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Nationalise the BBC

Throughout its history, the stature of the BBC has depended upon an active suppression of nationality - silencing popular sovereignty through the transmission of British state ideology. Only by nationalisation can the deep changes be made that would enable the institution to provide a truly public service. 

Michael Gardiner
16 July 2012
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There remains a fond thinking amongst sections of the British left that the BBC is a public, national broadcaster. The BBC is one of the British settlement’s holy cows: in times of ‘austerity’ we look to those bodies which we imagine to exist for the common good, and struggle to hang on to them.

But the idea that the BBC exists for the common good returns us to ideas of commonality from the period when the form of the public was most hotly debated: the late eighteenth century. After the 1790s, Britain was established as a state-nation based on the organic inheritance of culture, despite and because of its lack of willingness to reinvent itself as a community. What this means is that if a nation is understood as 'a public', the BBC and its related institutions (especially literary study, which was formed into its present shape around the same time) are anti-national and anti-public. For if nationality rests on the sovereignty of the people, nationality is what the BBC aims to prevent. It is not just that the organisation is run along marketised lines and that entry into the company is limited by educational and cultural capital. If the BBC really were an organ of a public-minded state, it would be funded, as J.M. Keynes argued, from taxes rather than the licence fee[1]. Irrespective of the question of advertising between programmes, it may be that this has never been tried due to a lack of confidence in the institution’s ability to meet the pressure to justify itself as a public body.

Nationalising the BBC, in these terms, would mean at least a partial acknowledgement of popular sovereignty, not just in terms of occasional participation, but as a fundamental principle. Without the public, as public, to answer to, the BBC can only be treated as the commercial service it is. And yet participation is so short-circuited that owning a set tuned to the state broadcaster is assumed. Under apparent pain of punishment, a ‘British citizenry’ has to fill in opt-out clauses on forms for every household, spending time and often money proving incapability of receiving a signal. Meanwhile, fee collectors prey on those occupants most likely to allow entry into the house: the young or elderly, or those accustomed to visits from authorities. The onus of proof remains, often to the point of attrition, with the person who owns no TV. This effort means that even for those who should never have to pay a licence fee, some form of tax is effectively levied, and neither set-owners nor non-set-owners have any real input into programming. Control over this remains, to an extraordinary degree for an organisation describing itself as public, the prerogative of a management whose social structure has barely changed for eighty years.

It’s true that the BBC usefully cohere a desire for collectives, sometimes against their own will, as seen in the way apparently solitary media such as Twitter trigger desire for large-scale shared experience (described in this piece by Nat Guest). So too the BBC have historically been important deliverers of technology and a vast archive (as Tony Ageh has stressed here) – but they have done so with a quite specific ideological and anti-popular mission. The BBC has tracked the needs of the managerial state since the shadow of First World War ‘national’ reconstruction, the Newbolt Commission desire for Standard English, the wake of 1917 revolution scares and Irish Home Rule debates. Its anti-national pro-state mission grew rapidly from its creation in 1922 to reach most of the mainland by the end of the decade, becoming, by the 1940s, the cultural unifier needed to contain threats to the franchise of parliamentary democracy both internal and European. Motifs of the monarch, the empire, and the (ideal) country were staples during the formative inter-war years, but a really unified British cultural policy for the BBC only arose during the Second World War, a time during which the BBC doubled its staff and joined existing organisations such as the British Council. Originally aiming to address those affected by the Blitz, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts was merged with the Board of Education in 1942, chaired by a Keynes now increasingly drafted into a military state-capitalist economy. It was at this point that the BBC became the carrier of the British state mission familiar to us now.

Under wartime and post-war Director Generals, an Arnoldian mindset was explicit in encouraging the best aspects of the British character, and worked hard to reinvent the empire as an extended family, in radio programmes including Edges of the World, Responsibilities of Empire, Lines on the Map, and Brush Up Your Empire, as well as Empire Day celebrations, Royal anniversaries and a stream of Edwardian dramatic adaptations. The early Board of Governors was appointed directly by the Prime Minister, a condition later defended by John Reith, who marshalled the BBC’s narrow monopoly through the Beveridge Committee on Broadcasting to cover the iconic moment of the Queen’s coronation in 1953 (and as Dan Hind has reminded us in this piece, the appointment of the top management of the BBC still reflects Britain’s monarch-in-parliament, a finance-based form of governance in a way which might be thought anachronistic in most organisations, and is almost total in excluding the public it claims to represent).

The war established the BBC as the new voice of parliamentary sovereignty, backed by the likes of J.B. Priestly and Humphrey Jennings, invoking invasion metaphors (white cliffs and so on), and harking back directly to the counter-revolutionary defences of the 1790s, contributing to a rapprochement of empire, ‘shared instinct’, and welfare state technocracy. The 1951 Commission also recommended a form of devolution, in a Reithian mode, to strengthen the sense of a centre made stronger by its plurality - a lineage which survives all the way to ‘regional accents’ (the BBC continue to misunderstand that all accents come from a place). Indeed, the mid-century BBC’s ‘regionalisation’ helped encourage ethnic, rather than political, definitions of the public and the national, which was useful in suppressing popular sovereignty via an apparently apolitical British-nationalism (‘we asked the nation’) which remains the ideal for the BBC to this day. 

