Image: Flickr / m0gky
Following last Thursday’s publication of the BBC Charter Review Green Paper, it is worth stepping back to consider the longer-term view. Placing this consultation document and how it is framed in their historical context, it becomes evident that this latest development is part of a process that seeks to dramatically challenge the status quo in public service broadcasting. Driven by industry pressures and on the back of enabling technologies, it expresses an ideological response to the scale and scope of public service provision in the UK’s communicative infrastructure. It questions universality and threatens to reduce the BBC to irrelevance and insignificance. The arguments put forward are familiar. They echo the 1986 Peacock Report into the financing of the BBC, more recently reappraised in IEA’s Public Service Broadcasting without the BBC?, and reworked versions have been resurfacing with increasing tenacity, particularly around junctures like the current one.
Putting this process into perspective, it becomes clear that over the last 25 years the BBC has been gradually objectified by successive governments. It becomes an instrument of public policy, and its resources are treated as divertible, even serving explicit government objectives.
To most people in the UK and around the world, the BBC stands for high quality content and particularly news. This function is important, critical even when alternatives alone will not be good enough, but it can overshadow that the broadcaster serves the public interest in a multitude of ways. A desirable market distortion, what Tessa Jowell, as DCMS Secretary of State, called in 2005 "a deliberate act of public policy", the BBC compensates for the shortcomings of commercial media in increasingly competitive market conditions. It sets quality standards for others to meet, and stimulates original content production. This is particularly so in commercially high risk or less viable (yet valued by audiences) content categories, such as non-mainstream comedy and children’s programming.
The impact of the BBC catering to citizens’ needs is widely acknowledged, but in their 2014 report, Barwise and Picard also demonstrate how even in narrow market terms, BBC Television funded through the licence fee actually increases choice and value for money. Similar evidence is provided in the BBC’s own The Economic Value of the BBC: 2011/12 report. This goes against arguments, also expressed in the Green Paper, that the BBC crowds out competition to the detriment of growth and innovation. As for innovation in a broader sense, throughout its history, priding itself on its in-house research and development, the BBC has pioneered, refined and delivered to the industry key technologies from early radio transmission through to current cutting edge interactivity.
It is less often recognised that at crucial moments, the BBC has stepped in to help public policies out of a stalemate. A striking example I have discussed elsewhere is from the mid-nineties, when the government was eagerly, but with little success, trying to persuade the radio industry, listeners and receivers’ manufacturers to adopt the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) standard. The important gesture of commitment to the long-term future of the technology came from the BBC in September 1995. It started simulcasting its analogue signal in digital to an essentially non-existent audience of 30 households and a miniscule number of prohibitively expensive digital receivers in circulation. It is not immediately obvious why the BBC would single-handedly take this initiative, estimated to cost it £11m. Another example is BBC-led Free-to-view (later Freeview) that resurrected the bankrupt Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) platform shortly following the demise of ITV Digital in 2002. This move enabled the government to complete its plans for the digital switchover.
In other words, with its resources, clout, global brand, accumulated expertise, networks, institutional memory, sheer gravity and sustained public support, the BBC influences the media ecosystem it is part of in line with public objectives. For much of its history, the broadcaster enjoyed relative autonomy in determining its mission within the broad parameters of the Royal Charter governing its direction and purpose. Reithianism instilled a sense of duty to serve the public and to respond seemingly spontaneously to perceived social needs. The unmediated relationship of the institution with its audience is reflected in its funding formula and its governance structure, strongly defended as signifying and guaranteeing its independence.
The BBC as policy instrument
Since the late 90s something seems to have changed. The UK Digital Television Action Plan was first introduced at that time to pave the way to the digital switchover in terrestrial television broadcasting. It explicitly prescribed the contribution of the BBC, which it sees as critical for the success of the switchover programme. Subsequent reports on various aspects of the BBC, fed into the review of its charter, reflect broader public policy discourse and inextricably link the corporation to promoting digitalisation of the media and communications infrastructure. To that effect, a sixth public purpose was added in its 2006 Royal Charter. The DCMS and DBIS joint Digital Britain report in 2009, and the licence fee settlements in 2007 and 2010 make clearer than ever before that the corporation was required to help build digital Britain, in effect to support and subsidise the implementation of public policy.
In those licence fee settlement negotiations, the government pushed for the BBC to facilitate and promote the transition to digital, provide targeted help for the most vulnerable during digital switchover, waive the licence fee for over 75s (which resurfaced only a few days ago in the current licence fee settlement), subsidise the development of digital television and broadband infrastructure, fund the World Service and bail out the struggling Welsh language broadcaster S4C. Under separate proposals a top-sliced licence fee would contribute to funding a range of activities outside the BBC in line with policy objectives for public service content in an integrated public service media environment.
