There’s nothing like a bit of BBC-bashing to unite the country in these emotionally charged times. From ardent Corbynistas to avowed Brexiteers, lockdown sceptics to despairing Remainers, aiming fire at Auntie — the previous term of endearment for our national broadcaster — is something anyone regardless of their political persuasion can get behind.
In an age of numerous broadcast outlets, why does the BBC still ignite such visceral emotions? For now, at least, it remains Britain’s national broadcaster. When you compare the viewing figures to, say, ITV and Sky, the Beeb is still miles ahead. New insurgents like GB News have failed to alter the shift in viewing habits decisively. Its longevity, nearly a century old, only demonstrates the clout it enjoys.
Similarly, the BBC prides itself on its supposed impartiality. Distinct from balance (you would not have a Flat Earther on against Brian Cox), it is supposed to favour neither one side nor the other in charged public debates. This came to a head over the EU referendum campaign, with the BBC widely seen as having been caught by surprise when Britain voted to leave the EU. So naturally, when a political figure feels they are being misjudged by the BBC, they will make their feelings known.
Most importantly, however, the clout and criticism the BBC enjoys in equal measure stems from its unique funding model. Receiving income from a licence fee, everyone with a television or viewer of BBC iPlayer must pay over £150 a year if they want to abide by the law. Threats of a fine and potential imprisonment only demonstrate the severity of not doing so. Thus, by receiving funding from everyone, it is meant to serve everyone. That the BBC does not so again leads to frantic debates about its future.
The BBC has come under fire from nobody more than this government. Though politicians complaining about the media is often compared to sailors complaining about the weather, part of the government’s recent agenda has been about sparking a debate on the BBC’s future, not least over its model of funding. Labelled operation Big Dog or Red Meat, depending on which sources you read, it has been dismissed as a ‘dead cat’ strategy to divert attention away from the imminent Sue Gray report into parties at No 10 Downing Street during the various lockdowns.
The various proposals outlined by Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, were fairly minimal in practice. After casting rumours on Twitter and in the Sunday papers, Dorries eventually confirmed the licence fee would be frozen for two years until 2024. It would then rise with inflation until 2027 when the next charter renewal is due. Ms Dorries then speculated alternative sources of funding would need to be found.
Of course, this all assumes the government will still be in office by 2027, something which doesn’t seem a stretch too far from reality if they manage to equip themselves with a new leader like Rishi Sunak. However, suppose this is purely a distraction strategy. In that case, it is surprising how few Conservatives have been willing to speak up for the BBC against this attack on its funding model, not least as many Conservatives are critical of the Prime Minister.
Instead, there is a Conservative case of immense strength that can be made for the BBC. Though typically liberals are more likely to spring to its defence, conservatives should most certainly be able to endorse its continuation, even if they believe its output is not always in their favour.
Conservatives tend to value institutions that have survived throughout history and not simply removing them because of ideological preference. The BBC has undoubtedly lasted through a war, the sexual revolution, the Big Bang, Cool Britannia, the War on Terror and numerous historical changes. Indeed, given Conservatives often stress the importance of values, the Reithian values of the BBC to inform, educate and entertain remain just as prescient today.
Similarly, not least in the wake of Brexit, the ability of the UK to find its place and power on the world stage remains necessary. It is not just hard power but soft power that can work here. The BBC is undoubtedly a form of immense cultural soft power. From the World Service to BBC America, these demonstrate how the corporation’s remit has extended worldwide and remind individuals where they hear news from. Again, despite the efforts of ITV and Sky, these are just not the same here.
One argument often made in opposition to the licence fee is that individuals are compelled to pay for something they do not personally benefit from. This, I’m afraid, is utterly fanciful. I do not want children, yet I have no problem with my future taxes funding education. But then, we all benefit from the BBC’s news and investigative reports. Conservatives often use the reverse of this argument to defend the Royal Family, arguing any amount we pay per year is, apparently, worth it. That, it seems to me, is a far worse deal for the British people currently than paying less than the price of a pint of milk per day for such a range of broadcasting treats.
Fundamentally, the strongest argument favouring the BBC is again a belief in the benefit played by the value of public service broadcasting. Conservatives would argue a business exists to serve its clients. Given we — the public — are the BBC’s clients, it, therefore, must produce content that serves us all. Whether it’s the presence of Radio 4, which remains unrivalled by anything in the commercial sector, superb investigative journalism like Panorama or even Ros Atkins’ short video explainers, the BBC can afford to cover issues and expose wrongdoing which other, more commercially driven, companies may be more hesitant about.
Ultimately, avoiding an American style CNN/Fox News broadcasting framework, where the news individuals watch is entirely set by their political outlook, is room for a more cohesive society (again, something Conservatives are a fan of). Sir Peter Bottomley, MP for Worthing West and Father of the House, made this point favouring state management rather than liberalising the media completely like the USA. By being funded by the public, as opposed to investors and shareholders, it means the BBC’s editorial output can be guided solely by public wishes. There is no need to depend on clicks and views for what the public might be interested in but focus genuinely on the public interest. Therefore, any conflicts of interest are not financial and mean Auntie is accountable to us all.
Anyone who wants the BBC to survive should fundamentally approach it as a critical friend. We admire and like the corporation but want it to be better. Indeed, the corporation should push forward future ideas for a sustainable funding model rather than acting like the ones resistant to change. Those singing the BBC’s praises without recognising it requires changes, provide no help at all. Yet it should be Conservatives who should, just like the rest of us, be willing to stand up and admit the BBC’s presence in public life is ultimately beneficial. It is one we threaten at our peril.
Image of BBC Scotland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons