Taking back the BBC: invert the pyramid and give power to the public

While we like to talk about the BBC as a public broadcaster, the public’s only real role is to pay for it. Where does the power lie in the Beeb – and how do we take it back into public hands?

Now is absolutely the right moment to be querying the BBC’s governance. Just because people who beat up on the BBC seem to have an ulterior motive, and just because the cultural life of the UK would be much worse without it, that’s no reason for the rest of us to give it a free pass from scrutiny. 

While we like to talk about the BBC as a public broadcaster, the public’s only real role is to pay for it. After you’ve paid your licence fee, that’s your input finished with. It’s certainly not owned by the public; it isn’t owned by anyone – it has a legal personality given by Royal Charter, and the only members of it are the people on the BBC Trust and on the Executive Board. It’s essentially a very big and powerful quango.

The Trust are chosen by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, whilst the Executive Board are mainly the senior managers of the BBC’s output and operations. It’s a standard two-tier board, which probably has more in common with German companies than the standard PLC model here. 

The Royal Charter sets out how the BBC will be governed, and, alongside an agreement with government which details more practical day-to-day responsibilities of the BBC, forms the organisation’s constitution. There’s lots in there about the BBC’s public service obligations, remit, duties to engage, consult and so on, but the actual voice of the public in formal governance is excluded. 

That’s not really a surprise; the notion of public service broadcasting has always carried a whiff of paternalism: the sense that someone other than the public will decide what’s good for them. From their earliest days, mass communications have been feared by elites, for having a corrosive impact on the public’s morals, and the public realm. It’s not ‘auntie’ for nothing. 

But whilst it was an effective mechanism for directing an organisation through the founding years of the television age, the top-down and exclusive approach seems ill-suited to a media age increasingly dominated by many-to-many communication platforms. 

There’s a really easy way to do this though, thanks to the BBC’s Audience Councils. These are appointed by the Trust from licence-payers, and undertake engagement and consultation in their local area, in order to “reflect the views” of all licence-payers. 

The BBC could easily be mutualised, via two governance changes. First, if that relationship between the Trust and the councils were inverted, the structure would become much more accountable, as the Trustees would be answerable to a group of around 200 licence payers - the council members - rather than the Government of the day. 

The second change would be to make those council members themselves directly elected by the licence-payers in their specific region or nation, rather than appointed by the Trust. Individual licence-payers would become the base of the organisation's governance and the BBC would become a democratically-controlled institution. 

It would create the largest electorate in the country at a stroke, which would go a long way to fulfilling one of its six statutory public purposes, in this case “sustaining citizenship through the enrichment of the public realm”. It would at the same time connect the BBC to licence-payers as never before, embedding the support of civil society into the BBC’s DNA, by making it perhaps the largest institution in civil society, and giving a new meaning to the notion of public broadcasting.

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Unlike converting private media organisations to mutuality, there would be no costs for ownership transfer, leaving only the costs of managing the new governance. As all the council structures are in place and undertake engagement events already, elections could easily be managed in-house through the BBC’s range of communication channels and web platforms. 

By way of comparison, the structure and operations of the councils (and the support given by the BBC Trust executive) would be very similar to The Co-operative Group, which has a democratic structure underpinned by 6 million members, with a turnover four times that of the BBC. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true co-operative since it wouldn’t have the economic relationship with its licence-paying members that is proper to a co-op (this would be different if the licence-fee was something we could choose to apportion to a TV channel of our choice, but that’s a debate for another day; personally, I’d argue the real strength of the BBC is the size of its resources). 

Misgivings over the fact that we are compelled to pay the license fee, rather than being given an option, could be mitigated through genuine accountability. Opening up governance would likely cement the licence fee rather than undermine it – the representation that ought to accompany taxation. 

It would also address other problems which the BBC has received an easier ride on than it might otherwise. A friend once said “the important thing about the BBC isn’t that it’s biased towards left wing or right wing views, but towards the establishment’s worldview”; a set of norms and values that holds certain truths to be self-evident. 

The centre ground is where truth is to be found, so balance should be given to all sides regardless of how ‘true’ their point is. A balanced debate on economics will feature two neoliberal economists and maybe a more heterodox one if we’re lucky; a debate on climate change will feature someone with the weight of global research behind them up against a denialist with organised prejudice at their back. 

Rocking the boat needs to be done judiciously, rather than through fearless pursuit of a story’s thread. Witness how poor the BBC was at covering hackgate until it burst into life; we know why none of the other papers touched it, but the BBC had none of their reasons. 

One can see how cultures determining acceptable news values are reproduced through the corporations’ employees, but looking at the Trust, you can’t be inspired to see them change it; they’re the usual mix of great and good, banker and investor that’s tiresomely familiar on such bodies. 

They can’t ignore us completely though, with the trustees representing the UK’s nations required by the Charter to ‘be suitably qualified by virtue of his knowledge of the culture, characteristics and affairs of the people in the nation for which he is to be designated, and his close touch with opinion in that nation.’ 

It reads like a charter for organised personal prejudices to masquerade as ‘touch’, whilst being acquainted with the affairs of a nation seems like an advert for a monarch of the like newly independent European nations might have put out in the 1900s. 

I’m sure everyone on the trust board works very hard. Its just that I’ve yet to see an organisation with no accountability to the public produce a system in which a group of people can consistently and properly represent them in all their complexity and diversity. 

You really notice that problem at times of crisis. The minutes of the BBC Governors’ meeting when Greg Dyke left as Director General show a group of people trapped like rabbits in the headlights, who prioritised ensuring ministers were onside, and were influenced by an op-ed in The Times and the instant reaction of a handful of MPs. It mattered then who runs the BBC, and it matters always, because you never know when an existential crisis will break out. 

A BBC accountable to its licence-payers can tell government to butt out, removing the problem that ‘we the people’ need ministers to monitor things on our behalf. Indeed, greater accountability would empower the BBC to resist government, whose influence is never far away. 

With fixed term parliaments, every second government will now be tasked with whether to renew the Charter, so putting the BBC’s governors on a shorter leash to them. That’s a dangerous temptation which they shouldn’t have. 

Parliament should instead give a Charter guaranteeing the BBC and providing it with funds, and then back out, and leave the licence payer to take it from there. 

About the author

Dave Boyle is a writer, researcher and co-operative consultant, and is author of Good News: A co-operative solution to the media crisis. He has written and lectured on sport, culture, economics and co-operation, and was previously Chief Executive of Supporters Direct. He blogs at daveboyle.net and tweets as @theboyler.