Save the BBC and save ourselves

As the government's consultation over the future of the BBC comes to an end, here is a submission to it from openDemocracy's founder.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
7 October 2015
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Dear Secretary of State for Culture, 

Thank you for your consultation. The following is my formal submission to the consultation process. 

The BBC is under threat as never before. So too is Britain itself and the two threats are connected. A decennial Charter renewal process for the BBC is now underway as the Green Paper consultation comes to a close. The government insists that the BBC is highly valued and will be preserved. But everyone who values public service broadcasting is right to be alarmed, for the very meaning of ‘the public’ and with it who we are in the British Isles as a people, is in play. 

The danger is that the BBC will become, in your own words, just the source of “things that are in the public interest to have that would probably not be viable on a commercial basis”, as Charlotte Higgins has reported. Such a residual preservation will prove terminal for the spirit of the BBC, making it a heritage institution, a legacy broadcaster cut back from the expanding world of the internet and broken as a ‘universal’ provider. This will not be a small mercy for which we should be grateful; it would be a fate worse than death that will enslave us to the market without escape. It should be resisted at all costs. 

The difficulty about trying to help save the BBC, however, especially with so much at stake, is the need to save it from itself: to prevent it from carrying on being the BBC, with its waste, its white Oxbridge presumptions and recruitment, its servility to the security state, its obsession with its own narrative.

The starting point has to be not with the BBC but with the fact that so many of us want to save BBC from itself. There is a huge desire for what it can do, as you can see from the 100 ideas for the BBC that openDemocracy’s OurBeeb section is publishing. Just a quick scroll though the wealth of proposals and possibilities, attitudes and advances, content ideas and suggestions for how it is run, makes a profound impression. There is an urge for it to “hold its ground” in the words of Ian McEwan, not passively but as a force for good. People do not relate to the BBC as yet another provider; they want it to do better as if it is their home team. Because it is our home team, especially in a world of ‘global’ corporations. We may despair of it, we may despise the Today programme for good reasons, but we urge the BBC to improve and be more open in a way we never would something that was not ours. 

As my submission to the Green Paper consultation, therefore, I want to focus on this all-important relationship, I want the government to conclude that there is a need for more BBC not less, that it needs to become of greater importance and not be confined, that it should be challenged to help shape the digital medium in a way that builds on the public, democratic, deliberative potential of the web, and not in its old way, with its ‘establishment’ voice. The era of paternalism is over. The alternative to Reithian paternalism is not populism and certainly not false, nervous populism: it is professionalism and democracy in action. 

How is it possible to suggest that such a top-down institution can be democratic? For two reasons: First, the BBC is not a normal mandarin institution. Unlike the nineteenth century structures of privilege, it was from its founding moment, as Bill Thompson has observed, a “technology platform”. More than what it did, what mattered was what it was: a new medium. It created radio and then television in the UK. As the Empire shrunk and the navy declined and sterling fell, the BBC could not help but grow. For unlike the nineteenth century institutions of the British State to which it owed so much in the way it was run, from the start it was fully part of the modern world, and this has made it a multi-billion pound network. Which in turn is why the potential for change and democracy are built into it (emphasis on potential). In a long exchange with OurBeeb in 2012, Richard Eyre described how the Corporation used to be run as if it was a military establishment, but that what it created could be quite different in its truthfulness and reach. This is thanks to the medium not the institution and as the medium of broadcasting is again transformed so these qualities are needed all the more, not less.  

The second reason we should seek more BBC is that it is trusted. A democrat needs to respect this trust. I am not saying that anyone trusts any particular thing the BBC says. But there is a shared trust in it, perhaps even more abroad than here in the UK where a healthy cynicism cohabits alongside belief in the BBC. This trust has three aspects. First, it is trusted more than politicians; who naturally hate it for this. Second, it is trusted because it is not seen as trying to screw us for its own profit or gain; Rupert Murdoch hates it especially for this, as does the Mail, the Telegraph etc. Third, it is trusted because the British trust themselves in a way that people in most other countries do not. 

