Democratise the BBC!

Des Freedman

With the resignation of Tony Hall as director general, there is talk of an ‘existential crisis’ at the BBC. The corporation is facing yet more budget cuts and the further centralisation of commissioning. Hall’s departure follows Boris Johnson’s threat to boycott the Today programme and Samira Ahmed’s successful equal pay claim. The prime minister and his consigliere Dominic Cummings are said to want to intervene in the appointment of the new director general. Who will come to the BBC’s rescue?

The corporation’s opponents smell blood. First off the block, as usual, was the Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen, who railed against the licence fee as ‘the most regressive of taxes’, a ‘poll tax’ that sends innocent mothers to jail for non-payment, which the BBC itself would condemn in a ‘banana republic’. (This is odd coming from a man who has regularly voted against raising benefit levels in line with inflation and who supported the ‘bedroom tax’ that disproportionately hits the working-class women he claims to be so keen to protect.)

We can now expect further parliamentary manoeuvres and a letter-writing campaign demanding the replacement of the licence fee with a subscription model on the grounds that a compulsory charge is an infringement of democratic rights and inappropriate when there is a choice of so many services. The need for a public service broadcaster is said to have been undermined by the increasing popularity of streaming services. Overshadowed by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, the BBC has no claim any more to be a ‘national’ broadcaster. And yet, not only is the BBC supposedly too small to cope in a digital world, it is also too big, with no right to appropriate, in the words of the Sun, ‘a gargantuan £3.7 billion a year’.

The corporation can rely on some loyal backing. Polly Toynbee has defended it as the UK’s ‘global ambassador in a friendless world’. Huw Edwards has argued that the attacks on its news coverage from both left and right illustrate that it must be doing a good job (though there is growing academic evidence that the BBC tends to ‘seek shelter in more conservative enclaves’).

But the BBC needs more than simply defending in its current state, as if any criticism will render it only more helpless in the face of a hostile government. If the BBC is to survive the mid-term review of the Royal Charter in 2022, let alone charter renewal in 2027, it will have to face up to its faults and make some radical changes without giving ground to some of the more specious claims of its opponents.

The UK should reform the television licence fee not because it is a poll tax but because it is technologically obsolete. It would be better to move to a household levy, as the Germans have done, and to make a public media charge independent of any specific platform. There’s nothing wrong in principle with a compulsory payment, as long as the BBC fulfils its remit to represent the voices and perspectives of all communities – something that, judging by its declining trust ratings, it is having trouble achieving.

The idea that there is no longer a need for public service media because we are super-served by streaming companies is absurd. Debt-fuelled companies such as Netflix, Disney and Comcast (the owners of Sky) are driven by wholly commercial considerations. It’s essential to have a countervailing voice, predicated neither on chasing the most rewarding demographics nor on cosying up to the establishment. More than ever, we need content that pays close attention to local voices and regional differences, and is insulated from both private and state interests.

Arguments for a subscription model are just a way of stripping away the BBC’s proclaimed universalism and turning it into yet another pay-TV service in hock to demographics more than diversity.

But the truth is that the BBC has lost its aura. For every innovative service developed, there are traditional inequities: the gender pay gap and the huge overrepresentation of executives who went to private schools and Oxbridge. For every declaration of independence, there is the awkward fact that the government, by making the over-75s pay for their licence fees, used the BBC to deliver its welfare policy. For every groundbreaking investigation and handsome drama, there is pro-government stenography and an unreflexive embrace of power. There is plenty of evidence, Owen Bennett-Jones, wrote in 2018, ‘that the BBC, in both its international and domestic manifestations, deserves the epithet “state broadcaster”.’

The BBC is in desperate need of modernisation, democratisation and radical reform, perhaps along the lines suggested by the Media Reform Coalition. This would involve the meaningful decentralisation of commissioning budgets and decision-making; wholesale changes to recruitment, especially at senior levels, to break the Oxbridge stranglehold; an overhaul of the understanding of ‘due impartiality’ that has allowed climate sceptics the same legitimacy as climate scientists; and a digital strategy that provides a platform for innovative and original content without multiple levels of interference from W1A (and without replicating the surveillance and data abuses of its commercial social media counterparts).

The level of the licence fee (or whatever replaces it) shouldn’t be decided by the chancellor and the director general behind closed doors; the public should have some influence on the commissioning process for programmes we pay for; and the government should have no influence over the appointments process, including the role of director general. We don’t need to ‘defend’ the BBC’s independence so much as to make it independent.

