Over the past ten years, the BBC has steadily faced more criticism from a British public increasingly divided into right-wing and left-wing political camps. These criticisms have included ongoing accusations surrounding the BBC’s impartiality in both news and programming. Here the right-wing claims the corporation has a left bias, and the left claims the corporation is in the pockets of the right. This toxic debate has only increased further due to Brexit in a country more divided than ever over its place in the world. However, these accusations are rarely levelled at any other broadcaster, including the BBC’s commercial rivals.
We all pay for the BBC through a license fee, currently set at £159 a year for news, radio, current affairs, TV, Iplayer and more. In many ways, this license fee is no different to a subscription, other than the fact it’s legally mandated. However, successive governments have sought to use the licence fee as a political football, often wielding the axe when it suits the political climate. While at the same time, asking the BBC to pick up the costs of political promises that the government of the day is no longer willing to pay (e.g. free licences for the over 75’s).
The BBC Radio 6 Music website.
At the heart of this constant political interference in the running of the BBC sits a lack of understanding of what the BBC is and what it does. After all, the BBC has become an integral and often overlooked part of our daily lives. The BBC is one of the last bastions of global public service broadcasting. This is an organisation that not only led the birth of television and radio in the 1920s and 30s but, in doing so, became one of the worlds most iconic TV brands. Over 100 years, the BBC has become a part of the U.K’s national identity, a soft power more significant than that of either Harry Potter or James Bond in global recognition.
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The BBC reflects the best of British creativity, journalism and entertainment across the globe while also providing a training ground for new filmmakers, artists and journalists. Its news coverage is seen as a safe pair of hands when the world faces its biggest problems. Meanwhile, its warm embrace of music and the arts is visible through BBC Introducing, music festival coverage, radio plays and national events of remembrance and celebration. This remarkable diversity of content is unique yet often uncelebrated in a nation that has become accustomed to what the BBC offers. However, due to our collective complacency, many have brought into a range of political arguments that the BBC funding settlement is nothing but an unneeded tax.
But this concept of an unfair tax could not be further from the truth; after all, the license fee means we all own the BBC and share in its success. Many arguments against the licence fee centre on comments such as, “I don’t watch the BBC, so why should I pay for it”. However, this in its self is an interesting yet confused standpoint. After all, are those making this argument suggesting they have never accessed BBC Online, TV, Radio, News or iPlayer? And in truth, we all pay for public services we may or may not use, from libraries to community centres and early years education.
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The reality is, we all consume the BBC, so why are some so reluctant to pay? There is no doubt the landscape of TV and media is changing. In this new landscape, people happily subscribe to Netflix, Disney +, Apple TV or SKY, all of whom provide a range of content behind a paywall. Netflix comes in at £13.99 a month for 4K, while Apple TV + is £4.99 per month and Disney + £7.99. Of course, all of these services provide great content, but none offer you the extensive package of entertainment, education, kids TV and news the BBC does.
In comparison, the BBC costs less than Netflix 4K every month. Of course, many will argue that the debate lies in the fact that you have to pay for the BBC rather than opting in as with Netflix. But are we not already in a media landscape where most people feel they have no choice but to pay for Netflix, Disney + or Amazon Prime due to new content their families, kids or partners wish to access. In fact, for any household subscribing to multiple platforms, the costs can easily reach over £50 a month. Yet even if you subscribe to numerous outlets, the combined packages still offer less than the BBC.
BBC Children in Need 2018
Many commentators state the BBC should go behind a paywall, becoming a subscription service like Netflix. But what would this look like? Well, for a start, it would likely mean no radio, no TV channels, no BBC Bitesize, no national and local news and limited online content. But more than that, it would be the end of national shared moments in TV, the end of TV coverage of national celebrations and remembrance and the end of weekly treats like Strictly Come Dancing. The alternative would be the privatisation of the BBC, allowing for commercials, sponsorship and private ownership. But would this improve the variety of content on offer? Or would it simply open the door to 100 years of treasures being put up for sale to the highest bidder?
These questions are central to the BBC we want both nationally and internationally in the coming years. Here decisions need to be based on balanced and informed public debate, not a political ideology born from cultural division. Policymakers and audiences need to reflect on and learn from the other global models of public service broadcasting, from direct taxation to charitable arms-length bodies, before sweeping away a funding formula that has worked for many years. For example, do we want a minimal style PBS as in America or a rundown and stifled ABC as in Australia. But even more importantly, do we want a scaled back broadcaster paid for by the government, allowing for further political meddling.
Ultimately we need to ask ourselves what kind of BBC we are all willing to pay for? Is it one that embraces the best of British talent, creativity and innovation? Or is it one hidden behind a paywall? Either way, we must avoid the BBC becoming a political football. After all, the BBC is not just a corporation; it is a part of our collective national consciousness.
The BBC is a pioneer of television and radio; it has informed, entertained and educated the nation for nearly 100 years. It is a corporation respected worldwide and admired for its honesty and integrity in its news, no matter what any politician may tell you. Like any corporation, it has its faults, but its strengths outweigh these. The BBC is ours, and it remains ours while we all contribute financially to its future.