For me this is the message of the 100 ideas, they show there is a self-belief that is open and creative. This is why more of the BBC can mean a different BBC. This is also why its role as a provider of mass entertainment is so important. It is show business! Without this it can’t retain a democratic claim. It has to reach out to everyone, to be appreciated as more than specialist or it cannot be a democratic institution. 

But the way in which it needs to be different is changing profoundly because the way we define ourselves is being transformed by the digital era. The world is no longer singular in the way it was, it is both more unified and more plural. This is most discomforting for an institution like the BBC, which sought to impose an accountable narrative. As one of its employees said to me, and not just in jest, this is why the BBC is obsessed with Dr Who. The Tardis, the police box that is also a communications hub, is a metaphor for Broadcasting House and Dr Who a stand in for the “DG”, sent out across all possible zones, planets and universes, to create a narrative while prescribing wisdom and good judgement to younger females through exciting times; putting a singular, corrective stamp on time and space wherever it might be. Apparently Tardis stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. This has now met its match in Google. Whereas the BBC was the begetter of radio and television in the UK, it is now merely a participant in the world of the web. The singular narrative form no longer provides authority. 

Its response should be to seek to be a provider of a new kind. The announcement that the BBC wants to become an open platform providing access to other public service content suggests it is capable of embracing the kind of change when more BBC means less of just the BBC.

Just as its broadcasting needs to be more energetically open so too does its ownership need to become public: the Trust should be a mutual, the Board selected at least in part by lot, the Corporation becoming literally as well as rhetorically answerable to members of the public, ending for good its military-type structures of command. The need to treat us as citizens not consumers should be built into it, so that it feels in its marrow no longer entitled to broadcast to us as its subjects. 

This puts the issue of the BBC’s structure and governance in constitutional language. Rightly so, because the BBC is now part of the country’s informal constitution. This, of course, is not a comfortable place to be at present. It is the British Broadcasting Corporation but what does it mean to be British? The question is finally being asked in traditional quarters. The current Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, whose forebears have played a role in high politics since Elizabeth the First, has spotted the writing on the wall. A passionate Unionist, he personally argues for an honourable settlement with Scotland and grasps this must mean a federal solution for the UK, ideally by making the Commons the English Parliament and replacing the Lords with an elected British federal chamber. He recently convened a Constitutional Reform Group that has issued an authoritative report. He justified his approach in the Sunday Times on 1 March saying, “I… believe that the purpose of the Tory party is to stand for the nation state and its institutions. Normally, this means that we Tories believe only in necessary evolutionary change. However, once in several centuries, the true Tory must accept that the nation demands more radical solutions if it is to survive. This is one of those times.” 

So it is. For what Cecil has grasped is that any British Union today has to be more than a mere union, it must be federal or it will not survive for long. This is the framework within which the BBC is also fighting for its life. It is under attack from influences that wish to support commercial and corporate interests that would dissolve our capacity to act collectively through self-determination. This pressure could and surely would be firmly resisted if we as a country knew who we were. But the old Britain that created the BBC is itself dissolving. Where then is the ground on which to build the values and objectives for the BBC?

The answer is that the ground is us, the people. You have called the Green Paper consultation “Your BBC”. Thank you for this. It permits us to claim it as Our BBC. This is the message from 100 ideas. Can the BBC manage to ‘let go’ sufficiently to trust the public? Will you, Secretary of State, permit and encourage it, with all your powers? If so, we can have a public broadcaster open to all, inventive and self-confident, democratic rather than paternalistic, in the way it is run and in the way it commissions content and, critically, shares its platforms.

We therefore need a universal BBC. Universal in a different way to the manner in which it has exercised its reach up till now, but nonetheless reaching out to everyone. This must mean as an entertainer as well as an educator and source of information and also as an enabler working for us not the surveillance state. By 'us' I mean the different publics of the UK, hence the need for it to become an open platform. There is a politics to this, it is the politics of assisting us to learn how to govern ourselves, as we share our music, our humour, our intelligence, and experience across a digital public space of quality and distinction.

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