It’s too late to remain silent and to pretend that all is fine at the BBC in case we hand more ammunition to those who have long held a grudge against it. The best way of securing a future for public service media is to acknowledge the BBC’s structural faults, to make sweeping changes to its funding, governance and editorial processes, and to find ways to break down the walls that keep the public out.


  • 25 January 2020 at 7:02am
    neddy says:
    Was it really necessary to drag climate change into an otherwise good article? The issue with climate change is not the science; it is the people who push it, the reasons why they uncritically accept the apocalyptic forecasts, and, of course, their real political agenda. Why is it the left that push climate change so hard, and why do they do it? THAT is the most important question. Giving climate change skeptics equal air time with advocates is simply another way of offering the left and right sides of politics equal access to the public broadcaster. It seems to me, from here in Australia, that Boris Johnson's election victory implies the UK has at least as many right minded as left minded citizens.

    • 4 February 2020 at 6:24pm
      Richard Gregson says: @ neddy
      Oh dear - there is no “real political agenda”. There is simply sound, verifiable, peer-reviewed science. The causes of climate change are not debatable opinions, they are established facts.

  • 25 January 2020 at 7:18am
    Sean Delaney says:
    Des is absolutely right. The spirit of renewal he describes here is as of one with the Corbyn project.. Nothing less than a modern, forward looking ‘Reithian’ style cultural revolution is required, flanking a new Green deal for industry renewal. Working together, we Brits can truly raise the dead. Forget Prometheus, the meaning of a truly democratic peoples’ project today is a manifesto to forge a new Lazarus.

  • 26 January 2020 at 4:12am
    Laurie Strachan says:
    Didn't Neddy notice the actual apocalypse happening all around him as Australia caught fire? The road to my small property looks like one of those old photographs of the western front circa 1916 and everything round my house (which survived) is gone. Neddy also asks the wrong question which is - why does the right deny climate change? Perhaps that's because the answer is so obvious. The right is making huge profits from fossil fuels and not even the obvious risk of a climate armaggedon counts against that. They are simply climate criminals. Only their ownership of most of the mass media stops the world from seeing that.

    • 26 January 2020 at 11:00am
      neddy says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Fair comment Laurie. But to an extent you have reinforced my point. If the right's climate change denial/skepticism is based on their ownership of fossil fuels, implying a foul motive, one not related to seeking out and accepting the facts and implications of climate change, then what is the left's real underlying motive for accepting, without question, the apocalypse now/ Armageddon version of climate forecasts? Can the left, who gave us the USSR and its murdered millions, who gave us East Germany, North Korea, Cuba, and Communist China (which incarcerates millions of Uighers, and apparently performs organ harvesting upon its citizens without anesthesia) be trusted? As an aside, have you by any chance re-visited the early 20th century in the USA and other parts of the world, including Australia, and examined the dust bowls and droughts, the devastation of persons and communities, that occurred then? What would the left say if that was to occur now? The recent fires in Australia have been shocking, and I intend no offence to you, affected as you have been, in my comments. I am a volunteer.

    • 29 January 2020 at 1:17pm
      Reader says: @ neddy
      Can we not accept that the truth about climate change - whatever it is - is independent of whatever anyone thinks about it? Instead of examining the motives of people who believe in it, or not, can't we focus on examining the science? No doubt the left has nefarious reasons for believing in climate change as the right has nefarious reasons the other way. So what?

  • 26 January 2020 at 12:16pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    "Left-wingers and right-wingers both complain that the BBC is against them, so we must be getting it right" has become the automatic response to every allegation of BBC bias. They get away with it because both groups of critics would rather concentrate on their own grievances than point out the obvious truth: that they are both right, because the BBC is biased towards the centre.

    Reform is certainly needed, or some of us are going to start asking why we are being forced to subscribe to a mutual support organisation for Moderates who are traumatised at the violation of their divine right to control both major parties.

    The BBC always was an Establishment organisation, but in the past at least its leaders recognised that they were men of the elite. The linked article by Huw Edwards confirms my impression that nowadays, the BBC is staffed by people who genuinely view themselves as rebellious free thinkers, and simply don't see just how narrow and conformist their outlook is. They try hard to be impartial between the views that are considered respectable in their little circle; the only time they encounter other views is when people start shouting at them on Twitter, so they are conditioned to dismiss all accusations of bias as "trolling".

    (While I'm on the subject, a good start to any reform programme would be to ban all BBC journalists from being on Twitter, on the grounds that its design makes it unsuitable either for debate or substantive reporting, and it's only of use for advertising one's personal opinions, which BBC journalists shouldn't be doing anyway. That would weed out the egos.)

    • 26 January 2020 at 9:48pm
      Eddie says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Very well put, if I may say so. But we may miss it (some of the international news coverage anyway) when it’s gone.