The patrician elitism of anti-national parliamentary sovereignty belongs quite firmly in the tradition of what English Literature, following Burke, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and other anti-Jacobin thinkers, called the clerisy: an elite of cultural brokers largely corresponding to the inherited establishment – or as it was reinvented in the post-1941 term which made it acceptable as an ideal, the meritocracy. The meritocracy certainly does not lead to a leftist bias, as is claimed by the endless speculations of the British mainstream press. (How could an organisation defined by a mission to oppose popular sovereignty represent a leftist bias?) Something more like the opposite is true: a British-nationalist bias, where ‘nationalist’ is strenuously described as not ‘really’ national, merely rational, and always likely to revert to ‘shareholder sovereignty’. In this sense, and having gone through technocratic-meritocratic reinvention, the BBC was always likely to become the perfect vehicle for what we have since called neoliberalism. Not only has it pumped out state-capitalist propaganda and marketised content right up to and through the global economic panic, bringing misery and debt to millions, the service itself has had to be paid for by those interpolated as the ones being represented. Does anyone really still think this is a public service? This is a vehicle of ‘discursive’, or ‘soft’ – but extraordinarily strong – state censorship, and remains the single most important carrier of a ‘British culture’ whose primary mission is to prevent popular sovereignty from ever becoming viable. We are all familiar with the way phrases like ‘British nation’ are used disproportionately in relation to the way people conceive of their own nationality, which is more likely to contain some element of participation.

Crucial here has been the myth of neutrality or impartiality, the idea of unbiased reporting as repeatedly codified in vast UK government diktats. Impartiality, it is imagined, is guaranteed by having representatives of different ‘sides’ on a panel together (typically representatives of Westminster political parties plus a favoured celebrity). Meanwhile, the recent No Campaign against Scottish Independence turns out to be headed by an ‘impartial’ former BBC news chief. Media commentators such as Michael Rosie, Pille Petersoo and Joan McAlpine have been noticing signs of a silent ‘Englishing’ during the late-devolutionary phase, as Scottish news has been presented as peripheral. (A readier guide is to look for Scottish results on the BBC Football website: true, Scottish football may be rubbish, but the wider point is whether this organ is really still claiming to represent the UK). But even as the BBC seems to ‘cede’ some autonomy to the one region of the UK which might have its basis in popular sovereignty, the rubric of Britishness is clung on to ever more desperately, as the British-national is repeated all the more frequently for becoming attentuated – this via an extraordinarily high proportion of news penetration, as David Elstein stressed earlier in this series. A ‘democratic deficit’ indeed, and one not limited to any particular nation.

A first response to all this would be an acknowledgement of sovereignty issues in the UK which leave the BBC struggling to stick quasi-English news onto an old British rubric. A second response, on an ‘inter-national’ level, would be a public commissioning process, perhaps something like the kind called for by Dan Hind in The Return of the Public, whether elected by participatory horizontal means or by popular bidding. As Hind has shown, this would involve a modest amount of the monies already taken; it would mean that some kind of cross-section of the public would overcome the pernicious idea of the meritocracy. In this sense, the appointment of George Entwistle is not that desperately important: a future DG could be better elected from outside the charmed circle, but this would not address the form of the BBC, which would mean ceding much more of the BBC’s programme-making power to a genuine public to take advantage of the its vast monopoly. Moreover, despite high-minded discussions of shared knowledge, the BBC really has no choice as to whether it ‘creates’ a digital commons, which will come anyway; a ‘franchise limitation’ based thinking which tends to hark back to the whiggery of the 1940s. Satellite and mediated forms are primary in reception, and despite Ageh’s interesting but Leavisite account, it is not the machines that are watching us, but the capital interests behind specific forms of technology. Can we handle this kind of public or not?

This may be something of a litany against the BBC – but it is not a privatising argument. A public service broadcaster is a wonderful idea, but the BBC isn’t it, even for all its world-class programming over the years. If we can stop hanging on to institutions created during the golden era of the mid-twentieth century, we will see that we are left with a sovereignty problem: the BBC can (like education or transport) be resolutely anti-public, and yet still get away with calling itself a public service. The question of the accountability of the BBC is indivisible from issues of sovereignty, whether parliamentary, landed, financial, or popular. No move towards accountability can take place without a definition of the public away from the common British one, (which has really meant the management of the franchise) and towards the recognition that at least part of the UK, and possibly all of it, is not ultimately answerable to politicians, their quangos or their complex system of cultural capital. If the BBC, or whatever comes after it, were public in this sense, it would represent a real nationalisation, belonging to the people, paid for with their money, and open to their full range of opinion.


[1] J M Keynes, ‘Art and the State’, 1-7, in ed. Clough Williams-Ellis, Britain and the Beast (London: JM Dent, 1937)

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