Is the BBC a British institution worth defending?

10 mins read

Over the past ten years the BBC has faced more and more criticism from a British public increasingly divided into right-wing and left-wing political camps. Bringing accusations surrounding the BBC’s impartiality in both news and programming. With the right-wing claiming the corporation has a left bias and the left claiming it is in the pocket of the right. Attacks that have only increased as a result of the divisive Brexit years, as the UK grapples with increasing social divide.

These accusations are rarely levelled at any other broadcaster, including the commercial competition on ITV. But as a public broadcaster that often reflects the society it serves; the BBC has found itself on the front line of both generational and social divide. With it position brought into question in News, current affairs and TV shows. From comments of Doctor Who being too politically correct. To audiences on Question Time coming under scrutiny for being too pro-Brexit or too anti-Brexit, depending on the viewers own stand point.

Added to this, public support for a license fee has continued to dwindle. While successive Governments having increased their interference in both the license fee and wider BBC operations. Often wielding the potential axe when the BBC has dared step out of line. While in turn expecting the BBC to pick up costs that the Government of the day is no longer willing to pay.

However, at the heart of this dwindling support for the BBC there is a distinct lack of public understanding on what the BBC is and what it does. Within a general public where the BBC has become an integral and often overlooked part of our daily lives. One that we all seem to have collectively forgotten the importance and value of, both nationally and globally.

Dracula (BBC One)

The BBC is the last truly global public service broadcaster in existence. An organisation that not only led the birth of television and radio in 1920s. But also developed many of the worlds most iconic TV brands and shows. Expanding British creative and soft power abroad through entertainment, news and innovation. Over 93 years it has embedded itself into our national identity and pride. As it reflects the best of British creativity, journalism and entertainment across the globe. While also having become an integral part of British filmmaking and theatre in providing a training ground for some of our brightest talents. While its journalism continues to be admired across the globe. As a safe pair of hands that bring comment free from commercial and political control on both TV and radio.

Meanwhile the BBC continues to encourage and support musical talent from Adele to George Ezra through BBC introducing; while bringing its audiences live music festivals, diverse radio and national events of remembrance and celebration. This remarkable diversity has only been made possible due to us all funding its work. With a license fee that amounts to £154 annually. That’s £12 per month, compared to £11.99 for a Netflix premium plan that offers less than half the content of the BBC.

However, despite the value the BBC offers, the relationship between the public and the corporation is in trouble. As people slowly believe a political narrative that the BBC doesn’t offer value for money. With public comments including “I don’t watch the BBC so why should I pay for it”. This is interesting when you consider the fact that we all pay tax for public services, including those we may never access. A fundamental concept of how public service works in ensuring we all are catered for.

And to this extent the BBC is no different. After all I will never use BBC Bitesize revision, or learning platforms aimed at children. But that does not mean I am not happy to help fund it for those who do. And let’s be honest, how accurate is the statement ‘I never use the BBC? After all that would mean avoiding BBC iPlayer, local and national radio stations, BBC online, BBC One, Two, Three, BBC Four, Cbebbies, CBBC, BBC News, BBC Sport and BBC Sounds.

The reality is, we all consume the BBC at some point during our day, week, month or year. So why are some people so reluctant to pay? When many people will happily subscribe to Netflix, Amazon or expensive SKY packages that often offer less value for money.

Zoe Ball and Gregg James BBC Radio 2

The answer may be routed in our shared complacency of what the BBC offers to our daily lives. Something that would suddenly become apparent if the BBC shut down all its operations for one week. And while many argue for advertising or privatisation, the same people often complain about the ad breaks in ITV and Channel 4 programming. While relishing the ability to watch BBC iPlayer free from adverting or monthly subscription.

It’s a similar story with the argument that the BBC should transform into subscription service. With many pointing towards platforms like HBO or Netflix as comparable solutions. However once again this fails to understand the BBC’s output. Where both news and radio play a significant role in both national and international output. Therefore, while a subscription model would lead to a single platform for programmes, drama or documentaries. It would also mark the end of the national open access TV platform, local and national news and dedicated children’s programming. While radio would left to the commercial sector, where repeated pop playlists reign supreme at the cost of any meaningful dialogue or discussion.

So let’s reflect on the platforms the BBC is being urged to copy. Does Sky offer the same quality as the BBC? Or is it mainly a mere playground for purchased American TV shows? Does Netflix influence public debate both in the UK and globally? Or does it merely provide a platform for a limited number of great drama’s per year? Does HBO offer dedicated and home grow children’s content? Or is it mainly focussed on adult drama? And finally does any other comparative commercial broadcaster offer the diversity of news, entertainment, radio and learning the BBC does? Or are the majority of commercial broadcasters subject to profit based programming?

These questions are central to the BBC we want both nationally and internationally in the coming years. Questions that will either see the UK adopt an American media model. Where politically driven ownership of media corporations can directly impact content. Or create a limited access model through subscription, where the jury is still out on both sustainability and impact. Equally, we should both reflect on, and learn from other global models of public service broadcasting. From direct taxation to charitable arms length bodies. Or the minimal PBS system in America, and the slow disappearing ABC in Australia (once modelled on the BBC).

Therefore, the question must be, what kind of BBC are we all willing to pay for? One that embraces the best of British talent, creativity and innovation. Or a limited service that slowly becomes more redundant in a world of mega rich media companies?

BBC Children in Need (2018)

Any public service broadcaster, the BBC included, can become a political football in the wrong hands. Especially at a time when politics reaches into the extremes of both the hard left and hard right.

The BBC is not just a corporation, it is a part of our British consciousness. An institution that pioneered television, informed a nation, celebrated our national identity, created childhood memories and furthered quality and innovation in broadcasting. And just like any institution, it has its faults, many of which are due to constant worries about its future. But despite these the BBC provides a unique birthing pool of UK creative talent. And surely without it we would loose part of our our national identity. While also loosing our distinctive and powerful voice in global TV, film and media.

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