At present, the UK Government is running a little-publicised public consultation on the future of the BBC. (That’s the British Broadcasting Corporation for you Americans — our state-owned and funded broadcaster.)
The campaigning group 38 Degrees has provided a simple way to respond online to this consultation, and I did so this morning. Here are the questions and my responses. I urge you to submit your own thoughts, too.
Q1. How well is the BBC serving its national and international audiences?
Extremely well. The BBC is recognised worldwide as THE best broadcaster in numerous fields, including natural history. As the only significant broadcaster that is not privately owned, it is uniquely positioned to give an unbiased perspective on news, politics and current events. Also: Doctor Who!
Q2. Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC?
Beyond my own personal preferences (football and tennis, Doctor Who, natural history documentaries) I have no strong feelings on what kind of content the BBC should produce. What is essential is that it maintain its unique status as a state-funded broadcaster that therefore (A) does not need to run advertisements, (B) is not in thrall to advertisers and potential advertisers, and (C) is under no pressure from a private owner to represent events in ways that are in his interest. (I am thinking here, for example, of the control Murdoch has over the Sun and the Times.) The BBC’s remit is also unique in that, because of how it is funded, its job is to produce GOOD programmes rather then POPULAR ones. Often those categories will coincide; but when they do not, it is crucial that we retain a broadcaster whose mandate is the former, given that every commercial broadcaster must necessarily favour the latter.
Q3. Is the BBC’s content sufficiently high quality and distinctive from that of other broadcasters? What could improve it?
Yes, the BBC’s programming is consistently higher quality than that of any other broadcaster. Its distinctiveness is apparent in its willingness to address audiences in a non-patronising way, and in presenting issues with balance and neutrality.
Q4. Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact on the market?
The BBC’s effect on the wider broadcasting market is in every sense positive. Because it is not under the same race-to-the-bottom pressure as commercial channels, it is able to set higher standards, and in doing so help prevent those commercial channels from sinking as precipitously as the USA’s broadcasters have in the absence of an analogue to the BBC. Without the BBC, we could only expect an increasing preponderance of Big Brother and Benefits Street, and news coverage as partisan and ignorant as America suffers.
Q5. Is the expansion of the BBC’s services justified in the context of increased choice for audiences? Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and, if so, is this justified?
The BBC, like all publicly funded institutions, exists to serve the British public, and so whatever areas it expands into are justified or not only in so far as they deliver good value to the public. Certainly initiatives like the BBC web site (including its sport coverage) and iPlayer are very worthwhile.
Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition? Not when the commercial competition is good! We ofter hear about how private enterprise is more efficient than public: if this is true, then let commercial broadcasters prove it by producing better product than the BBC. When other channels do produce good material, such as Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants, it rightly succeeds. That is good — an example of the BBC not crowding out competitors, but pushing them to greater heights.
Q6. Has the BBC been doing enough to deliver value for money? How could it go further?
It may be, as is sometimes said, that the BBC is financially wasteful in having too many layers of middle management and too high salaries for top executives. By all means trim the fat where possible. What must not be done is trimming the muscle.
At £145.50 per year, or £12.13 per month, the BBC licence fee costs considerably less than Sky TV alone (packages from £20-70.50 per month, which is 65%-481% more expensive than the BBC licence fee). The fee is therefore extremely good value for money, and should in fact be raised in preference to cuts being made to important BBC departments such as the World Service.
Q7. How should we pay for the BBC and how should the licence fee be modernised?
We should continue to pay for the BBC via a licence fee. If it is simpler to administrate, then licence fee could be rolled into income tax instead, by adjusting brackets to bring in the same revenue that the licence fee currently obtains.
Q8. How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work? What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls should apply?
The only crucial factor here is that the BBC must remain 100% editorially free of the government, and of parliament more broadly. It must retain its independence to serve not the government that happens to be presently in power (whether Conservative, Labour or other) but the population as a whole. Like all public bodies, its accounts should be a matter of public record.