Our national broadcaster is on course for financial self-destruction and viewers no longer trust it to be impartial. Boris must rescue it
As the BBC approaches its centenary, and a search for a new director-general, it remains one of our most beloved institutions. But its viewers are defecting, its political coverage is being savaged and its finances are imperilled. Now, Boris Johnson says he may change the way it operates. Should he? Having worked both at the BBC and in a team set up to consider its future, I believe he must. Otherwise, the corporation is set to wither, along with its cherished contribution to our national life. Only a fundamental shake-up will unravel the lethal tangle of problems in which it is now enmeshed.
At the heart of its difficulties lies its archaic funding mechanism. The licence-fee which sustains it, originally a 10-shilling-a-year charge on the owners of radio sets, made sense when the corporation was the sole broadcaster. However, its monopoly of both output and audience is long dead: today, its handful of TV channels and radio stations share the airwaves with hundreds of commercial rivals.
Now, in an average week, fewer than half of those aged 16 to 24 see any BBC programmes. Yet everyone who watches any broadcast television must be covered by an annual licence, currently costing both rich and poor £154.50. Thus, people who watch and listen only to commercial output are still required to pay for the BBC’s.
Evaders face the full force of the criminal law. Each year, there are more than 100,000 prosecutions: more women are prosecuted for this offence than for any other. Campaigners complain about unfairness and “the criminalisation of poverty”: licence-fee defaults, they argue, should be treated like the non-payment of other household bills. The government has promised to address this issue irrespective of any deeper rethink; if prosecution is jettisoned, the BBC believes it will lose £200 million a year from its £3.7 billion licence-fee income.
‘Even enthusiasts for the BBC are questioning its continued dependence on the licence-fee’
Far more serious perils already threaten that revenue. On-demand streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+ are luring people away from broadcast television. The young watch only half as much conventional TV as they did a decade ago: they now see more Netflix than all of the BBC channels combined. People who stick to streamed programming are not required to buy a licence, so long as they stay off the BBC’s iPlayer, and fewer householders are therefore likely to bother. What’s more, people who do watch live TV, but only on phones or tablets, can easily avoid payment.
So, even enthusiasts for the BBC are questioning its continued dependence on the licence-fee. For example, in December, Dame Patricia Hodgson, a former trustee, director of policy and doyenne of the institution, told Radio 4’s Today: “I think the BBC needs to work its way to a new funding model if it’s to survive.” Nonetheless, the corporation’s current management insists on clinging to the existing system. A spokesperson told Standpoint, “The licence-fee ensures a universal BBC which serves everyone,” adding that unpublished corporation-commissioned research had found that people preferred the fee to other funding possibilities. This unbending stance has led the BBC into efforts to preserve the status quo and that has compounded its troubles.
To defend its claim to a near-universal charge, it has fought to maintain its share of the “national voice” as new media have emerged. This has meant expanding into fresh fields, however well these are already supplied. First came digital TV and radio outlets, then a mammoth website whose range extends to quizzes and recipes. Now, the burgeoning podcast market is under attack. All this has diverted cash from programmes and sparked complaints of unfair market distortion.
Another aim has been to heighten the BBC’s popularity, in the hope of scaring off meddlesome politicians. To maximise audiences, entertainment has been prioritised over other functions. Up till now this has paid off: shows like Doctor Who, Killing Eve and Strictly Come Dancing have maintained the affection kindled in the days of Fawlty Towers and Hancock’s Half Hour. Yet if the corporation’s success in entertaining us has been remarkable, it no longer looks sustainable.
Once, the BBC sought to take on Hollywood; sadly, its rivals are now far outgunning it. Today, Netflix alone spends £12 billion a year on new programming for its 160 million subscribers. From its own endangered income stream, the BBC manages to spend just £3 billion a year on all of its TV and radio output. Deep-pocketed newcomers are not just grabbing its viewers and listeners: they are driving up the cost of rights, studios and performers. The BBC now finds key assets poached: its brightest hope, Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag, has decamped to Amazon Prime; even Sir David Attenborough has taken the Netflix shilling.
