, male and right-wing – or whether the BBC 6 O’Clock News ignores the political concerns of a sizeable proportion of the liberally-minded in the country, what it does well is acts a carrier for public debate. After all, would a privatised television channel even consider broadcasting a political forum and debate such as Question Time? Would commercial television devote the best part of an hour each evening to in-depth news commentary, such as Newsnight? We all know the answer.

Every Conservative election win must see the BBC question itself and how long it has left, so it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if the Corporation collectively has some Labour sympathies. By the same token, when the threat of legislative reform hangs over the corporation’s head it’s easy to see why it might also be self-censoring.

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Clearly the BBC’s remit is as wide as possible, by trying to please everybody, it pleases nobody. There is no doubt that its culture and how it is run will always be open to criticism, and this is essential as a public institution. The working culture of the corporation took a battering when the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal broke, but Jimmy Savile had as many links to the political establishment as he did with the Beeb. Further transparency and safeguards against cronyism or abuses of power should be the starting point for change, not its ability to provide information as a public good.

The cultural landscape of the UK and the BBC’s place in it has changed massively since it started broadcasting in the 1920s. Technological innovation, demographic changes to the population and media saturation are now accepted elements in 21st century UK, and these factors present more reasons to protect the institution that to feed it to the lions of privatisation.

What would a privatised BBC bring? In reality we’d cashing in for a BBC that has a shrinking budget on serious journalism and investigation – already in decline – and replace it with a BBC1 that would be ITV-lite. Less profitable radio stations would be gone, and instead of debate, drama and comedy – we’d have just another bunch of commercial media. The Reithian principles not only of informing, entertaining and educating  but also there idea that the BBC is a reflection of the society which it serves –  would also be lost.

The Charter Review also considers scaling back the BBC’s online presence, with the main claim being that it reduces the visibility and reach of smaller news outlets within the country. This is an argument that carries no weight when one considers the power of Google as an advertising draw, and Twitter as an immediate news aggregation tool. Regional journalism has seen advertising revenue plummet for over a decade at least, and big players in regional print journalism – Archant, Trinity Mirror and Newsquest have abandoned titles and cut staffing levels to the bone.

But can it continue to maintain its relevance in an age where Netflix, social media and video games compete for the time and attentions of young adults? Millennials have grown up in an age of ever-increasing choice for news, information and entertainment and perhaps, the BBC’s influence on young adults is waning – Radio 1, John Peel or Top of The Pops are no longer facilitators of pop culture – but that doesn’t mean that the BBC has no input into the cultural vitality of the country. In the last decade we have witnessed the digitisation of public life – through social media – and the BBC no longer has the cultural authority to be the influencer and informer of the public sphere that it once was, but the loss of the institution to the country would be unthinkable.

At a time when grass-roots live music venues are closing down to make way for luxury apartments, the BBC continues to invest money in new music as it does across a range of creative industries.

The BBC is still a huge influence on our cultural and public life, and it defines us as a nation. It continues to offer consumers things that commercial media can’t or won’t. It still makes great television, embodies radio broadcasting and produces brilliant journalism: it still offers the consumer choice where otherwise there would be none. We can’t afford to lose it.

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