ourBeeb: Opinion

We don’t need a public broadcaster – we need several

The BBC is struggling to serve a polarised audience. Is ending its monopoly the answer?

Jonathan Heawood
4 March 2020, 4.58pm
Question Time host Fiona Bruce said she was shocked by the level of toxicity on the programme.
BBC Question Time

Last week, a friend told me that the BBC is biased against conservatives. A few hours later, another friend insisted with equal fervour that the BBC is biased against progressives. What if they’re both right? 

There is growing criticism of the BBC from across the political spectrum. Brexiteers believe that its coverage is pro-Remain, while Labour Party members believe that it is anti-Corbyn. This week, Question Time host Fiona Bruce said that she was surprised by the “toxicity of debate” on the show.

To alienate one political flank would be unfortunate; but the BBC is losing friends on the right, left and centre. And as the Government sets its sights on the BBC, it could find itself dangerously isolated.

Tomorrow, the House of Lords will debate future funding models for the BBC. Should advocates of public service media brace themselves to defend the BBC once again – or is time to take a deep breath and reimagine public service media for the polarised world in which we live, rather than the world we have lost?

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The BBC’s charter: a Catch 22?

In the words of its charter, the BBC exists to “reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions”. This is the BBC’s core democratic function. At the same time, it is also required to “provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”. This is the BBC’s core intellectual function.

The BBC usually describes these two functions in the same breath. But what if they are actually pulling the BBC in two directions?

Sometimes, the BBC’s intellectual and democratic duties are compatible. It’s easy to be impartial if you’re covering astronomy, say, or a sports fixture. It doesn’t matter if the astronomer prefers Mars to Venus, or the reporter is a Spurs fan. Their views don’t affect the size of the Solar System or the outcome of the match. 

But when it comes to politics, there is a much more dynamic relationship between the reporting and the facts. This is partly because political reporting can affect the outcome of the political process. That’s why people get so exercised about the supposed bias of BBC reporters. But it’s also because there are very few empirical facts in the political domain. 

Some questions in politics do have definitive answers. The size of the structural deficit. The scale of unemployment. Net migration. We might not always know the answers, but they are out there, and good journalists are determined to find them.

However, there are other questions to which there are no determinate answers. Is Brexit a good thing or a bad thing? How should we respond to climate change? There are empirical aspects to these questions, but our answers will also draw on moral and psychological factors that are normative, not empirical. In other words, our answers to these questions are heavily influenced by our values.

This is where the BBC is in an impossible position. Even selecting certain topics for debate will annoy some audiences, who don’t believe that those issues are relevant. Framing some normative questions as questions will infuriate other audiences, to whom the answers are obvious, one way or the other. 

In trying to inform, the BBC will fail to reflect, because its values will bubble through in its selection and framing of topics, and this will alienate swathes of the audience.

Meanwhile, in trying to reflect, the BBC will fail to inform, because it will either reflect the values of only part of the audience, alienating other parts. Or – in an attempt to be impartial – it will fail to reflect any of its audience.

What if no single institution could ever be everything to everyone?

Until now, we have taken it for granted that the BBC can fulfil both the intellectual and the democratic parts of its mission. That it can reflect and inform all of us.

What if we were wrong? What if no single institution could ever be everything to everyone? Social media has shown, if we were ever in any doubt, that there are a lot of us out here and we disagree about some pretty fundamental questions.

This fragmentation is usually viewed with panic. But what if we saw it as a positive? We abandoned our commitment to a single national church in the seventeenth century. Maybe it’s time to let go of the dream of a single national broadcaster. What would a genuinely plural model of public service media look like?

A socialist Today Programme?

Here’s one scenario. Instead of funding a single institution, we could award funding to a range of media organisations, each of which was upfront about its political alignment. The BBC might be one of these organisations, but it would have to be transparent about its values and could no longer purport to be impartial.

Is there a danger that these organisations would lead their audiences into echo chambers, reinforcing their polarised worldviews? Yes – and that’s why you’d need to anchor this plural media ecology with a commitment to high standards of journalism. Funding would only go to organisations that embodied the intellectual virtues in their approach to news and current affairs.

What are the intellectual virtues? The American philosopher Jason Baehr has identified nine: curiosity, intellectual autonomy, intellectual humility, attentiveness, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, open-mindedness, intellectual courage and intellectual tenacity. 

What if we turned these virtues into standards for public service media organisations? A socialist version of the Today Programme might cover topics that don’t make it onto Radio 4, but its reporting would still have to be careful, thorough, attentive and so on. A Conservative version of Question Time wouldn’t have to play host to guests and audiences who hated each other – instead, it could host nuanced and productive discussions between different shades of conservative opinion.

A public service media organisation would not have to be impartial, but it would have to demonstrate intellectual autonomy, humility, open-mindedness and all the other intellectual virtues. It would not assume that someone with different beliefs was necessarily mad or bad. It would endeavour to understand and represent their views fairly; acknowledge that its own beliefs might be wrong; and treat empirical facts with rigour.

This would be a shock to the media system, but it’s an approach that works well in other areas of life. Think of science, for example. A scientist doesn’t just impartially consider two sets of evidence. She says: “Well, this is what I believe; but I’d like to put my beliefs to the test”. Scientists don’t always agree. But at least they have a way of disagreeing.

Contrast this with the BBC’s doomed attempt to position itself nowhere, or Fox News’s noisy support for President Trump. The problem with Fox is not its values, but its lack of intellectual virtue. 

By separating out the BBC’s intellectual and democratic objectives, we could give audiences a far greater chance of feeling represented by media organisations. In return, those organisations would be able to inform and educate their audiences.

In this scenario, no single organisation would be expected to reflect and represent the whole of the UK. Instead, you would have enough organisations across the whole media ecology to reflect the diversity of the nation. Ofcom already has a duty to consider plurality and diversity when looking at media mergers. You would simply turn that reactive process into a proactive assessment when awarding funds.

Maybe it’s time to embrace positive fragmentation; to turn the challenge of our polarised society into an opportunity for a new era of public service media, with a range of outlets that – between them – represent and reflect the different values that underpin our democracy.

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