openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The UK government is right, the BBC is broken. Here’s how we fix it

We need a People’s BBC – free from government whims – with increased devolution, audience-elected senior roles, and a sliding-scale licence fee

Debs Grayson
26 January 2022, 12.00am
The UK government has announced it is freezing the TV licence fee for two years
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Jamie Lorriman / Alamy Stock Photo

The widespread debate following the UK government’s decision to freeze the BBC licence fee has exposed just how many friends have deserted the institution in recent years.

While its defenders claim, against the odds, that the BBC is a beacon for impartiality and high journalistic standards, the clamour of the past few days has revealed a great deal of deep-seated dissatisfaction. This comes in many forms: those saying the BBC is irrelevant in the Netflix era; those who think it pushes an unpatriotic woke agenda; those who generally don’t like anything publicly funded; and those who see it is far too close to government and incapable of holding power to account. What is clear is that the BBC is losing public support, just as it is facing the most hostile government it has ever encountered.

The BBC is a deeply flawed institution and its political coverage – always overly aligned with powerful interests – has become increasingly indefensible. But it also plays a crucial role in UK public life, providing a range of cultural programming, children’s content, educational resources and support for minority languages that would never be provided by the market. And in the current environment, a less powerful or even non-existent BBC would only place more power in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg and GB News. How this plays out over the next few years will depend, in part, on whether we are able to articulate and fight for a positive vision of a different kind of BBC – a ‘People’s BBC’ that is truly democratic and accountable to the public it serves.

Articulating this vision for public broadcasting, and for our media system more generally, has been the central work of The BBC and Beyond, the campaign I have been coordinating for the past year as part of the Media Reform Coalition. We spent 2021 running public events (attended by around 30,000 people) and holding conversations and workshops with dozens of individuals and organisations to understand how they imagined a media system that could face the challenges of the future.

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From these conversations, we wrote a Manifesto for a People’s Media, containing a comprehensive vision of a ‘media commons’ – a system with the public interest, community empowerment and collective care at its heart. This media commons would contain a transformed People’s BBC and Channel 4, as well as a thriving ecology of independent media organisations supported by significant new public resources. What would unite all of the different kinds of organisations in the media commons would be their commitment to core values – values of being independent, democratic, accountable and for everyone.

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The UK’s culture secretary wants to appease right-wingers by abolishing the licence fee. Will the market now rule all broadcasting? And would that be that a bad thing?

Supportive and collaborative

So what would a People’s BBC look like in practice? First off, it would be significantly more devolved than today. Programme-making and editorial functions – including how money is distributed – would sit with the nations and regions. They might pool resources to create the most expensive kind of programming, such as high-end dramas, but most of the content would be commissioned and produced by one of the BBC’s devolved segments.

Under this devolved structure, the BBC would be better placed to make programmes that fully represent the concerns and experiences of the whole country, while also creating new avenues for citizens to participate. A People’s BBC would have a fundamentally different kind of relationship with the wider public than today.

Rather than just interacting with the BBC as passive audiences, most people would be involved in some way in creating it. They would participate in making decisions about how it was run – whether by electing decision-makers to represent them on regional boards, being part of public processes for commissioning programmes, or sitting on a panel to oversee the coverage of controversial issues in their area.

A People’s BBC would have a supportive and collaborative relationship with independent media, with editors looking to participatory newsrooms, media co-ops and community radio stations to find their stories. The BBC would provide training and secure working conditions, creating a workforce that is more representative of wider society. These workers would be empowered through a conscience clause to refuse unethical assignments and to ensure a strong voice for their unions and worker representation on BBC boards.

The government would no longer be able to make senior appointments, and the BBC’s current Royal Charter – which gives the government of the day huge power over the corporation when it is renewed every ten years – would be replaced with a proper statutory framework. Its funding would also be determined by a fully independent body, protected from government pressure or threats of withholding money.

Rather than being funded through the flat-tax TV licence, there would be a progressive licence pegged to household council bands so that wealthier people contribute more

A new regulator dedicated to public service media, with senior positions elected by audiences rather than appointed by the government, would increase accountability. This regulator would work with the public to understand what they consider to be harmful and what they see as meaningful redress. And a People’s BBC would be accessible and universal. Rather than being funded through the flat-tax TV licence, there would be a progressive licence pegged to household council bands so that wealthier people contribute more. And affordable full-fibre broadband would be guaranteed to all homes so everyone could benefit from streaming services and participate using digital platforms.

The result of these changes would be a BBC that was widely trusted and embedded in people’s lives, and whose future was secured because there was such widespread support for paying for it collectively. And it would be a BBC that could actively support the huge societal transitions needed to deal with global challenges like pandemics and the climate crisis – rather standing in the way of the shifts that are needed, as it often does today. This might seem utopian, but the barriers to creating a People’s BBC are entirely about political will.

What we know for sure is that the next five years leading up to the charter renewal in 2027 will be a huge battle for the institution. Without an inspiring vision of how it could be transformed and democratised, it is hard to see how the necessary counter power could be built within civil society to take on this fight.

A public media system that can empower communities, challenge powerful interests, and help a divided society talk to one another, could be transformative. We need a People’s BBC.

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