It is a depressing measure of the man in 10 Downing Street that he must respond to his self-inflicted wounds by trying to destroy the BBC, the country’s most globally respected institution. This is what termination of license fees in 2027, as suggested by Nadine Dorries, Secretary of Culture, would have meant. In his honor, the cabinet revolted against this. But a mixture of selfishness and regret might have done great harm. It still could.
Many claim that the arguments for a well-funded public service broadcaster have been undermined by the proliferation of new media. Others say the BBC is biased. Some argue both things. They are wrong, on both counts.
Above all, the issue of public broadcasting has become more powerful in an era of increasing new media and news services, no less. Public service broadcasting provides three essential goods: a foundation of shared news; an institution that can hold powerful figures to account; and an abundance of cultural assets. Some of these are of worldwide relevance: in an era of fake news from Moscow and elsewhere, the BBC World Service is essential.
According to the latest report on digital news from the Reuters Institute at Oxford, BBC News has by far the largest reach of any news organization in the UK, both offline (TV, radio and print) and online. It is also the most trusted news brand. Of the 46 countries covered by the report, it is the Americans, with the most fragmented and ideologically divided news media, who trust their news the least. It is a leading cause and symptom of division now threatens American democracy.
Without reliable information, democracy must emerge. It takes training and experience to generate such information. It again depends on institutions with histories and embedded values. Conservatives need to understand that. The BBC is also a bargaining chip, costing only about 0.2 per cent of GDP.
Many on the Tory right are complaining about the lack of BBC impartiality, especially over Brexit. I agree, albeit in the opposite direction: the BBC’s determination to give equal time to the absurd arguments of Brexiters and the correct arguments of Remainers was truly deadly. But the fact that almost everyone agrees that the BBC has failed in the core task of impartiality shows it has succeeded. The obligation to be impartial in a time of deep division is surely offensive to all. The BBC has in fact done more to make the referendum a national debate, however flawed, than any other institution. I recognize it, even though I loathe the outcome.
As the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.The BBC has helped keep our most divisive national debates anchored in a factual basis. The existence of respected public service broadcasters makes it much more difficult – not impossible, just difficult – for politicians to make up facts. This is something the US lacks. The more divided countries become, the more important it is.
Power services and other innovations have indeed changed the environment. The BBC needs to adapt to this change. Yet, as the House of Commons Select Committee’s report on The future of public service broadcastingg, published last year, noted: “In 2019, state broadcasters provided approximately 32,000 hours of UK content, while Netflix and Amazon Prime together provided 164 hours.” Netflix itself acknowledges the role of the BBC in creatively building the UK profile. The BBC has played a major role in the development of our modern culture. Can anyone think that something so productive could replace it?
It is very reasonable to ask whether the BBC should be funded differently. There are other options, especially a household levy, as used in Germany. Levies linked to council tax or even proportional to income, the rate of which is set for years to come, can also be an option.
Yet the fundamental principles remain valid. We must keep the BBC as an independently funded public service broadcaster free from political control. It should be a permanent institution, not just a set of temporary contracts. It must embody the values that have sustained it over a century and admired and respected it worldwide. As the House of Commons Committee put it: “Public service broadcasters are an essential tool against misinformation in an age of social media, providing accurate, reliable and trustworthy news.”
In our era of divisions, conspiracy theories and lies, the BBC has become more important than ever. Changes must be made carefully and on a multi-party basis. The BBC belongs to everyone. The government is merely the temporary trustee. His duty is to act as one.