Ivor Gaber on a new book which lays bare the threats facing the BBC, and why we should all care.
The title of the book says it all… The War Against the BBC: how an unprecedented combination of hostile forces is destroying Britain’s greatest cultural institution….And why you should care. And the two authors know what they’re talking about.
These are not a couple of the ‘usual suspects’ from the left (or right) sounding off about the Beeb. Patrick (known to all as ‘Paddy’) Barwise is an emeritus professor of marketing at the London Business School and a former chairman of ‘Which’, whilst Peter York knows a thing or two about popular culture – almost 40 years ago he was one of the first to spot cultural trends when he co-authored The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.
After reaching the end of the book’s more than 500 pages one is left with two overwhelming impressions. The first is how important the BBC is to the healthy life of the nation and the second, how its very long-term survival is now in doubt after the sustained political and financial attacks it’s suffered these past few decades.
Reading the book, which despite being heavy with appendices and academic references, is written with wit and panache, is like taking a stroll through the social and political history of Britain from Thatcher onwards, such is the pivotal position the Beeb holds in our national life.
One is reminded of how attacks on the Corporation started in earnest with Thatcher’s attack dog, Norman Tebbit, trying to savage Kate Adie for her “unpatriotic” reporting of the American bombing raid on Libya, with a similar charge being mounted against the BBC for the tone of its reporting during the Falklands War – not for nothing did Tory MPs dub it the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’.
In one of the most devastating sections of the book the authors mercilessly shred the argument that the BBC has an in-built left wing bias. They compare the reams of robust academic analysis of the BBC’s output which show that, if anything, the Corporation’s news coverage tilts to the right, with the threadbare and unscientific assertions of a series of right wing think tanks that claim to have found ‘evidence’ that the BBC is indeed a nest of Bolsheviks.
Not that the authors spare the BBC when it has come up short in its journalism – notably in its lamentable coverage of the Brexit referendum when, in fear of further enraging the right, it invoked the simplistic notion of ‘balance’ to justify giving equal weight and time to factual claims from recognised experts (almost universally in favour of Remain) against the lone-voices of maverick academics and right wing lobbying groups arguing for the Leave side.
But the future of the BBC is threatened, not just by the right through their political attacks and their increasingly successful attempts in placing in positions of influence those more in tune with their own ideological tastes. For it is the undermining of the Corporation’s finances that might ultimately lead to its demise.
It was, perhaps, insufficiently noticed at the time just how lethal the continuous reductions in the BBCs funding, initiated by George Osborne, have been. The most devastating wound has been transferring to the BBC responsibility for paying the licence fees of the over-75s – something that was, is, and should be, part of the social security budget.
Overall, the authors calculate the BBC has lost some £4 billion in funding since the 2010 attacks began. This is the real crisis facing the BBC, not the onrush of Netflix, Amazon Prime and so on. Indeed, the authors remind us that the BBC was blocked by the regulators from starting its own streaming service, Kangaroo, as far back as 2008 when it would have been well ahead of the global pack.
But the authors concede that the licence fee is not the holy grail of BBC finances. In a world in which the notion of a ‘television set’ as the main means of watching TV is becoming increasingly archaic – people watch TV (particularly from the streaming services) on a whole variety of devices – the licence fee cannot hold. But they comprehensively demolish the notion that funding from through advertising or subscription is the answer.
Indeed they remind us that back in the 1980’s Margaret Thatcher set up an inquiry (under the economist Alan Peacock) specifically charged with devising commercial alternatives to the licence fee and concluded that there currently weren’t any. The authors suggest following the Italian model where the public service broadcasters are funded via a levy on electricity bills, which would be marginally less of a poll tax than the flat-rate licence fee.
Perhaps the one issue that the authors duck – and there are not that many – is how to, dare I say, ‘democratise’ the BBC’s governance? Many years ago I was advising the Labour Party about its media policies. I, and a group of colleagues, came up with a proposal to introduce an element of public election to the BBC board of governors (as is now the case with crime commissioners). This would deprive the government of its ability to ‘fix’ the board. Alas, the proposal was a teensy bit too radical for the leadership of the party at the time and never saw the light of day. Now could be a good time to revisit the idea.
The War Against the BBC: how an unprecedented combination of hostile forces is destroying Britain’s greatest cultural institution….And why you should care, by Patrick Barwise and Peter York, is published by Penguin
Ivor Gaber is professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex and a former BBC journalist