The future of the BBC is again under threat, and there will be rallying calls for liberals and leftists to defend it against Rupert Murdoch and his allies in 10 Downing Street. This might invoke unpleasant feelings of déjà vu for those old enough to remember the 1980s, but this time it is different. Not, as we will be repeatedly told, because the current threat to public service broadcasting is unprecedented – it is not. But because for many on the Left the BBC in its current form now looks indefensible.
The BBC’s reporting during the recent general election shocked a lot of people in the Labour Party, but it shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Let’s consider for a moment the nature of this institution. The BBC has always been very close to the British state, including the secret state. During the Cold War it developed a close working relationship with the Foreign Office’s political propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, and its staff were covertly vetted by MI5 to keep out ‘subversives’. It seems likely that similar official and unofficial ties with the security state are in operation today.
The BBC’s executive board is chaired by Sir David Clementi, a former investment banker and Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, and it is populated by a mix of government appointees, other ‘establishment’ figures and senior BBC executives. Those executives, along with the BBC’s senior journalists who set the tone of its reporting, are disproportionately drawn from private schools and Oxbridge, and are usually paid upwards of £200,000 a year. This puts them very comfortably in the top 1% in terms of income, with many enjoying ten times the median wage.
Then there is another element of the BBC’s organisational culture which is often overlooked by analysts, but which is a major focus of my book, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service. In the 1990s, and into the 2000s, the BBC was radically reformed along neoliberal lines. Its programme making was marketised and its reporting was consciously remodelled in accordance with the new economic orthodoxy. Out went the industrial correspondents and in came the business reporters and the PPE-trained pundits. By the time the 2008 crisis hit, neoliberal economics were part of the BBC’s DNA. The Conservatives’ bait and switch around public spending, which justified their brutal austerity agenda, therefore seemed quite natural to the BBC.
After the 2019 general election, the BBC’s outgoing Director General, Tony Hall, dismissed allegations of institutional bias as ‘conspiracy theory’. But if we accept that institutions possess some sort of collective culture, what kinds of patterns of political reporting would we expect from the sort of organisation just described? Precisely those that the empirical scholarship finds: a balance between different factions of the elite and a basic orientation towards officialdom and formal politics, with alternative and oppositional perspectives marginalised. We would also not be surprised to discover that a politician and political movement set against both neoliberal economics and British imperialism would be treated unfavourably.
BBC political ‘bias’ against Labour under Corbyn then is what we would expect examining the BBC as it is, rather than how it describes itself, or how many like to imagine it. But what then explains the apparent hostility to the BBC from Conservatives, which is currently dominating the news agenda?
The conventional answer is that the right is ideologically opposed to public service broadcasting, and has long wanted to privatise the BBC. There’s some truth to this, although the picture is a more complicated. For one thing, Conservatives are by no means universally hostile to the BBC. Senior Tories have long valued it as a prestigious British institution and an instrument of soft power. We saw this at the weekend when a number of Conservative MPs publicly criticised a front page story in the Sunday Times reporting Downing Street’s determination to force the BBC to move to a subscription service.
That article, which was also criticised by the conservative commentator Matthew D’Ancona, had quoted a number of anonymous government sources speaking about ‘whack[ing]’ the licence fee, and claiming that the new Culture Secretary was on an ‘attack’ mission. It also led to some apparent backpedalling from Downing Street. A subsequent front page report in The Times suggested that Johnson himself did not share the hostility of Dominic Cummings and other advisors.
A source was quoted as saying the Prime Minister is ‘cool’ on the idea of abolishing the licence fee, and a Johnson ally was quoted as saying: ‘The PM is not as gung-ho on the licence fee as Dom. With Dom it’s ideological – he believes the licence fee should be scrapped. With the PM it’s more reform than revolution.’ Even the tough talking ‘senior source’ in the original article – assumed by many to be Dominic Cummings, said the BBC should put ‘more money and effort into the World Service’. The BBC’s usefulness when it comes to the core interests of the British state is recognised by even the most belligerent senior Tories.
This is less of a concern among the reactionary base of the party, which is currently buoyed by Brexit; which propelled Johnson to Downing Street; and which has long regarded the BBC as guilty of a liberal-left bias. The reason for this perception is not only that the BBC tends to lean more towards centrist than hard-right perspectives, but also that its requirements around accuracy and impartiality mean it tends not to relay the sort of paranoid fantasies that regularly feature in the pages of The Sun and The Express, or conspiratorial memes circulating on Facebook. From the Right, a broad commitment to reality-based journalism looks like political bias.
