Digital license

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Digital license

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The BBC is the world’s largest broadcaster, with a long list of sins. But now that its licence fee is being raided and its output attacked, we must defend this powerful, plural national institution

You can also read a specially extended version of Prospect’s exclusive interview with BBC director-general Mark Thompson for free on our website here

The BBC is caught in a series of contradictions that may prove fatal. The first of these, about which it worries most, concerns the licence fee. British citizens who have a television set must pay, on pain of fine or imprisonment, £142.50 a year—even if they never watch a BBC programme. From this, it gathered £3.4bn between 2007 and 2008. The profits on sales of programmes and other activities by BBC Worldwide give it a further £118m annually. This money funds the terrestrial BBC One and BBC Two channels, plus the digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four, BBC News, BBC Parliament and the children’s channels CBBC and CBeebies, as well as a vast and much visited website, five national radio stations and new digital additions like 5 Live Sports Extra, 1Xtra (black and soul music), BBC 7 (comedy) and the BBC Asian Network—as well as Radios Scotland, Wales and Ulster, and a network of local stations. It broadcasts to the world in some 33 languages, claims an audience of around 200m with a grant from the foreign office of £255m. It is the biggest broadcaster in the world. Though BBC executives could give master classes in British self-deprecation, modest it isn’t.

But for how much longer will all of this be possible? In mid June, the communications minister Stephen Carter published his “Digital Britain” report, calling for consultations on whether the BBC should give up £130m a year—3.5 per cent of the licence fee—to assist its struggling commercial rivals, so that they can continue to provide a competing news service. That sum of money will not break the corporation but it does seem to breach the adamantine wall that it has since 1922 held against any raid on its licence fee. Michael Lyons, the BBC’s chairman, sees the Carter proposals as the thin end of a wedge which will ultimately lead to a cash-strapped rump of a corporation. And if anything a new Tory government will be worse. In a wide-ranging recent interview with Prospect, BBC director-general Mark Thompson (see highlights, p57) said he thought that the Conservatives would be less likely to “top slice” the BBC licence fee than Labour. But that is only because they almost certainly favour lowering the licence fee, giving that slice of funding (and more) back to the taxpayer. In either case the BBC’s funding model seems in peril.

Those of us who have come to love the Beeb can defend our passion, but we have to recognise the strength of the cases against it. Nobody would create such a behemoth today: the argument that enough popular and public service provision already exists would be too strong. Commercial television—both the free terrestrial kind, such as ITV, as well as the paid-for kind, in the Sky family of channels—provides decent popular drama, reality and game shows, and more. Coronation Street (ITV) remains the most popular soap opera, and Britain’s Got Talent (ITV) is the most popular programme, with an audience for the May final of 18m. Ambitious drama is, to be sure, rarer on the commercial channels. Channel 4 did Endgame in April, a subtle dramatisation of the negotiations that helped end apartheid, as well as Red Riding in March, a dystopian fantasy about the North Yorkshire police. Both were thought-provoking, and finely acted and produced. That isn’t much and, indeed, there isn’t much outside of the BBC: but then, how much ambitious drama do people want? One can object that ITV has, in closing the often marvellous South Bank Show, ceased to do arts coverage: but Sky gives its subscribers, at a reasonable price, two arts channels with performances of opera, music of all kinds, theatre, interviews, biographies and so on. (And the BBC doesn’t always get its arts coverage right, either. See David Herman’s criticism of its poetry season, p83.) Sport, too, is wall-to-wall on three Sky channels, as is film; with films also free on TCM and Film4. This is before you factor in the vast, worldwide wealth of the internet, and such huge repositories of video as YouTube, on which, for example, you could watch the whole of Barack Obama’s great speech on race in March 2008 within hours of its delivery. BBC news bulletins cannot give you this.