  • 27 January 2020 at 11:29pm
    Laurie Strachan says:
    Oh, neddy . . . please spare us the reds under the bed rhetoric. It's irrelevant here. Not everyone to the left of Scomo is a communist and we really don't want to send you to a gulag on Christmas Island. I've told you why I believe the right is denialist, tell me why you believe the left isn't. What is the deep and mysterious reason and why does it threaten us more than global heating?

    • 29 January 2020 at 8:11am
      neddy says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Just a PS Laurie. I assume that as you consider the right, by owning fossil fuels (your claim) to be "climate criminals", that you yourself do not benefit from their crimes? I trust you do not drive a diesel or petrol vehicle; that if you drive all electric vehicles, then the electricity comes 100% from solar or wind; I assume you do not use gas at home or in your business; that you do not use any electricity in your home or business that is derived from fossil fuels; that you do not fly; that you do not have any plastics in your home or business. I could go on, but I think I've labored the point sufficiently. In addition I assume you do not breathe out carbon dioxide. None of the above of course is true. Since you live (I believe, given your earlier comment re your proximity to the bush fires) in rural Australia, you are a fossil fuel, and therefore a carbon dioxide, addict.

    • 30 January 2020 at 8:14am
      Delaide says: @ neddy
      Neddy, instead of Left vs Right I recommend you consider reframing the issue as Progressives vs Conservatives. That may lessen the likelihood of you weakening your argument by referencing totalitarian regimes.

      I agree it is valid to consider the science behind calls for climate change action but you haven’t addressed any specific scientific questions. My reading is that the scientific consensus is overwhelming. I refer you to the recent letter from BackRock, the huge US investment fund. I doubt that they could even be labeled as Progressives and surely not Leftists.

    • 30 January 2020 at 9:02am
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      I accept your points. I am not a denier, or a questioner or skeptic. In recent elections in Australia the Labor Party offered a version of a Green New Deal, which was rejected by the electorate, against all expectations. Keep in mind that voting in Australia is compulsory. In the recent UK elections Labor offered a Green New Deal, which was also rejected. In the USA the Democrats are touting a massive Green New Deal, and that, too, is likely to be rejected, even though the current President would have to be the easiest President to beat (electorally) in all US history. One of the reasons climate change and Green New Deals are proving such a hard sell is their proximity to left wing bosoms. The relentless banging of the climate change drum by Australia's ABC, and left leaning newspapers, has made the public here suspicious and cynical. That is why I made my original point: was it necessary to drag climate change into an article - a good one - on reforming the UK's BBC.

    • 31 January 2020 at 2:27am
      Delaide says: @ neddy
      You self-describe as neither a denier, a sceptic or a questioner but it’s hard to see that as a match with your earlier comments. Your argument seems to come down to Progressive organisations ‘banging on’ about climate being substantially responsible for electorates rejecting ‘green deals’. Do you not think that, in Australia at least, the conservative ideology coming from the Coalition and The Australian, Andrew Bolt etc might be a more likely explanation? They’ve been banging on quite a bit, as have you in your responses to Des Freeman’s blog post, to add an ungracious remark.

    • 31 January 2020 at 7:42am
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      Yes, you're right. I don't read The Australian or listen to Andrew Bolt, but I am aware that both are climate change deniers. The only news and current affairs programs I bother with in Australia are provided by the ABC. And I can't deny that I have been banging on quite a bit myself. There's usually a good time to bow out of a controversy; I hear the bugle playing the last post.

    • 1 February 2020 at 5:17am
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      As a PS. It only occurred to me today that @Delaide implies you are a citizen of Adelaide in Australia. Clever - if I'm right. Adelaide is my home town as well, although I have been living in Melbourne for some 35 years. I plan to return to Adelaide in the next 2 to 3 years as I love the city as well as it being where I grew up, went to university, found my first job - in Don Dunstan's Premier's Department - bought my first property (at Glenelg), and met my wife. Ain't it a small world?

    • 1 February 2020 at 12:51pm
      Delaide says: @ neddy
      Yes, spot on Neddy; my moniker is an amalgam of my surname and city. I’m sure you’ll enjoy life here but don’t leave it too long. You’ll want to arrive before your property at the delightful beachside suburb of Glenelg is underwater. :-)

    • 5 February 2020 at 12:52pm
      Reader says: @ neddy
      Thank you, Neddy, for introducing me to a new (to me) and interesting argument against action to combat climate change. It's a valuable addition to a compilation I am producing of plausible but fallacious forms of persuasion.