Then there are commercial interests which have long been interested in scaling back the BBC’s operations, not least Rupert Murdoch, whose News UK announced shortly after the general election that it would launch Times Radio as a rival to the BBC. Closely aligned with these interests are the neoliberal think tankers, who have for decades argued against the BBC on the basis of private property and consumer choice. They advocate for the BBC becoming a voluntary subscription service. If people want it, the argument goes, they will buy it.
A number of reports suggest that this is the endgame for the current government, and the prospect has caused considerable alarm. However, it is not yet clear how feasible this is, or how much government consensus there is around this issue. In any case, it is important to remember that while the existential threat to the BBC is real, it is still some way off. Indeed, it lies outside of this parliament. The BBC’s Charter stipulates that the licence fee cannot be reviewed mid-term, meaning that a subscription system could not be implemented until after 2027.
In the meantime, there are a number of mechanisms open to the government to weaken the BBC. One is further reducing its funding, which is why the Johnson Government announced a consultation on decriminalising the licence fee. Another is using the governmental powers of appointment to influence who gets the top job as the next Director General. This is why Downing Street reacted so angrily to the early resignation of the Director General Tony Hall; it means his successor will be appointed by the BBC board before the government gets a chance to install a more politically compliant chair.
The short term prospect therefore it is for the BBC’s independence to be further curtailed and for more of its funding to be cut. We are seeing a serious escalation in political rhetoric, but we should remember that there’s also continuity here. Very serious cuts were imposed on the BBC by George Osborne in a back room deal with Tony Hall, and the ruinous financial squeeze ahead represents a continuation of that.
The big question is how the Left should respond. Two potential approach, each of which are shaped in different ways by the experience of a serious political defeat, while understandable would in my view be serious strategic errors.
The first is to renounce the BBC and abandon it to its fate, mindful of the organisation’s treatment of the Left over the years, and the irony of it now being savaged by the Right. An obvious counterargument to this, and one that will be made a lot in the coming months, is that the BBC is much bigger than its news and current affairs journalism, and that to damn all its important cultural and educational output on the basis of its poor political reporting would be incredibly short-sighted.
This is fair, but even if the BBC were solely a news organisation, I still think there would be good reasons for the Left to defend it politically since in the future it would be very difficult to rebuild such a public institution from scratch. The real issue, in my view, isn’t how bad the UK would be with Fox News in the place of the BBC (an argument which again we are going to hear a lot), but rather how much more difficult it would be to build a functional media system inheriting the former rather than the latter. Far better to draw on the promise of public media that the BBC still embodies, its accrued legitimacy, infrastructure and expertise, and to repurpose it towards genuinely public and democratic purposes.
The second potential response is for the Left to panic and to assume a purely defensive posture in response to the Johnson government’s attacks, indulging in starry eyed defences of the BBC. This has been the standard response of liberals and parts of the Left for decades, and it has only seen the BBC hollowed out by successive right-wing governments. It will be particularly ineffective as a response to the anti-elitist rhetoric that drives contemporary conservatism. An effective defence of the BBC necessarily means recognising its shortcomings and offering an alternative. That’s why Rebecca Long-Bailey’s statement on a ‘People’s BBC’ at the weekend was so significant. Long-Bailey told The Times:
We should not defend the status quo just because the Tories are attacking it. That’s exactly what Downing Street wants: to present themselves as change and us as defenders of a broken system. Instead we should free the BBC from government control and guarantee it as a cornerstone of public knowledge in a democratic society.
She went on to promise that a Labour government would oversee a ‘democratic revolution’ at the BBC, removing all government influence and devolving decision-making to BBC staff, audience boards and members of the public. This is absolutely the correct response for those who wants to secure the long term future of public media in this country and around the world.
Questions of political independence and democratic governance at the BBC have to be addressed, and the Left also needs to offer a credible response to right-wing arguments around the licence fee system. With the Right comparing the BBC to Netflix in arguing for a subscription model, the response should not be to portray the BBC as a more socially conscious alternative to the private platforms, defensible because it offers a more national cultural offering and good value for money.
A subscription based public broadcasting system would be a violation of the central principle of universality, and should be opposed on that basis. It would be regressive in the same sense as the licence fee, since it would price out lower income groups, but it would also be inefficient. The point about public media is that it offers a universally available resource, free at the point of use.
Capital wants to build paywalls around information, education, culture and creativity, the Left should seek to open them up to everyone. Digital public media allows for this, but a universal service has to be based on far greater public accountability and participation. The BBC should be defended, but no one on the Left should be doing so without a plan to address the very serious problems around its governance, and a recognition that we need to radically rethink what public media could offer us in the digital age.