As a public sector organisation, the BBC cannot call on lenders and investors to boost its firepower. Nor does its funding mechanism allow it to extract from its devotees the maximum they might be willing to pay. So, its audience share seems bound to fade, with its income, its popularity and public support for the licence-fee following suit. Already, 74 per cent of the public want the fee axed, according to a poll conducted in December. Ominously, the figure is even higher among the young.
Yet even if the BBC could hold on to both its popularity and its overall share of our attention, delivering what could be provided commercially would not be enough to legitimise what amounts to a poll tax. The corporation must also provide services which are essential to society but won’t be offered in the marketplace. That’s why it’s required to inform and educate, as well as to entertain. Unfortunately, its concentration on popularity and scale has undermined its performance of these other functions.
Inevitably, their resources have had to be cut. Programmes such as Newsnight have seen their modest budgets slashed so disc-jockeys and sports presenters can be paid million-pound salaries. Yet finance hasn’t been the only problem. Occasional popular series like Blue Planet are centre-staged, but, to sustain overall ratings, more demanding programmes have been dumbed down or shunted to the margins of the schedules.
Worse, they’ve been starved of attention and commitment. This has denied them the vigour, courage and intellectual élan such programming requires if it’s to excel. The BBC’s own sometime head of strategy, Mark Oliver, has accused it of failing in its “mission to explain”. The critic Michael Church has called its news infantalising, afflicted with a “terrible creeping blandness” and in some respects inferior to Al Jazeera’s.
These deficiencies have culminated in a woeful debacle. In the face of the major crises that have recently beset the country—climate change, the EU referendum and the Brexit election—the BBC stands charged with falling down on its most important job. It is accused of neglecting to examine properly what was at issue, to cut through political noise and to proffer considered judgments. It preferred to provide platforms for contending protagonists, satisfied that so long as rival pronouncements were balanced, they did not need to be interrogated. It opted for day-to-day flim-flam and unproductive interviews and debates, at the expense of in-depth analysis.
A further shortcoming has come to the fore. Since its beginnings, the BBC has been required to display one overriding characteristic: impartiality. It has called this its “defining quality”, and made it the global selling point of its overseas services. Nonetheless, allegations of bias have grown louder. The shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, accused the corporation of “consciously” playing a role in Labour’s December election defeat. Yet New Broadcasting House actually received more complaints from Conservative supporters than from their Labour counterparts.
The outgoing director-general, Lord Hall, has claimed that being attacked from both sides showed “we were doing our job without fear or favour”. It is a defence on which his predecessors have also relied; unfortunately, it does not wash. Both Left and Right have long had just cause for complaint. The BBC depends for its survival on the patronage of the state. At intervals, it must renegotiate the licence-fee with the government: it therefore has to be wary of the politically powerful, not just of those in office but of those who one day may be. It must also respect the orthodoxy of the prevailing cultural elite.
During the general strike of 1926, there were no Labour Party broadcasts, and strikers called the BBC the “BFC”, or “British Falsehood Company”. Afterwards, the then director-general, John Reith, explained to his staff: “Since the government in this crisis was acting for the people . . . the BBC was for the government.” Ever since, those who challenge established ideas and institutions have tended to distrust the corporation. So entrenched is this suspicion that obvious mistakes in the BBC’s coverage of December’s election, like accidentally showing a wrong clip of film, were heralded by left-wing activists as proof of support for the Tory cause.
That the Right should also feel abused is not as odd as it may seem. The Conservatives may now form the government, but they believe establishment institutions are in thrall to “progressive” thinking. The BBC’s corporate mentality makes it a prime example of what they abhor. Its comedy is anti-Tory and its drama is woke, while its news agenda downplays issues like immigration. Its recruitment practices, favouring both metropolitans and minorities, perpetuate bien-pensant groupthink. Stalwarts admit that unpalatable ideas are cold-shouldered, while presenters let their petticoats show in unguarded Tweets.
In fact, the BBC does try to offset its innate biases. Its programmes challenge politicians; and most reporters aim to be objective, even if they find allegiance to either Marxism or Brexit beyond their ken. The real problem is that the BBC’s peculiar status inevitably throws its neutrality into doubt. In December, YouGov reported that only 44 per cent of us trust BBC journalists (compared with 7 per cent of tabloid reporters).