      The point you are making is that if we cannot move immediately and totally towards green policies, then all action is futile. And anyone advocating green policies who is not themselves a non-producer of CO2, is simply a hypocrite. Even breathing produces greenhouse gas, so there is no point in bothering at all.

      Personally I'm not persuaded by this, but I'm glad you gave such articulate expression to it. As the fossil fuel lobby moves away from outright denial of the reality of climate change, I have no doubt we will see this type of argument repeated increasingly often.

  • 28 January 2020 at 11:20am
    Reader says:
    Genesis tells us that God would have saved Sodom and Gomorrah if even as few as ten just men had been found there. If I had the choice on whether to preserve the BBC in something like its present form, my decision would rest on whether or not its news coverage, domestic and international, fulfilled the basic criteria of impartiality and completeness. If it does, then its other failings – and they are legion – do not justify killing it off.

    What is the verdict? Orwell had no illusions about the BBC’s news coverage, having worked there during the war, but he still thought that it was better than the alternatives. Experience of the commercial media teaches us that we cannot rely on any of them not to lie to us about world events, that is if they even attempt to cover the news at all. Until there is a better alternative, we should preserve the BBC as a news source. It is expensive and may not seem good value for money, but so is insurance until you actually need it.

  • 28 January 2020 at 11:29am
    Reader says:
    I am constantly baffled by the need to drag politics into what is fundamentally a scientific issue. Either climate change is real, or it is not. So far, the evidence suggests that it is real - it is not only happening now, but the figures suggest that the effects have been growing over the past couple of centuries.

    Politics comes into play legitimately, when deciding what to do about it. Here there are real alternatives and a sensible discussion would be examining these, and their costs, and arriving at a consensus. But the right, or part of it, seems to have decided to present the climate science as a conspiracy theory. I can see that this brings political benefits in the short term, but eventually it will bring retribution when the effects of global warming become too obvious to ignore.

    In the pursuit of immediate goals, the right is ensuring its defeat in the long term. That does not seem very intelligent, even from a purely self-interested point of view.

  • 28 January 2020 at 1:17pm
    staberinde says:
    I could have done without all the hand-wringing at the beginning of the piece, but i think the proposal has great merit.

    The BBC should become an Arts Council-style funder of British television and radio programming, with a remit to represent the diversity of British people and voices in these media.

    We've already seen that model in action somewhat with BBC Film. And we've seen BBC co-productions ensuring that British talent (both in front of and behind the camera) can be influential in a world where American firms can dominate by using their much greater domestic scale.

    I would, however, like to add something more to the future remit: training and development. The BBC today effectively trains the British broadcasting industry and should continue to contribute in this way. If we want to continue seeing British talent doing more than making soaps and talent shows, in this country and beyond, we need the BBC to continue serving as the industry's training academy.

  • 29 January 2020 at 11:18pm
    Laurie Strachan says:
    No, neddy, what I'm saying is this - it's the denial of the science and the blocking of action to cut emissions that is criminal. As for the rest of that post . . . of course it's impossible to live completely without fossil fuels but that's exactly what has to change.

    • 30 January 2020 at 8:39am
      neddy says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Indeed Laurie. And the longer the right succeeds in blocking action, the longer you will be able to enjoy your existing fossil fueled life. If the right are criminals for denying and blocking, and thereby protecting their assets, then how innocent are you, a person who accepts the science and the seriousness of the situation (as do I), but turns his back on the personal adjustments required. I assume you haven't adjusted, otherwise you would probably have trumpeted your sacrifices in your last post. I do have roof top solar, with Tesla batteries. I have shut off gas completely, going all electric, and while I own diesel and petrol cars, I have a Mercedes Benz EQC all electric vehicle on order. Must have my status goods!

  • 30 January 2020 at 10:02pm
    Anaximander says:
    "No. not another divisive regional prog!"
    That's what your plan would educe. And I'm Yorkshire born.
    I've no idea if it's the Oxbridgeites who stop that happening, but someone obviously realises that RP is both welcomed and resented at the same time. So it's tolerated.

    There has always been an anti-BBC political faction, as there has been a Eurosceptic one (and there's plenty of overlap there).

    Remember, though, that Ayn Rand depended in old age on socialised medecine.

  • 5 February 2020 at 9:36am
    brotherrandor says:
    The BBC mirrors the Guardian on many key issues: global warming is an existential threat, immigration is a positive thing, it's good to be gay, women are still treated unfairly, the UK should be in the EU. Whether you disagree or agree with the BBC on these issues (I am split) it is quite reasonable for Boris and Dominic to see many Roundheads and very few Cavaliers atop the BBC's bastions.

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