Too much asked, too much given: the unsustainable position of the BBC

Too much is expected of the BBC, and, in consequence, it does too much. Such a position is unsustainable, argues David Graham
David Graham
10 May 2010

My penultimate post in this series.Next week I will offer some final thoughts, then write a paper on the future of the BBC for one of our leading think tanks – sorry, policy institutes – to be published in the summer. What I will say next week flies in the face of current wisdom. So this week I review a growing consensus about the BBC. It’s a consensus I disagree with. It goes like this.The BBC is too “commercial”. It thinks it must be watched – regularly – by nearly everyone in the UK. Otherwise people would resist paying their licence fees. As part of the same objective, it aims to be “free” on a growing number of platforms – not just on cable and satellite but on the internet and wherever else people can receive it. In other words, to remain highly accessible.Most of this “free” content is entertainment. Because the BBC is so well-funded – via an exclusive subsidy, the licence fee – it has a crippling effect on commercial competitors, for whom times are hard.The BBC must therefore scale back, concentrate on “distinctive” and “quality” content, share some of its licence fee with others. A parallel argument about platforms still rages – with the so-called Canvas proposal under review. (Canvas would bring internet content to a domestic TV set).However, no political party has spelled out how it would deal with the growing resistance to the licence fee which would be likely to follow if the BBC becomes more “niche”. (Conservatives have simply said they would freeze it).There is a second set of opinions, firmly held but less visible, which explains why we have seen no movement on a funding system that has many flaws. This mindset also explains the grip of the concept of public service broadcasting (PSB). It can be summarised like this: consumers don’t know what is good for them. They choose fast food and cheap entertainment. If it was not for PSB (and its associated subsidy system) there would be no drama and smart comedy. Moreover, if there was not a mechanism that subsidised UK production, our schedules would be swamped by imports. Not only are there many unexamined assumptions here – I am tempted top say “prejudices” – but PSB sets objectives that are virtually impossible to meet. The BBC has to meet a whole range of them. Its “public purposes” include “sustaining citizenship and civil society”, “stimulating creativity and cultural excellence”, “bringing the world to the UK and UK to the world”. This is heavyweight stuff. These are key social policy objectives. The BBC may be tasked to “inform, educate and entertain”. But is the BBC really up to all this? In fact, there is relatively little confidence in the bodies that have currently been given the job of monitoring this “public value”, as it is called . Some of the thinking is highly questionable anyway. What evidence is there that we would be swamped by imports? Experience suggests the opposite: people hugely prefer home-made fare. As for concern about our “culture” (a word with far too many meanings to different people),”culture” in the broadest sense simply happens. We have an instinct for making it, and it explains why one country’s culture remains resolutely different from the others. Do we really need protection? And isn't this whole body of thought looking, well, just too crude a basis for public policy?The BBC is one of the UK’s most important institutions and national flag carriers. It – and its masters in government – need to decide what it is there for. It can no longer, credibly, be part of the welfare state and part of the entertainment industry at the same time.In next Friday’s post I will try to explain why and what could be done about it.

This post was originally published on David Graham's blog 

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