Here’s how we mutualise the BBC

Two MPs proposed this week that the BBC become a mutual organization. Dave Boyle sets out how this could be done in practice.

Dave Boyle
31 March 2016

Media City, Salford. Credit: Phil Gradwell / Flickr

About four years ago, I wrote a pamphlet suggesting that mutual ownership of the media would address two key challenges it faces the world over – how do you pay for it, and to whom and for what is it accountable.

One of the ideas I floated was that the BBC could become the British Broadcasting Co-operative, moving from 20th century ownership on behalf of the public in whose service its broadcasting was undertaken, to a 21st century approach in which people were more than able to run these things themselves, thanks very much. 

Two MPs, Labour’s Gareth Thomas and Steve Baker of the Conservatives raised the issue this week in a letter to The Times, and highlight that one of the first big wins would be to depoliticize the institution’s very existence. 

The renewal of the BBC Charter, now ongoing, is the Forth-bridge painting exercise that underpins Government’s relationship with the corporation. Every government seems to view a second term as the chance to have a crack at setting the very terms of the BBC’s continued existence.

It’s always been a tension at the heart of the BBC’s relationship with the state, with the circle of being accountable to the institution you are to hold to account supposedly squared by the fact that everyone involved promises that at no stage does the action of the other party affect their own position; nothing the government may do will affect the BBC, and nothing the BBC does will affect the government. 

It’s a convenient story, which glosses over the fact that it would seem to run contrary to everything we know about how negotiation works in practice. It might have been possible to plausibly consider it back in the 1950s, where all chaps were good and honourable, especially those involved in solving this kind of knotty problem, but we don’t show the same deference to either BBC executives or government ministers any more for this to fly.

A better solution is for the BBC to be more like an endowment by the state, than a public corporation existing at its pleasure. It’s formal mission, existence and funding mechanisms would be guaranteed, with the governance – how those things are fulfilled – taken off the table of the political cycle.

Of course, there’s still the very big and thorny issue of how it works in practice. In my pamphlet, I argued that a simple reversal of power would do this easily enough. The BBC Trust is now appointed by the government of the day, and those trustees appoint a set of audience councils made up of licence payers, who are to advise them. 

I would reverse this system. Making those trustees appointed by the councils, and the council members accountable to licence payers, would do the trick. At a stroke, government would be put out of the picture, and in their place – as the people to whom the BBC was directly responsible – would be a group of people put in that position by direct representatives of the licence payers themselves, not their proxy in the form of the Culture Secretary. 

But how might that look in practice? We have enough experience of the end-result of democratic election-driven selection to know there might be other, better ways. I’d love there to be vibrant elections in every community to the BBC audience councils, but I fear the reality would make the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections look like the birth of democracy in South Africa.

I’ve always thought there was a role here for jury models, with people selected at random rather than campaigning for election. People selected at random and paid for their time could be involved in the governance of the BBC, responsible for selecting the BBC Trust, and for ensuring the corporation is truly meeting its brief as well as it can.

Whatever system is proposed will doubtless be subject to fierce debate. But the yardstick isn’t whether this is the best we can do, but whether it beats getting some clever boys and girls with mostly big-business experience to be identified by recruitment specialists and then approved by a career politician. We can and must do better than use a system we know will do nothing except replicate itself with the odd tokenistic appointment of someone who confirms that very homogeneity in the breach.

It looks likely that Sir David Clementi’s proposals to scrap the BBC Trust and replace it with oversight by Ofcom will go through, but that proposal wouldn’t help the BBC with the challenge of working out what the amorphous, divided and diverse public might want from public service broadcasting. 

It wasn’t ever enough to trust elites to know this through some combination of breeding, schooling and esprit d’corps, and time and again, we see a relative lack of diversity of worldview reinforcing a certain BBC way of doing things. 

Like much of the media, the BBC didn’t understand what was going on in the Scottish referendum, or going on inside the Labour Leadership election, but they didn’t know they didn’t understand what was going on either, because the only voices saying something was happening were voices they neither trusted nor appreciated and whose faces didn’t fit. 

The rest of the media will trundle on trying to solve this problem of accountable and representative journalism with varying degrees of effectiveness and as private sector bodies, there’s little we can do to change that. 

We nominally own the BBC though, so we nominally also have the power. We can do better than a letter to Points of View, and Dan Hind’s idea of public commissioning fits the bill much, much better. A BBC owned and responsible to us would be more able to be open to us. We either have it within us to be wise governors and wise editors, or we are good for neither. A model that suggests our talents are to be restricted to the boardroom or the newsroom will soon find ways to have us in neither place.

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