It is the BBC’s vast spread, equally vast expenditure and its ongoing assumption of a right to charge a licence fee that most annoy its critics. Barry Cox, a former ITV executive and deputy chairman of Channel 4, believes that the BBC has become unsustainable. The present funding crisis in ITV and C4 exposes the BBC, he thinks, as a monster gobbling up resources and killing competition; and though it is necessary to publicly fund some of the nation’s cultural production, such subsidies should be open to outside bidders—a system hinted at in Carter’s proposals. Otherwise Cox thinks choice in television should be as market-based as the magazines on a newsagent’s shelf. Such critics point to a contradiction between the argument, often made by the BBC, that it must cover everything from serious news to light entertainment in order to win public backing for its now threatened licence fee, and the narrower justification of the BBC in the market’s failure to provide serious and highbrow programmes. One points to a very large BBC, the other to a much smaller one.

Variants of these criticisms are common in newspaper commentary, as in a May 2009 article in the Sunday Times by Minette Marrin, who called for the BBC to be reduced to BBC One , Radio 4, Radio 3 and the World Service, with an estimated saving of 80 per cent of the licence fee. “There is no reason,” she wrote, “that a public subsidy should be used to make low-level chat shows, populist lifestyle programmes, asinine breakfast time witterings, dumbed down pop music channels, undistinguished cooking and travel shows and all the rest…”

It’s no longer helpful to the BBC that such commentary normally comes from the right. With the long centre-left hegemony closing, the corporation’s natural allies in the progressive quarters of the commentariat have less heft with which to protest against cuts to the licence fee, especially now a Labour government, with Carter’s proposals, has sanctioned the first such raid.

Mark Thompson’s response to this is to accept that there is a potential “tension” between the licence fee’s reach and market failure arguments, but he adds: “Market failure is more broadly distributed across genres than is often realised… for example we are more or less the only serious player in broadcast comedy.” And where it does rub up against the commercial sector, he says the corporation strives to be distinctive: “The requirement on Radio 1 to be distinctive is probably greater than that on Radio 4, precisely because it’s closer to other services the market is providing.”

It is in news and current affairs, however, that the BBC really excels—though even admirers would have to acknowledge that ITV still provides a well-presented news service; that C4 news is the only daily bulletin to risk a full hour; and that Sky News is the most watchable 24-hour news outlet, with a fine political editor in Adam Boulton. In short, even if the BBC went off the air, we would be tolerably well informed—more, probably, than a large majority of us would choose to be. And here lies another giant problem for the BBC, which for all its reach and professionalism in current affairs is haemorrhaging viewers. In the 1990s, the main news programmes were watched by 10m or more: now, the BBC reaches only 4m with its News at Six and a bit more with its News at Ten; while Panorama goes out on primetime BBC One on a Monday evening to audiences that only exceptionally top 3m. The nightly Newsnight has around 1m viewers. The BBC does host a profusion of documentaries of every kind, made both by the BBC itself and by independent producers, and they are generally of a quality unmatched elsewhere. (Earlier this year it broadcast a series on Iran and the West, by the inimitable Norma Percy of Brook Lapping productions—one which took the painstaking Percy an extended time to make, while the BBC bore with her, as it alone can do. But such programmes attract only a few hundred thousand viewers.)

It is the profusion of choice that has shrunk the audiences for such work. But there is another problem that a publicly-funded organisation must take seriously: that many viewers find much of the news it reports baffling. One of the frankest admissions of this was by Thompson himself in a speech last year, entitled “On trust.” Thompson, pointing to the complexity of contemporary events, conjectured that “it’s not that people… feel that all politicians are liars. It’s rather that they find much of what politicians say, not just unverifiable, but unintelligible.” In a June report for the Reuters Institute, “Public Trust in the News,” Stephen Coleman, Scott Anthony and David E Morrison, basing their findings on focus groups, found that the majority of people did not understand the news and, as Thompson says, therefore did not “trust” it. This is not a problem for the BBC alone, but such findings chip away at another of its defences: that the licence fee allows it to reach parts of the population other private broadcasters can’t touch. If, at the heart of its public service mission, there are shrivelling audiences and incomprehension, such reach is exceeding its grasp. Thompson, naturally, dismisses this. “The BBC’s reach and perceived indispensability to virtually every household in the UK still feels very secure,” he says.

While the BBC is often criticised for its licence fee “poll tax,” it is also slammed for providing services free at a time when the commercial competition is gasping for an income stream. Newspapers, facing an existential threat from the internet, need to “monetise” the websites that are bringing them many extra readers—but little cash. Rupert Murdoch announced in May that his newspapers would start charging for content—an attempt to break the assumption that the content displayed on the internet, some of which has cost large amounts of money, should be free.

