‘Red-tape’ is at the heart of the BBC’s democratic remit

The so-called ‘sharing economy’ is composed largely of opaque shoddily managed companies. Rather than mimicking these models, the BBC must make the case for improving and developing its much-lamented bureaucracy.   

Barbara Speed
15 March 2016

Ant Smith/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The recent attacks on the BBC in the run-up to its charter renewal have all had something in common: a distrust of a media organisation owned and run by the government.

Daily Mail stories on the BBC endlessly reference “BBC bosses”, sometimes to critique the salaries (too high, they argue, for license fee-funded jobs), but also to remind us that the BBC is controlled from the top down. The organisation’s nickname, “Auntie”, fell into popular usage in the 1950s to critique its “prudish, cosy, puritanical ‘refrained’ image” in contrast to the fun and irreverant ITV. 

It’s easy and convenient to paint public service broadcasting in this light, as a kind of 1984-esque government control tool, used to force diversity onto our screens via the Great British Bakeoff’s casting and, in the words of culture secretary Jon Whittingdale, to “dumb down” our culture. Nothing original, independent-minded, and truly British, the argument goes, can be funded by public money. 

This new apathy towards the state and its enterprises is long-running in the right-wing, but lately, it seems to have made its way to the political mainstream.

In the US, the current standoff between Apple and the FBI intrigued me because it displayed a similar tendency. As a technology reporter embedded in the world of the internet, where state control and surveillance is regarded with deep suspicion, my initial reaction to the FBI’s demands that Apple unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters was disgust: in a post-Snowden world, where would capitulation lead? US and UK governments have demonstrated they’re willing to surveil us without our knowledge or permission - giving in here would surely only lead to more demands from western governments across the board. 

Yet as Guardian journalist Alex Hern pointed out on Twitter, your reaction to the debate depends on whether you agree with this statement: “Apple has a better sense than the FBI over when to release your data to the government". A kneejerk assumption that Apple is somehow more trustworthy than a federal bureau is more radical and new than many of those who made it might realise. 

It’s not that state action should by any means be accepted without question (as the NSA and GCHQ’s betrayals of public trust have shown), but that we seem to have willingly moved our trust, wholesale, to huge, multinational corporations. ITV and Channel 4 have “big bosses”, just as the BBC does, but we - and the media as a whole - seem far less concerned with what they’re up to. 

This same pattern is repeated across the media: readers side with adblockers over those who write the journalism they read, and viewers choose piracy over payment.

When Rusbridger slammed the idea of paywalls in 2010, he described both the internet and the rise of free media as “a new democracy of ideas and information”. Yet it is one which favours the free over the paid-for, and, most concerning, the experience of the customer over all else. There is little room in Rusbridger’s description for the labour laws fought for over hundreds of years. Ideas and information aren’t free – the idea that they should be ignores the rights of those that produce them. 

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the sharing economy. Just as we expect ad-free, free content online; we expect services to be cheaper and more easily acquired than ever before. When we wait only minutes for an Uber which costs around half the price of a black cab, we don’t think too hard about where those savings come from.

The lie of the sharing economy is that it’s new technology that enables those price cuts. In reality, it’s mostly the lack of worker support, pensions, training, health and safety, and formal company structures. 

In recent comments on adblockers, Jon Whittingdale noted: “If people don’t pay in some ways for content, then the content will eventually no longer exist.” We want to think that he’s wrong, that the overturn of capital as we know it has changed the structures such that somehow, we can have everything for free. But really, capital works in the same way as it ever did: but we, as consumers, are expecting everything for less.

The sharing economy landscape, as with the media landscape, begins to look totally different once you look at it not as a range of new types of business, but business as usual. Tom Slee, a British software designer living in Canada, released a book titled What’s Yours is Mine, and in it, this is precisely what he does. He points out that these “new” breeds of company are steered by the same venture capitalists and billionaires - the same 1 per cent - that controls the rest of the world’s industry. Even the smallest start-up dreams of being bought. 

In a recent interview, I asked Slee what he thought the greatest danger posed by the sharing economy was, and he replied, "they're fundamentally antidemocratic and unaccountable. And I think when you have hugely unaccountable institutions running things, they're always going to take shortcuts." 

Yet just as these undemocratic companies multiply, the general antipathy to democratic government is rising. As Slee puts it, “You talk about government - the role of government - and there's very little receptiveness to that. Governments are a manifestation of democracy. To me when democracy fails, the solution is more democracy, not to walk away from it.”

This is why the BBC, rather than moulding itself to match newer, less formal organisations, must demonstrate that it is accountable; that it holds itself to a higher standard than its competitors precisely because it is publicly funded. Scandals at the higher levels of the organisation aren’t an argument for a less rigid management structure – if anything, they’re proof that a stricter one is needed. The organisation’s apparent weakness – its bureaucracy – could prove to be its strength in an increasingly red tape-free world. Red tape, it transpires, is sometimes necessary: it prevents mistakes, keeps employees safe, and makes organisations accountable. 

The growth of the sharing and digital economies appear to threaten more traditional organisations like the BBC, if we believe that they’re really offering new models and new competition. But once we realise they’re just offering a shoddier version of the structures we already had, the case for strengthening the structures already in place becomes much clearer.

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