So, must it be left to atrophy? Or might the interlinked problems engendered by the obsolete model on which it operates somehow be resolved? The corporation’s developing predicament has been recognised for decades. Successive inquiries have proposed various ways forward, none of which has gained traction. It is therefore understandable that the management’s continuity stance has enjoyed considerable support, even as it’s become ever less tenable. Celebrity performers who benefit from the way things are denounce change as vandalism. Loyal viewers and listeners fear for the future of their favourite shows. Some feel that steady decline might be preferable to the unpredictable outcome of an upheaval. No wonder politicians have backed off. Until now.
Boris Johnson said during the election campaign that he’s “looking at” changing the basis on which the BBC functions. Some imagine he envisages privatisation. As a plc, the BBC would be free to boost its entertainment activities by bringing in new money. However, commercial pressure would further degrade any public service functions it was obliged to retain. A “One Nation” government couldn’t allow that to happen: fake news, filter bubbles and targeted political advertising make reliable information more necessary than ever. Hence, our prime minister has assured us: “The BBC is not going to be privatised.” So what else could he do?
When the Conservatives were still in opposition and untrammelled by the exigencies of governing, they got down to some inventive thinking. One of the issues addressed was the BBC. To ponder its future, the then shadow culture secretary, John Whittingdale, summoned a posse of independent experts. I was one of them. Our group’s recommendations went down well with the Tory top brass, but were deemed too unnerving for a party seeking power. Today, they have become even more pertinent, and a majority of 80 leaves no excuse for funk.
We concluded that the BBC’s outworn set-up should be dismantled; yet both its entertainment and public service functions must be enabled to thrive thereafter. Our key finding was that, to prevent them from conflicting, they would have to be separated. We proposed that the BBC’s most successful asset, its entertainment power-house, should be liberated from its current constraints and equipped to fight its corner in the market-place. Public service functions would still be publicly funded, but in return their quality and impartiality would have to be secured. These principles could still provide the basis for a workable arrangement.
BBC entertainment, drama, reality TV and so forth could be run by a public corporation administered like Channel 4 but focused solely on popular output for Britain and the world. Its TV services could be funded by global subscribers, as is Netflix, though it might feature a variable tariff, so heavy users would pay more while others could pay less than the current licence-fee. Its pop radio services could be funded through advertising, like all existing such services apart from the BBC’s.
Its British focus would give it an edge in the UK, but competition from overseas rivals would keep it on its mettle. Competition might also provide the key to improving Britain’s public service fare. Before the 1990 Broadcasting Act, ITV franchises were awarded partly according to the worthiness of the applicants’ programme plans. The resulting contests spawned the likes of World in Action, The World at War, The South Bank Show, Weekend World and Walden (disclosure: I worked on the last two), which were often considered to outshine their BBC counterparts. In response, the corporation upped its game.
To create a similar spur to excellence, public service programming could be put out to competitive tender, instead of being entrusted to one organisation. An arm’s-length body like Ofcom could determine what was required, and then disburse funds, as the British Film Institute does to film-makers, on a contestable basis. It could commission from all-comers, including new entities hived off from the BBC’s factual departments, and distribute output not just through TV and radio but also through print and the internet. The corporation’s news might lose some of its blandness if it had to face a challenge from ITN.
Such an arrangement ought not only to promote quality; it could also better fend off suspicions of bias. The slim-line commissioning body should be more resistant to establishment pressure. Contributors drawn from a variety of sources would be less susceptible to collective groupthink. A scheme like this would cost far less than the licence-fee brings in, most of which is hogged by entertainment. The modest sum required might be raised from a bolt-on to council tax, proportionally levied so the poor need no longer pay as much as the rich.
Rejigging the BBC’s functions along these lines could not be done overnight. Technical obstacles, deliberately created in part by the corporation’s management to obstruct change, would have to be overcome. However, there is time to do this: the BBC’s existing charter doesn’t expire until 2027. All the same, to meet even that target, decisions would best be made soon.
A first step could be taken in 2022, when the licence-fee will be reviewed. Its level could be reduced, and, to compensate, the iPlayer could start charging for premiere airings of premium programmes. This would not be beyond precedent: Britbox, the new UK streaming service, already charges for vintage BBC shows. Ministers may nonetheless be tempted to hesitate: why not let the corporation stew in its own juice until it begs for release? Sadly, by then it may be too late. Let’s hope Boris can get this one done.