There is much debate about the direction of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and many people have called for the TV license fee to be scrapped. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been concerned enough to speak about the so-called the ‘woke’ agenda. Mr Johnson has threatened to scrap the TV licence fee if matters do not improve, and turn the BBC into a subscription fee service. If this happened, the BBC would need to be privatised, and it would become BBC PLC (Public Limited Company) a commercial broadcaster and subscription service.
These are uncertain times for the BBC, but how did it reach this parlous state?
From the 1990s through to 2010, Britain had a New Labour Government. During this period, it is widely recognised that there was considerable infiltration into the BBC by New Labour members and activists. These left-wing individuals sought to change the direction of the BBC by promoting ideology and counter cultures. Many people further believe that New Labour grasped the opportunity to use the BBC as a social engineering platform to achieve their political aims.
The BBC Trust was the governing body of the British Broadcasting Corporation between 2007 and 2017. Prior to the formation of the BBC Trust the BBC was regulated by a Board of Governors, which had existed since 1927. However, for some considerable time even before the formation of the BBC Trust, there had been systemic management and editorial failures at the BBC. In 2010, I addressed these issues in my article ‘The BBC Trust’: published on Boris Johnson’s legacy ‘democracy archives’ website. I wrote about the BBC Trust, and about the importance of ‘trust’ as a BBC core value. I emphasised the need for effective governance at the BBC, and the need for the BBC to address editorial failures, management, leadership and audience trust. I suggested, that in the long run, Public Service Broadcasting would be harmed if the issue of audience trust was not addressed. Furthermore, I flagged a warning that if nothing was done there would be increasing left-wing politicisation of the BBC. By 2017, the BBC Trust had failed to live up to expectations, and was replaced by the BBC Board of Directors.
At an earlier time, in 2003, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Tony Hall, (now Baron Hall of Birkenhead), then Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House. Tony Hall would later serve as BBC Director-General from April 2013 to August 2020. In the meeting, we discussed broadcasting, audience issues, technological developments and the role of on-demand television. I was much impressed with Tony’s digital future vision for the BBC. He would go on to successfully guide the BBC through a period of major technological developments, the digital revolution, and to develop the BBC’s commercial activities through its subsidiary the BBC Studios . These were remarkable achievements.
The digital revolution, availability of over-the-top (OTT) media services and industry developments, not only brought about new opportunities for audiences, they would also facilitate the move of disenchanted and disaffected audiences away from the BBC.
On the whole the BBC has produced and broadcast quality programmes; nevertheless, it has continued to decline in public esteem. There continues to be public disquiet about the strength and quality of the BBC’s news reporting. In a world of fake news, dodgy dossiers, misrepresented and incomplete news, audiences are now becoming increasingly concerned about the ‘truth’. In an open democratic society, reporting the truth and impartiality go to the very heart of broadcasting trust.
The three principles of UK Public Service Broadcasting (PSB), which were deeply embedded in the BBC’s culture for many years were to inform, to educate and to entertain. These principles or ‘Reithian’ values were established by John Reith, 1st Baron Reith, the first BBC Director-General, which required creativity, good editorial, and quality programmes – amongst not a few elements. The BBC also had to provide a value-for-money PSB service within budgetary parameters, and to be seen to be independent of political influence and control. The challenge for the BBC was, and still is, to provide a valued, trusted, quality PSB service; and manage its public funding effectively, openly and transparently.
The current BBC Royal Charter began on 1st January 2017, and set out five public purposes: i) to provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them; ii) to support learning for people of all ages; iii) to show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services; iv) to reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the United Kingdom; v) to reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world.
It is a big ask, given the limitations of the television licence fee. The Charter’s wide remit has led to a further lack of overall vision, contributed to the rise in counter culture, and further left-wing bias within the BBC’s internal culture. When it comes to mainstream audiences and trust, and predominant culture, not all of these public purposes are of equal weight or value.
September 2020 saw the appointment of Tim Davie as the BBC’s Director-General, and in February 2021, Richard Spark, a former banker, will take over as Chairman of the BBC Board of Directors. A successful chairman needs to have relevant industry experience and an understanding of the wider issues, and yet it seems that Mr Spark has little knowledge or comprehension of broadcasting issues. People might therefore reach the conclusion, that the former banker’s appointment was made to facilitate the future commercial privatisation of the BBC. If that is the case, the new Chairman would know that an unpopular unfocused BBC, one that promoted counter culture and fashionable left wing ‘woke’ ideology, will not appeal to investors?
Does the BBC need a reset? Whether or not the BBC is privatised, the BBC is most certainly in choppy waters. Perhaps a return to values of an earlier time, to values and principles that appeal to mainstream audiences.
The BBC needs a ‘reset’ now, and putting things right will be no summer afternoon stroll along Portland Place. The Director-General needs to urgently address these issues, and the Chairman needs to take a proactive approach to governance – time is of the essence. The BBC must re-establish the highest standards and values in keeping with core values. It must once again become a trusted mainstream broadcaster of international repute, which will ultimately reflect on how the BBC, a pre-eminent organisation, and how British values are perceived around the world.
The BBC Royal Charter ends on the 31st December 2027. However, given the current level of uncertainty surrounding the future of the BBC and growing public concern, the Government needs to clarify broadcasting policy.
BBC or BBC PLC, over to you Prime Minister?
© 2021 Dr Robert Frew. All rights reserved