Game, set and match to the BBC? If only

The national broadcaster has delayed its reckoning but the time will come. When it does we should all remember what the BBC did in the time of Covid-19

April 15, 2020
Broadcasting House. Photo:  SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images
Broadcasting House. Photo: SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

The BBC has always been a less important feature of UK life than the NHS—and we didn’t need Covid-19 to grasp that. But it is a deeply embedded national institution, hugely so for anyone over 40. And, lo and behold, it now matters quite a lot too for the younger licence fee payers who we had been told had fallen happily into the welcoming embrace of Netflix, Amazon, Spotify et al.

But everyone is affected by Covid-19, and the overwhelming majority from all age groups want reliable news and information. Re-enter the BBC—not that it went away in the first place.

It was less than three months ago that Dominic Cummings was apparently briefing that the BBC needed to be “whacked,” with ministers forbidden to appear on some of its most weighty news programmes. He had previously written that the BBC was the Conservative Party’s mortal enemy, a turn of phrase that now looks a little on the inflationary side.

Of course the BBC is far from being the only media organisation that has gained from the lockdown. ITV News, Sky News, the story-breaking Channel 4 News are all up—along I dare say with Netflix and Amazon.

But the BBC’s performance is nevertheless striking. Audiences for each of the news bulletins at one , six and 10 o’clock—the warhorses of the enterprise—are up by between 50 and 75 per cent. And the BBC’s Global News Division had an average reach of about 430m a week in March.

The “trust” figures for the BBC in the UK have gone up too. Recent Ofcom figures suggest that people are more likely to turn to the BBC’s TV, radio and online services for the latest news on the pandemic than anywhere else and by a large margin.

It’s not all about news. With over 90 per cent of staff now working from home—something that normally might have taken five years for management consultants to work out—the BBC is piling creative, administrative and technical resources into entertaining and educating as well as informing. Large chunks of the population like the BBC’s provision of comfort, laughter and escapism as well as the news.

All of this may look like it’s game, set and match to the BBC. It isn’t. When this crisis abates the audience figures will fall back, and sooner or later pre-Covid-19 patterns of consumption will re-emerge. Television channels, and some radio ones too, will continue to lose viewers and listeners, the under 35s will once more be hard to reach, the BBC’s market share will continue its decline. But even in 2027, when the current BBC Charter expire , the broadcaster will have a very big footprint. Many billions of hours will still be spent the world over consuming BBC content.

That fact won’t of itself win the argument. There was supposed to be an early test—the government’s decision on whether to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee. The BBC estimates that if that goes through, £200m a year of revenue will disappear. But that decision is on ice—Covid-19 means there’s no time for this sort of thing and the government probably doesn’t really know its own mind about it now.

But the real stakes are much higher than even this. I don’t suppose even at the peak of his BBC-bashing Cummings would have wanted to shut it down entirely, for fear of confirming that although people complain about the BBC, quite a lot of—often the same—people think it stands for something that’s worth preserving.

The plan was more likely to have focussed on chipping away at the BBC—not only rhetorically but by spending years questioning its role in drama, entertainment, music, radio, comedy and much else. And then, at the politically expedient moment, enacting legislation that would stop all of us having to pay for it and introducing an anaemic replacement.

Starving the BBC of money is a sure way to ensure its role in national life shrinks. Less money in the system leads to less content, leads to an acceleration of audience decline. Job done.

There will need to be a new funding mechanism—maybe a “precept” of some kind collected in the way we pay for, say, the police. And yes, other funding possibilities do need to be looked at and analysed—but not with a starting point of trying to hobble the broadcaster.

Next time the charter is up for renewal perhaps there might be, at last, a proper consultation about the BBC’s purposes. And perhaps we will all choose to remember the BBC in the time of Covid-19. For the time being we can at least hope for a Covid-19-adjusted rhetoric from the medley of critics.