Clearly, this assumption of free provision threatens any commercial business model; but it has the opposite effect on the BBC. The corporation has made its income before it begins to provide, and its public service mission is perfectly in tune with the internet philosophy—that information, news, analysis and much else should be free. As Thompson says: “The licence fee is rather a successful business model in a digital context, while other forms of monetisation are very hard.” But that means that, in fulfilling its mission, the BBC helps to destroy what might be the newspapers’ salvation. Further, it intrudes into their sphere. BBC Worldwide sells BBC programmes, owns BBC America plus shares in television production companies worldwide and is the third largest magazine publisher in Britain—most recently buying the Lonely Planet guides, causing some publishers to scream with pain.

Thompson, when the Lonely Planet case was put to him, was uncharacteristically hesitant, saying only, “you can debate it.” But he makes a large thing of an internal BBC savings programme that asks highly-paid stars to take 40 per cent pay cuts. “There is a privilege and relative security in having the licence fee. And this brings obligations and duties… the BBC is currently engaged in a massively expanded programme of activities, in particular around digital switchover. And we are getting smaller—we are a smaller part of the broadcasting economy, thousands of staff smaller. By 2013, we expect to reduce the costs of television programmes by a net average of 25 per cent. With journalism, which is about half the people in the BBC, we’ve worked incredibly hard to make the licence fee go further.”

The one area where the BBC is not getting smaller is relative to its struggling commercial competitors. For much of its postwar existence, the public service remit has coexisted with little serious friction with the commercial sector. The era where channels were doled out by the government to commercial companies in exchange for commitments to provide public service programming was, in retrospect, a kind of regulatory and capitalist heaven. The regional ITV companies made large profits—certainly enough to fund good quality news, religious, documentary and arts programming, while still pleasing shareholders. At a time of few channels, some of these quite demanding programmes—such as the current affairs series This Week and World in Action—when put on at peak time attracted many millions of viewers. Some did not even pretend to be popular. London Weekend Television’s Weekend World, among the most highly regarded, rarely had more than 1m viewers. For three decades, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, the government, BBC, commercial channels and viewers could have their commercial cake and eat their public service content. And though the BBC had more of the latter, a powerful public service culture in independent companies ensured their programmes were often more radical, less constrained and often better funded.

That was two decades ago. But as viewers fled news and current affairs, the commercial channels diluted their public service remit. No serious current affairs programme remains on ITV and even news may need subsidy. Channel 4—commercially funded but publicly owned—maintains fine news and current affairs, especially Dispatches, but also needs a subsidy to continue. It now wants to merge with BBC Worldwide, an idea noticeably not rebuffed by Carter, who also said some of the BBC’s money should be used to prop up regional television news, and perhaps even local newspapers too.

However that proposal turns out, the BBC remains surrounded by companies whose own recessionary pains mean they no longer cut it any slack. Publishers resent its website’s virtual veto over any plans they may have to charge. ITV sees in it a smugly safe state-fed giant that has offered no more than a few bones, such as sharing facilities in news coverage: it calculates that by 2010 the total revenue of all channels funded by advertising will be roughly £1bn less than the BBC’s annual licence fee of £3.4bn. Independent producers say they are routinely outbid for contracts by the BBC’s in-house production facilities. The perception of fat has seen David Cameron promise a licence fee freeze under a Tory government. His media spokesman Jeremy Hunt, in a House of Commons debate in May aimed at stopping the £3 licence fee increase the BBC received on 1st April, argued that: “If there is a huge disparity between the money that commercial broadcasters receive and what the BBC receives, that is dangerous for the broadcasting ecology… there is a democratic issue at stake… a free society needs multiple and varied media sources.” Rubbing the point in, Hunt mentioned that some 50 BBC executives earn more than the prime minister—that is, £194,000.

