At a critical point in the history of the BBC, this is a vital new forum for discussing what our Beeb should look like, and how it should adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Welcome to ourBeeb, a new website hosted by openDemocracy’s OurKingdom section, which will debate the future of the UK's most important cultural institution.
Mark Thompson, the BBC's Director General since 2004, will step down after this summer’s London Olympics. The applications for the next DG have just closed, and the next six months provide an ideal opportunity to ask not just what kind of person should take over the leadership of the BBC, but also what kind of BBC we want.
The key is that it is our Beeb, funded by the 95% of British homes that pay the licence fee. It belongs to the people, not the government, and this is the perfect time for the people to have their say.
What should the BBC do – and not do? Can we rely upon the BBC to deliver public interest journalism? Can an organisation devoted to covering major national events such as the Olympics, royal celebrations, and military invasions, also provide critical coverage of them? How should the BBC represent deeply contested issues that surround the rise of separate national parliaments within the UK? Does the BBC have the right structure, the right governance, and the right mind-set to accurately reflect the life and ideas of the UK today? Does the BBC have the right balance of informing, educating and entertaining? Should those even be its goals?
There are two great shifts of context that make an open, independent debate about the future of the BBC especially important, interesting and opportune.
First, the immense expansion of digital content (in which the BBC has been a leader) is transforming the nature of broadcasting itself. In his speech last month, the day before he announced his resignation, Mark Thompson set out an overview of how the BBC has changed under his leadership, stressing its achievements in digital provision in partnership with others:
“I’ve often talked about the concept of public space, the shared space which anyone can enter and in which they can encounter ideas and experiences of every kind. Our 2012 partnerships – and there are many, many more – are about bringing that concept alive.”
This concept of a shared public space or digital commons, which the BBC helps to create and protect, is a major step away from the Reithian tradition. It deserves to be recognised as such, and debated much more widely.
Second, any independent questioning of the BBC has tended to be categorised as “Beeb bashing”, in an environment of sustained tabloid criticism of the corporation; in particular from the Murdoch press, with its powerful owner, News Corp, suspicious of the BBC as an anti-competitive threat to its interests. In the UK, we are arriving in a post-Murdoch era, politically. A debate on the future of the BBC no longer risks being polarised by that contest: a weight has lifted. It should make it possible to have a more tolerant exploration of all the fundamental principles of the public space in broadcasting, and we should seize this opportunity. Here are just some of the issues we want to be addressed. These are just preliminary suggestions and we want you to help us add to them and shape them over the next six months:
1. What is the public interest and public service in broadcasting?
- How should the BBC combine quality and popularity?
- How can the BBC support pluralism in the media as a whole?
- How ought the BBC to represent differences in British society?
- What responsibility does the BBC have for encouraging other public interest broadcasting?
- How can the BBC respond to the demands and needs of different generations?
- Can planned cuts in BBC spending be implemented without significantly damaging the BBC’s key functions, especially journalism?
2. What kind of content should the BBC be providing across its various outlets?
- How has the BBC covered major issues such as NHS reform?
- What role should it have in covering and supporting sport, but also in reporting problems and scandals in the sporting arena?
- Is mass entertainment – such as the £25 million investment in “The Voice” – a key mission for the BBC? It claims a success in covering science, can there be one BBC Arts?
- How do we judge, not only the way the BBC allocates its available resources, but the relative success of the services it chooses to deliver?
3. What role should the BBC have with respect to new media and digital space?
- How can the BBC adequately serve a new media audience without damaging the ability of other media organizations – especially print – to find new business models in the digital space?
- Should the BBC’s web service include entertainment as well as information?
- How will the BBC’s current plans to charge for digital access to past programmes and to open up a shared space for digital archives reshape its services?
4. What governance and democratic accountability should the BBC have?
- What structure do we think the BBC needs in order to play the major role it has in our society?
- What is the best long-term funding mechanism for the BBC?
- What qualities and experience should the new DG ideally offer?
- Indeed, is the traditional role of the DG – as creative leader, editorial boss and executive manager – still best carried out by a single individual?
ourBeeb will be the place to be this year, to debate all aspects of the BBC's unique position in British life. Send us your article submissions, or your videos (up to 5 minutes), suggesting what you would do if you were the new Director General of the BBC.
ourBeeb is fully independent of the BBC, its DG candidates and competitors alike, and follows up and builds on OurKingdom’s Public Service Broadcasting Forum. In addition to our partnership with the Department of English at King's College London, we wish to invite partnerships with websites, media organisations, blogs, trade unions and think-tanks; to widen collaboration and debate as much as possible.
But most of all we want contributions from you: it’s your Beeb. What do you want from it?