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The BBC’s precarious future

The BBC’s precarious future

The Government has begun a “root and branch” review of the corporation, questioning its funding, scale, impartiality and purpose



How popular is the BBC?

According to the BBC, 46 million people in the UK watch, listen to or browse its services for an average of 18 hours a week (about two-and-a-half hours a day). Since it was founded – in 1922, with just four employees – the BBC has grown to become the world’s largest public broadcaster: it has nine TV stations, ten national radio stations, a workforce of 21,000, a huge online presence, and programmes, films and news channels reaching every corner of the globe. On a weekly basis, it has a total international audience of 308 million: one in 16 adults gets their news from it. The BBC’s mission, said its founding director general, John Reith, is to “inform, educate and entertain”, and its supporters insist it’s done this brilliantly for the past 93 years. “The BBC… remains one of the reasons to live in Britain,” says Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman.

Does it need to persuade politicians to share that view?

Every decade or so, the BBC must have its royal charter – first granted in 1927 – renewed by government. There is no fixed term for the charter (it’s usually ten years), or fixed process for how it should be updated (it can “take months, or an afternoon”, say officials), but negotiations normally involve some soul-searching about what “Auntie” is for. There has often been enmity between the broadcaster and government – Margaret Thatcher found the BBC “left-wing, monopolistic, anti-her”; Tony Blair disagreed with its coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war – but its essential purpose and funding model, which now brings in about £5bn a year, has been left untouched for decades. However, the next charter renewal – which the Government began debating last week, to be agreed by the end of 2016 – may be very different.

What is the main reason for that?

Technology. The rapidly changing way we consume TV, films and digital content – ten years ago, iPlayer didn’t exist, and Facebook had just 5.5 million users: it now has more than 1.4 billion – is posing questions about what the broadcaster should be doing, and how that should be paid for. Since its founding, the BBC has been funded through a licence fee (the first, radio, licences cost ten shillings a year – £43 in today’s money), which made for a straightforward, mutually beneficial relationship with the British public. The more people who tuned in, the more funding the BBC got. But these days, with viewers increasingly watching entertainment on computers (currently not covered by the licence fee), that no longer applies. The very definition of a “broadcaster” has become fluid, with the BBC now competing with newspaper websites, and tech companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Google and Apple.

Is technology the only issue?

No: Britain’s first Tory-only government since 1997 also contains a number of ideological critics of the BBC. They believe the broadcaster has an institutional left-wing bias (see box); that it lost valuable credibility in its handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal; and that it has outgrown its original public service mandate. Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who’ll be leading the charter renewal negotiations, has called the BBC “the most wasteful, bloated organisation on the planet”. He has also criticised it for paying presenters such as Chris Evans millions of pounds, and for making big, splashy programmes, such as The Voice and Strictly, the likes of which are already available from commercial TV companies. And Chancellor George Osborne has criticised the BBC’s website, a publicly funded rival to newspapers, as becoming “imperial in its ambitions”.

What is the Government’s plan?

Ministers have already shown clear signs of wanting to cut the corporation down to size. Last week, Whittingdale launched the charter debate by appointing an eight-member “advisory group”, largely made up of critics and industry rivals, to carry out a “root and branch” review of the BBC, examining everything from its purpose to its funding. Earlier this month, Osborne ordered the BBC to pay for the free TV licences for the over-75s, at a cost of £650m. Meanwhile, the law may be changed to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee (for which around 30 people a year are jailed), a sign the Government may consider axing the BBC’s main source of income entirely (last year, fees accounted for £3.7bn of its £4.8bn income; the rest came from worldwide sales of shows such as Top Gear and Sherlock).

And why would it want to do that?

To critics, the licence fee is regressive (most of its take comes from low-income earners); full of loopholes (such as iPlayer); and squandered (on inflated salaries for TV stars, for example). It would be fairer all around, they say, to switch to a subscription model, with viewers and listeners paying for what they consume (57% of British households currently have a TV subscription with the likes of Sky and Virgin). The Government could then establish a new fund for purely public service broadcasting, which the BBC could pitch for, alongside other media companies and broadcasters.

Is that likely to happen?

Not in the current charter renewal. Though Whittingdale backs the idea in principle, he says the technology for a subscription model doesn’t exist yet. However, as BBC director general Tony Hall admits: “I think we are at the end of a period of, as it were, unbridled expansion of the BBC.” To those holding true to the BBC’s original mission to provide broadcasting of all kinds to all people, abolishing the licence fee, and turning Auntie into just another content provider, is anathema. At the heart of the issue is the principle of “universality”: it is this that has made the BBC both a beloved national institution and an unfair competitor to its rivals. Over the next year, expect heart-wringing appeals and furious petitioning as the two sides compete to win your support.

The b-word

One contentious area the Government review will look at is how the BBC meets its “impartiality obligations” – bias, in short. To many people (social conservatives, Christians, free-market enthusiasts, Eurosceptics) the BBC shows evident left-wing, politically correct bias in its news programmes. A 2013 study by right-of-centre think tank the Centre for Policy Studies found that its online news reports were more than twice as likely to quote left-wing policy proposals as right-wing ideas. Critics seize on the BBC’s adoption of Labour language – “the bedroom tax”, “the privatisation of the NHS”.

But it’s not a charge that can be levelled at many of the senior personnel involved. Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, was once the Young Conservatives’ chairman; Andrew Neil, who presents three political programmes a week, was a Tory party researcher. The BBC has had ten Tory politicians as chairs (most recently, Lord Patten), but only two from Labour. But Auntie’s best defence against all-out attack from this Government is the huge popularity of its programmes and radio stations in Middle England. “If there were ever a real threat to the BBC,” says ex-Labour minister James Purnell, now the BBC’s strategy chief, Auntie’s strongest supporters would be “Conservative voters”.

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