Finally, the BBC is caught between appealing to the “edgy,” “radical,” “disaffected” young and being a national treasure. And the contortions—such as over the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross affair—are popping up more often. The BBC’s offerings are pious and randy, elevating and low, testing and silly: take your pick, you don’t have to watch. But at the same time, it rests on a communitarian philosophy: it’s our BBC, the last great institution which still glues together the nation. Yet when this was put to Thompson, he was surprisingly dismissive. “I’m not sure I agree with the glue argument. We tend to believe the things that reinforce the whole fragmentation notion, whereas I think there is a lot of evidence that this remains quite a closely-knit culture where people have a lot of things in common… I think the challenge of the encounter with the ‘other’ is often the most important thing that’s going on… by historical accident, it’s part of the BBC’s place in this country that we are the arena in which much of this occurs. But I don’t want to overstate it, because in a sense it’s for the British public to decide how far they want to feel part of a single body, and how far they want to feel part of different cultures and communities. The truth will be some of both. For example, I’ve been told by many of the leading television observers that it was impossible that Saturday night entertainment could survive because of the fragmentation of tastes and beliefs. And of course the opposite of what was predicted has happened, which is why we’ve reinvented it.”

Yet if it’s our BBC, why is it obscene? Why cruel? Why does it give the feeling that we live in a frightening world, where those with the dirtiest mouths have the highest rewards? Isn’t there still a common decency, which the BBC helps to preserve? On the case of Brand/Ross, Thompson says if you go to a restaurant and “you look at the menu and it’s got liver on it and you don’t like liver, you don’t order it and that’s it. We run a restaurant where, if there’s liver on the menu, people say ‘that’s disgusting, it shouldn’t be on the menu at all.’ We can’t avoid the fact that different people have different views on what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. But the reason that Brand/Ross was a difficult thing for us was not because of the Daily Mail, but because it was a really unacceptable, profoundly disturbing incident that should never have been broadcast. It was a really, really bad lapse.”

Such questions remain salient because the BBC annoys not just the market-friendly right, but the socially conservative right too. In part this is because its view of Britain, and the world, owes more to a liberal reformist view than to a conservative one. This, for long indignantly denied, was famously endorsed at a semi-public occasion in 2006 by Andrew Marr, himself a luminary of that tradition, who noted that the BBC “has a cultural liberal bias” (as was first reported in Prospect). And Thompson, when he took over, did not seem to cut against this culture. A vigorous, apparently cheerful man, he is said to be the most devout (Catholic) director general since the Presbyterian John Reith, but the opposite of Reith in making nothing of it publicly. After the Jesuit-founded Stoneyhurst College and Oxford, he joined the BBC as a production trainee in 1979, rising through news and current affairs to be director of television in 2000. His one outside job was a two-year stint as chief executive of C4: he was summoned back after the resignation of Greg Dyke in May 2004. He is no obvious conservative: one of his most controversial decisions—to screen the “blasphemous” Jerry Springer: the Opera in the teeth of Christian fury—was very much in tune with a liberal ethic.

These many contradictions are real, urgent and pressing. Together, they make a formidable case against the corporation—at least, one as all-powerful and all-supplying as it presently is. But there are two main reasons why its critics should not have their way. Both are made more urgent by the Digital Britain report’s first incision into the licence fee. And they speak to the central position which the media now holds in our public and private lives. As American academic Todd Gitlin wrote in openDemocracy, “the central activity of our civilisation is connection to media.” And that activity elbows aside older forms of sociability and representation.

The first of these two reasons is a democratic one. We have inherited a great boon: a large and powerful media organisation that is open to debate. It should continue to provide everything because it is or can be a forum for argument about everything—pop music, poetry, gameshows, obscenities, current affairs, the coverage of the middle east and much else. For commercial organisations, the market answer to lack of interest or dislike is not to buy, or to switch off. For the BBC, that is only part of the answer. The other, more valuable answer is that all of its programmes are explicitly part of the public square—open to argument exactly because we are nearly all paying for them, because we all have a stake in the BBC as a national, public institution. Thus the most valuable times for the BBC, and for the public, are precisely such controversies as Ross/Brand: for they pitched their notion of fun (and that of many of their fans) against competing notions of propriety. We had a great cultural argument about it.

