Public Service broadcasting under threat


God save the… BBC another British institution under threat. The Queen interrupts the news, is her Government is planning to interrupt the BBC


We have America to thanks for the BBC. When broadcasting was in its infancy, the British government looked across the Atlantic at what was happening in the United States, and it didn’t like what it saw.

Lack of regulation combined with competition saw broadcasters going for the lowest common denominator in search of ratings and advertising revenues. In its wisdom, the British government decided to broadcasters would have to apply for a licence, and to ensure Britain remained free of crass commercialism, it issued only one.

The British Broadcasting Company, later the British Broadcasting Corporation was born and, with a dour Scot – John Reith – on charge so too was the principle of public service broadcasting. Reith articulated the BBC’s mission – its purpose in life was to inform, educate and entertain.

By and large it has served Britain well through challenging times, as well as those years when “we never had it so good”. Such has been the BBC’s influence on broadcasting, that the concept of ‘public service’ is embedded even in those channels with a commercial remit (though Channel 5 stretches the boundaries somewhat, it must be said).

Like many institutions, the BBC has its detractors – not least in government (parties of all political persuasions); and over the years it has been subjected to sniping, whispered threats and the occasional full-frontal assault. On occasion the attacks are justified. Even its friends recognise the BBC has the capacity to shoot itself in the foot. More often than not, however, the criticisms are politically motivated.

Although the BBC is an independent body, established by Royal Charter, the government keeps the corporation on a short leash. Its governing body – currently the BBC Trust – is appointed by ministers, and its Charter is up for renewal every 10 years. With this sword of Damocles hanging over its head, the BBC is constantly on its guard.

We are going into a Charter renewal period now, and this time the long grass surrounding Broadcasting House is filled with enemies waiting to pounce. A newly-elected and hubristic government has just released a Green Paper ahead of Charter renewal which questions the role of the BBC in a new digital landscape.

The future of the licence fee is one line of attack, the second is the type of programming the BBC should be focusing its energies on.

Should it be running popular radio stations such as Radio One and Two? Should it be competing with Independent Television in prime time with crowd-pleasers such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice? Should it be ploughing public money into soap operas, daytime television and online services?

We have been here before. The BBC has few friends in the national press and they have led the charge – the Murdoch papers, the Daily Mail, the Express – all have their own commercial reasons for wishing to see the BBC cut down to size.

But the truth of the matter is that the BBC is the grit in the commercial oyster. If it did not exist, Independent Television would be much the poorer. Strictly keeps the X-Factor on its toes, EastEnders keeps Coronation Street focused on producing compelling drama; BBC News is a spur to ITN’s newsgathering.

But more important still is the importance of ensuring the principle of ‘public service’ underscores popular programming as well as so-called serious broadcasting.

Radio One is more than just the latest pop. There is no comparison between its non-music output and that available on commercial rivals. The type of informed debate and intelligent news you get on Newsbeat has been driven off other music channels because it is not “commercially viable”. Its output reaches an audience untouched by other media.

If we have learned anything from the last decade, it is that the market alone cannot be trusted to operate for the public good. The Green Paper threatens to do for broadcasting what deregulation did for the banks and the City.

This Charter renewal process threatens an institution that, for all its faults, is an important bedrock of society and a pillar of our cultural life – serious and popular. It should be the last Charter renewal to be managed by politicians. We need to take the future of the BBC out of the hands of people who feel most threatened by its all-seeing eye.