Throughout its history, British Governments have sought to influence the BBC, as the national broadcaster, to reflect more positively on their agenda (which they naturally see as coinciding with the national and public interest). Some have done so by frontal attacks and demands, others by gradual change of funding or regulation. Overall, the institution has successfully defended itself. Faced with a government with a substantial majority in Parliament the BBC once again faces a serious challenge, and it is important (once again) to defend its unique mission and achievements.
Most broadcasting organisations worldwide are either commercial organisations, answerable to shareholders, proprietors, and advertisers; or publicly run, and accountable to governments. In both cases their mission and activities, and their reporting of news and current affairs is liable to direct bias to reflect the interests of their owners. In many cases this amounts to direct control.
This is constitutionally not true of the BBC, which is bound by a Royal Charter to be independent and impartial, and
“to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.
It is, of course, exposed to pressure from Governments, which naturally tend to identify the national and public interest with their own agenda. However, its funding, mainly through a hypothecated tax (the licence fee) and its governing bodies, provide a degree of protection against undue influence, as does its relationship with the independent broadcasting regulator OFCOM.
Nevertheless, it does not always succeed in preserving its impartiality. Independent evaluations have shown that its news coverage has a bias towards the status quo, partly because its view of news priorities is influenced by the print news media, most of which is explicitly biased by its proprietors to the political right.
The fact that the BBC is criticised for bias in its news and current affairs coverage from both left and right does not necessarily mean that it gets the balance “right”, since there is no absolute “centre”. However, over time it does adjust, albeit cautiously, as evidence and public attitudes change. For example, on grounds of impartiality, it used to present climate change as a debate between two opposing views. It now accepts that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence supports the view that manmade climate change is a serious issue and that there is no need to give equal time to the opponents.
The BBC’s news coverage commands very wide support. IPSOS/MORI’s survey of adults who follow the news compares people’s views of the five main broadcast media in the UK. It finds clear majorities who believe that BBC news is impartial (44%), trustworthy (51% – five times higher than ITV), and accurate (53%). In normal times, 80% of adults and 70% of 16-34 year olds reached by BBC news each week, and at critical times, most people turn to the BBC. During the Brexit debates in Parliament more than 3 million people watched BBC Parliament, for its direct coverage and its explanations and commentary.
News is the most politically sensitive aspect of its work, but it is only one. The scale of the BBC is unique. In the UK it operates 8 TV channels and 20 radio stations, while its commercial arm, which supports all the work financially, also runs 10 TV channels. The BBC is a major contributor to our society and culture through documentaries, entertainment, music (of all forms), drama, education and information on a scale unrivalled by any broadcasting agency in the world. Its regional organisation provides local and regional news in every part of the UK. It maintains orchestras, and runs the world’s largest music festival (The Proms) each year. And it does this through a wide range of media – TV, Radio, Podcasts, Websites.
It reaches most of the adult population every week, as well as large audiences worldwide. 80% of adults see BBC TV, and 62% listen to BBC radio each week. By contrast 70% of adults watch ITV, and 65% listen to all commercial radio stations. Two thirds of viewers and listeners say that the BBC is effective at helping them learn new things. 56% of people think that the BBC reflects people like them, and a similar number say it is effective at catering for the part of the UK where they live. Despite the rise of online and streaming services, 80% of people under 16 still use the BBC each week.
The BBC is highly respected worldwide for its independence and the range and quality of its output. It broadcasts in 40 languages to an audience outside the UK of nearly 400 million every week. Its unique role and size enables it to maintain a network of journalists round the world. A global network of journalists and bureaux in 59 countries give it a unique capacity to report news and current affairs quickly to UK and global audiences, based on long term familiarity with different countries and regions. Its international reputation is reflected in the scale of its international sales of programmes. Unlike other national broadcasters with global scope it is seen as objective and impartial, and not projecting a national political agenda, beyond the promotion of open societies and democratic debate. Its nearest global competitor is CNN, with half the global audience, and only 36 “editorial operations bases”.
The key to the BBC’s independence is its Charter, and its funding model. Three quarters of its funding comes through the licence fee, which is effectively a hypothecated tax. Government can set the level of the licence fee, but is prevented from any more direct influence. The licence fee is a tax on everyone who watches BBC TV, but it accounts for 75% of the BBC’s income, and goes to sustain the whole organisation, which consists of many interlocking parts. Half the licence fee income is spent on TV, 17% on radio, and 8% of online services (which have a very large global audience). The scale of the licence fee (at £13 a month) is small by comparison with its rivals, none of whom provide anything like the scale and diversity of services. A basic Sky subscription costs £22 a month, and a Netflix subscription (which provides a much more limited range of services) costs £9 a month.
The BBC is subject to a high degree of public scrutiny. It receives and responds to, a large body of criticism and complaints about individual broadcasts and activities, and there is a constant debate about its institutional policies on issues like equal pay or the scale of regional coverage. However, formal complaints are remarkably rare. In 2018-19 OFCOM received 247 complaints against the BBC. It fond against the BBC on two of these.
The BBC is unique, but like any large organisation, it can improve the way it manages itself, and the quality and reach of its output. However, there is no comparable broadcasting institution in the world, in terms of scale, reach, quality of output and public trust. Anyone who wishes to propose a major change in the BBC as a duty to demonstrate how these qualities could be maintained by any other model of funding, governance, and accountability. To change these fundamentally without clear evidence of benefit, would be vandalism of a major national asset.
A government with a large Parliamentary majority is always a potential threat to the BBC, and our present government has made its intentions clear. Of course it needs improvement, but any alternative would be hugely worse. Now is the time to support it.