A post-broadcast BBC: time for the public to speak?

‘Digital public space’ is an inspiring vision of the future of the BBC. Its full realisation, however, demands greater public input in the allocation of the corporation’s resources. 

Dan Hind
20 March 2015

Antennae at the old Television Centre, White City (2012). Image: George Rex

In his recent piece for openDemocracy, Tony Ageh sets out a vision for the BBC in which the organization becomes a core part of a ‘Digital Public Space’. This he describes as "a secure and universally accessible public sphere through which every person, regardless of age or income, ability or disability, can gain access to an ever growing library of permanently available media and data held on our behalf by our enduring institutions." This Digital Public Space is bigger than the BBC. It includes museums and libraries, other public service media and public archives.

Ageh looks to the BBC’s longstanding, if unsung, role as "a world class engineering organisation pushing the boundaries on behalf of the population of the UK and the whole of industry." While the BBC is most visible as a producer of television content, it is also a solver of problems.

As we move from a media system dominated by broadcast to one in which digital technology reigns supreme, the BBC should, Ageh argues, continue to push technical boundaries and establish standards from which both the private and the public sector will benefit. This BBC for a digital age will guarantee public access to "a protected allocation of bandwidth for every citizen", manage the vast digital archives of the ‘Digital Public Space’, and offer "innovative products and services that allow people to access, contribute to and communicate with the public and cultural sectors."

Ageh’s ‘Digital Public Space’ is attractive, inspiring even. Those who want to see public service provision survive post-broadcast would be well advised to study his proposals carefully. They come from an understanding of the deep structure of the BBC as a site of collaboration for brilliant technicians. There is sentiment here, love even, but no sentimentality.

The reformation of the BBC along the lines Ageh sets out would make the BBC better suited to the needs of a modern democracy. The BBC’s origins, remember, lie in final decades of the British Empire. Its founders and managers had no problem with the idea that they knew better than their audiences what was good for them. In cultural terms there is something to this paternalism. Lives have been transformed – are being transformed – by programmes that catch a thread on the listener or viewer and unspool into a new, less restricted, take on life. Sometimes we don’t know much about art, and we don’t know what we like. I have a slight sense that we are ready and able to participate more in the cultural life of the country than our mandarins think, but I leave it to others to discuss.

At any event, in news and current affairs the top-down approach has been much less successful. The BBC’s managers have taken their cues from politicians and from senior figures in finance and business. Journalists have either accepted the terms of this elite consensus or failed to prosper. As a result, the BBC has given audiences a version of public life that is at best radically incomplete and at worst downright misleading.

While reporting of the day-to-day is professional and measured, the BBC cannot speak sensibly about matters where powerful interests favour nonsense. Though the BBC spends around £4 billion a year most of its audience still haven’t got the first idea how the economy works, or where that £4 billion ultimately comes from. Money is a mystery and where there is mystery there is unaccountable, unforgiveable power. We cannot separate the drift to bankocracy from the BBC’s persistent failure to describe the nature of finance and its role in the UK.

It isn’t only the domestic political economy that escapes effective scrutiny. The BBC’s coverage of foreign policy in general and the so-called war on terror in particular is deeply weird. To take one example, the British state’s extensive collaboration with Islamist groups – the Saudi royal family, above all – passes more or less unremarked in an atmosphere of growing hysteria about ‘domestic extremism’. Meanwhile the BBC finds it impossible to tell its audiences that the UK is the most important offshore centre in the world and hence a key enabler of criminal behaviour elsewhere.

At times – in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, or during the collapse of the financial sector – this inability to discover and state the truth becomes too obvious to ignore. But for the most part these highly consequential failings pass us by, diluted by the plausibility of the rest of the offering. When Churchill said that the truth must have a bodyguard of lies he was only being half-honest. If it is to survive, every lie needs a bodyguard of true claims.

But we are left with a persistent sense that the world is much stranger and more complicated, much more menacing, too, than the BBC can consistently acknowledge. For all the criticism that broadcasters and newspaper journalists level at people they call conspiracy theorists, the standard tropes of the paranoid imagination come closer to the truth of contemporary reality than the baseline assumptions found in the mainstream. The security services do protect elite criminals. The financial sector does dominate the political class through a sales effort that borders on the uncanny. The state does aspire to perfect real time surveillance of everything that matters, to what American planners call ‘information dominance’. We repeatedly learn in retrospect that key elements of our shared life have been a blood-spattered funhouse while being told that lessons have been learned, new guidelines are in place, and that it is time to move on.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of individual employees at the BBC. We are all vulnerable and we are all eager to find some measure of security in increasingly fraught times. The BBC is organized so that journalists who want to remain employed must internalise the demands of senior managers who are themselves supremely sensitive to Westminster-Whitehall and the City of London. Devil-may-care anti-authoritarianism is a lot easier when your pension isn’t at risk.

Nor do I want to belittle the efforts individuals and departments make to keep faith with their audiences. BBC news and current affairs is, in many respects, far better than anything else that is widely available. But, still, the exorbitantly rewarded lord it over the people who make the programmes and deliver the engineering breakthroughs. The result is a general bias against understanding. Not so much ‘no bishops, no kings’, more ‘no bullshit, no bonuses.’

We can imagine an alternative structure for BBC news and current affairs, in which the people who pay for the BBC, the citizenry, are able to direct some share of the money they contribute to journalistic endeavours they support. The public could channel funds to existing publishers or individual journalists. Or we might allocate money to specific projects, on condition that a threshold was reached. The BBC’s online platform would make universal and egalitarian the kinds of activity we currently associate with private sites like Kickstarter or Patreon.

A digital platform of this kind would allow the public to discuss options and distribute money as part of an ongoing conversation about what we now know (or suspect) and what we want to know. Both the discovery and the dissemination of new knowledge would take on a degree of transparency as hunches about what interests the public (or about what the boss wants the public to be interested in) are progressively supplemented by clear indications from the public. If we want more celebrity gossip and lifestyle features, then public service provision will reflect that. If we really want more serious analysis of how society currently operates and how it might be reformed, then that too will feed into what the BBC does.

The creation of such a platform is fraught with practical difficulties. It will need to be robustly confidential. It will have to develop over time, to take into account the public’s (currently unknown) appetite and aptitude for this kind of participation. The funding of new investigations will have to dovetail somehow with the BBC’s provision of news and factual content. The platform’s structure and its relationship with the organization will itself have to remain a matter of general deliberation. All this amounts to an engineering challenge as consequential as any the BBC has tackled in the past.

The ‘Digital Public Space’ Ageh describes offers us a post-broadcast rationale for the BBC that does justice to the best of its institutional achievements. It is also a point of departure for those who want to build a system of communications in which the facts of the matter in news reporting take on a sovereign weight in editorial decision-making, where spirited and self-confident professionalism becomes the honest servant of the public interest publicly discovered. As such it will not recommend itself to those who currently control journalism.

Will the rest of us organize to create a media system where our best approximation of the truth matters more than the wishful thinking and fabrications of oligarchs? The BBC's charter renewal is due at the end of next year, whether we act or not. Ageh proposes guaranteed broadband access as part of an expansive digital public space. Combine that with a guaranteed role for the public in the national conversation and we have a platform that might secure mass support, if we organise and argue for it.

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