The implication is that the BBC becomes an extension of government – a public policy instrument whose assistance can be summoned and prescribed. Over the last decade even its licence fee revenue, symbolising the special relationship between the independent institution and its audience, is treated as a pot of cash that can be appropriated and re-allocated to support policy objectives at no apparent cost to the taxpayer. Just two weeks ago critics described the just announced licence fee deal as turning the corporation into a branch of the Department for Work and Pensions, because it wants the BBC to bear the cost of free television licences for the over-75s. The BBC taking initiatives that may be in alignment with public objectives will naturally involve an element of cost. The difference lies in the degree of autonomy the broadcaster determines for itself, and in the name of licence fee payers.
This is only part of the picture. Free marketeers argue a strong BBC has a chilling effect on competition, and would rather see public service provision opened up to other players. The validity of such claims remains debateable, but they tend to dominate policy narratives in the UK and abroad. This is evident in the new Green Paper. In a world of scarce resources, these arguments often translate into efforts to divert previously ring-fenced resources away from the BBC. That can take the form of top-slicing its revenue to fund third-parties in return for desirable content and services that meet prescribed public service criteria.
Examples can be found in arrangements proposed in the run-up to the renewal of the current Royal Charter and the licence fee settlements that followed. In its Beyond the Charter: The BBC after 2006, the Broadcasting Policy Group advocated plurality of supply and contestability of funding for public service content. A Public Service Authority would manage the allocation of resources. The Burns Report in 2005 recommended a similar model around a Public Service Broadcasting Commission to replace the BBC governors. These recommendations are quoted positively in this week’s Green Paper. In 2004, Ed Richards, then Ofcom’s senior partner for strategy and market developments, made early references to contestable funding potentially out of a top-sliced licence fee as a means to secure public service broadcasting. This clearly informed Ofcom’s Public Service Publisher (PSP) thinking later that year aiming to diversify public service content provision. The regulator’s proposal in 2007 included funding from an ‘enhanced licence fee’ as one of its scenarios. The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport rejected the plan but made a clear statement in favour of introducing contestability to public funding for public service content.
To compensate for the reduction in ITV’s regional news, Ofcom’s 2009 idea for an Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNCs) was considered in the Digital Britain report. This report also announced the intention of the government to consult on a Contained Contestable Element of the Licence Fee to be used by, or channelled through other organisations for public service content, primarily for news. IFNCs would involve production of news by local commercial groups, again potentially funded through the licence fee. The plan was scrapped only to be replaced with another: for the BBC to fund the rollout of super-fast broadband in rural areas as part of the 2010 licence fee settlement.
These selected examples represent a particular set of developments but they should not be seen as isolated. They fit in with a pattern of transferring resources out of the BBC and into the market. Like their predecessor, Alan Peacock’s ‘Arts Council of the Air’, but also the independent production quotas and the Window of Creative Competition, they express an ideological shift under the guise of promoting plurality, diversity and industrial policy. Introducing ‘external pluralism’, across the media system as a whole, and competition in the provision of public service content is not new, and can stimulate creativity and quality. As far back as the fifties, the launch of ITV broke up BBC’s monopoly. And even radical challenges to the status quo affirm that it remains necessary to provide public funding for public service purposes, particularly ‘exposure diversity’. What is different now is that the BBC is required to share out its funding and other resources. Coupled with successive governments increasingly seeing the BBC as an instrument in their policy toolbox, the historical transformation described here reflects a fundamental dilution of the purpose of the corporation. The Green Paper seeks to crystallise that.
With BBC’s scope and scale challenged, it defends its popularity, universality and Reithian mission to inform, educate and entertain. At the same time, there will be pressure for the BBC to reimagine its mission for a ‘digital by default’, online, on demand world. An important asset of the BBC is the trust of the public – an essential component of PSB 2.0. Trust is paramount to news and current affairs programming, but the BBC can also help promote digital media and information literacy by acting as ‘public service navigator’ through complex digital spaces. Or it can be the guarantor of Tony Ageh’s universally accessible ‘digital public space’ shielded from the transgressions of major commercial interests on the internet. The BBC should be part of an ecosystem approach to public service media, a ‘holistic public media project’ which the short-termism and programme-based perspective of contestability projects seem to neglect. It cannot be overstated that the BBC can take risks with new technologies and innovate in its programming in ways that the commercial sector cannot.
(This article draws on material from the Special Issue on public service objectives that the author guest-edited for the International Journal of Digital Television.)