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Do we need the BBC?

22 October 2020

By Andrew Adie

At one time the BBC was seen in almost the same light as the NHS. An institution established to provide a service of such systemic importance that it came to represent part of what it meant to be ‘British’.

This has changed dramatically. The new chair of the BBC Trust, when appointed, will almost certainly be someone who is not in favour of the £157.50 per year license fee. The Prime Minister has questioned whether the BBC can justify continuing as a publically funded institution once the current guarantee on the license fee ends on 31 December 2027. In addition, the BBC is facing open revolt from critics who accuse it of dumbing down; being too ‘woke; being too partisan; for failing to maintain free licenses for the over 75s; for paying its stars too much and failing to ensure diversity and fair / equal remuneration…the list goes on.

Assuming this direction of travel is maintained, the BBC could be forced to reinvent itself as a subscription or advertising funded institution, equal in status to Netflix, Amazon Prime, ITV and the numerous new broadcast stations that are already vying for our attention and money.

It seems unlikely that many people will pay for all the subscription services, so the BBC looks likely to find itself in a situation where it is not broadcasting into every household, so would struggle to call itself the national broadcaster. But does this matter?

You could argue that the BBC’s predicament is self-inflicted. Whether the BBC has dumbed-down or whether other broadcasters have upped their game is a moot point. If we cast our minds back to the Global Financial Crash, the BBC reigned supreme. Robert Peston and Stephanie Flanders’ broadcasts and blogs were consumed like oxygen by those trying to understand the crisis as it unfolded. The BBC’s coverage was key and was followed voraciously.  It played a crucial public service role.

In today’s crisis, which is bigger and more economically and social crushing, the BBC is no longer the nation’s prime source of information. Even the once mighty BBC Radio 4 Today programme is being challenged by new entrants like Times Radio. Sky News vies for the crown on business news and the broadsheets continue to build their reputations for investigative journalism and the analysis of events reported on the news pages.

So does the UK need the BBC as its national broadcaster? I would argue that the answer to that question lies in stepping back.

We live in a world that is increasingly opinionated and politicised. Where ‘Cancelled Culture’ sees opinions that sit outside of the ‘accepted norm’ being criticised as if they are a crime. In that environment news channels can also seem increasingly intolerant and judgmental as they fight for ratings and serve the needs of an audience where some do not seek alternative opinions and viewpoints and merely want to listen to their own echo chamber.

As social and traditional media becomes increasingly tribal, speaking out is an act that requires a considerable injection of courage and an acceptance that you will be openly and robustly criticised by some people who follow the herd rather than consider the viewpoint.

When we look at the new media entrants coming to the UK, from GB News to UK News and the rumored takeover of Talk Radio by Nigel Farage, there is a need for a news outlet that is considered, non-partisan and trusted. On that basis you could argue that we need a national broadcaster / news source more than ever, but it is not written in stone that this institution has to be the BBC.

The BBC is also much more than a news channel. While there may be huge value in the BBC rediscovering its mojo as a national source of information and balanced news, it doesn’t follow that we should all be invited to pay £157.50 per month for entertainment content that we may never want to consume.

Equally if you want a robustly independent news channel that has a clear sense of mission then we have those sources in media such as the Guardian and the Economist (albeit neither are aimed at the mass market). The Times, FT and Telegraph may have their own partisan leanings, but they are also considered enough to present a wide range of opinions.

How the debate pans out regarding the future of the BBC is hard to call. It looks increasingly likely that the BBC License Fee will be scrapped and that ‘Auntie’ will have to find new ways to fund its endeavors.  Competing with commercial channels for high-priced sports rights and trying to make prime time ‘big star’ entertainment shows will almost certainly require an advertising or a subscription basis to succeed.

However, if the BBC were to be seriously threatened with closure or a reduced role we’d probably find that the UK stirred itself into a robust defense. However, love is a two sided story and if the BBC is to retain its crown as a UK institution that deserves a place in our future, as much as it merits its key role in our past, then it needs to earn its place in the national consciousness. That starts by rediscovering its role as the source for impartial news. I would argue that improving the BBC News website so it carries a wider range of news might be a good place to start that journey back to greatness.

To do that the BBC would need to invest more in journalism (after years of cuts) and invest less in entertainment and sport. This may be popular with those who believe in its role as a national broadcaster but it would be highly unpopular with advertisers.  The scrutiny being placed on social media (particularly Twitter) of BBC journalists and producers is also important as the broadcaster is increasingly accused of being out of touch with popular opinion because editorial decisions are based on the opinions of a small echo chamber.

Which brings us back to the argument about the License Fee. Sometimes you get what you pay for but it would be an awful lot easier to mount a robust defense of today’s BBC if it rediscovered its role as the nation’s news source and public service broadcaster.