Part of the BBC’s internal culture, as BBC executives groan, is constant debate: not just about programmes but about the zeitgeist, and how far the BBC mirrors, lags behind or runs ahead of it. Increasingly, under Thompson’s leadership, the BBC has corrected its liberal-elite reflex and taken a swerve towards more popular, or centrist, themes; even in drama, where the tone of its output too often reflected the creative community’s obsession with creeping Anglo-American authoritarianism. Thompson, by contrast, presents himself as one who wants not so much for a thousand flowers to bloom but for a thousand views to clash. “One of the things I like about the BBC is that it’s quite hard to avoid it—for example, if you take Bea Campbell (on the one hand) and Melanie Phillips (on the other) you will bump into them both on the BBC.” Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, said at a recent seminar that those who regarded immigration or the European Union as bad ideas had been regarded by the BBC as extremists—”but now it’s better.”

In May 2008, the BBC broadcast a play—Filth—which was sympathetic to Mary Whitehouse: the woman who pitted herself against the 1960s BBC led by Hugh Carleton Greene, whom she saw, correctly, as enthusiastically assisting in the dismantling of a vaguely Christian moral hegemony in favour of a liberal smorgasbord of opinions and spectacle. Even more radically, it created, early in 2008, a so-called “white season,” with a clutch of programmes, drama and documentary, that sought to redress a balance it deemed had swung too far against the views and customs of the white working class.Thompson, explicitly, sees the BBC as a reformed institution since Carleton Greene’s time. “We have a more healthy relationship with the public. I joined a BBC where letters of complaint were often put straight into the bin.”

The second reason the BBC is precious is because it is what its critics say it is: powerful, and with power in depth. Some of the malign aspects of that power have been described above; but power also confers huge advantages. Because it has ruled the British broadcasting roost so long, it has a long institutional memory that it can deploy both in the making of superior programmes and in its probing of current events. The BBC remains our most important news source, and a considerable force in the world. This is a time when important newspapers are losing readership and yet the resources of the web have not yet produced commercially viable news organisations with clout. In such a time, a broadcaster with strong capabilities in television, radio and the web, with news desks stretching from local British studios to bureaux across the world, backed by large resources and a training enterprise, in the College of Journalism, is another accidentally lucky gift.

The opposition of the corporation to the Iraq war was, for a while, palpable and disturbing—not because opposition to the war was not a legitimate, indeed essential, source of news and questioning, but because it became prosecutorial rather than analytical. It sprang from a tendency, now lessened, to interpret its necessary independence from government as a duty to act as an opposition to government. But that the BBC was not weakened by this clash was a good thing: as was the apparent ability to learn lessons—not of servility to power, but of a more rigorous holding of it to account.

Only powerful institutions can hold other powerful institutions to that kind of account: they must be powerful, because they must have the resources to span the local and the global; they must have the memory to know the major institutions in detail and over time; they must be able to train reporters and editors in the painstaking side of journalism that allows both quotidian reporting and deep investigations over long periods; they must inspire respect, and a little fear, in those in authority; they must have pockets deep enough to defend themselves in court when necessary; and they must be able to repel advances from special interests, including political parties, where these would weaken independence.

Of all the publicly-owned broadcasters in the world, the BBC continues to set the tone for independence of mind and practice. There are limits: it is unlikely that the BBC would have courted the hatred of every political party by buying the disk containing details of MPs expenses. But the limits are, in comparative terms, very wide. The admiration in which the BBC is held by foreign journalists is real—and it is generous with executives’ time, and resources, to train and proselytise among broadcasters in countries who wish to emulate it.

Historical accident has given Britain a major media corporation of world quality that is also open to popular challenge. At a time when media define and affect so much of our lives, that is not something to be cast aside. Yet the recommendations of “Digital Britain” potentially chip away at the BBC’s credibility, establishing the principle that all (or most) BBC funding should ultimately be made “contestable.” This will lead to a rump, fragmented public service broadcasting sector. The slice of money “Digital Britain” wants to take from the BBC can be justified by the need to preserve competitive news services, and by the rapid decline of ITV. A clear line should thereafter be drawn. Curious as it may be to say so, we need the BBC, warts and all, substantially as it is.

You can also read a specially extended version of Prospect’s exclusive interview with BBC director-general Mark Thompson for free on our website here

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John Lloyd

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times, director of journalism at the Reuters Institute and a member of Prospect’s editorial board 

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