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How to Save the BBC

The BBC's news output has earned it many critics on the Left, but the solution isn't privatisation – it's a campaign to build a genuine public broadcaster.

The logo for Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, displayed outside on 25 July 2015 in London. (Carl Court / Getty Images)

Whether it’s motorcycles, cars, ships, steel, a postal service, or even the capacity to build the homes we need, the collapse of British industry and infrastructure can be explained in a single word: privatisation. At a time when we need a coordinated, state-led approach to deal with climate change, this country—after having lost so much of its basic infrastructure—can’t take charge or lead.

Remarkably, successive governments since the 1970s are still spluttering on with the failed obsession that is privatisation. Its ideologues now have their eyes on our NHS and, as worryingly, our BBC. Personal opinions and concerns over the content and biases of the broadcaster—disproportionately the journalistic content—cannot be ignored, but we can’t let them be used to divide opposition to what is part of an overall attack on Britain’s public services.

What we need is a re-founded BBC, with a new approach to universal, public service broadcast, rather than Nadine Dorries’ current plan. The unseriousness of this approach is, of course, apparent in its timing. As we’ve seen from WhatsApp chats of Tory MPs, Dorries is devoted to the Prime Minister—an impromptu weekend headline has more to do with distracting from Boris’ bashes than the BBC or broadcast.

At one time, Dorries’ tweet promising to liberate grannies from paying life savings for a licence lest they hear the terrifying knock of the TVLA would have sounded appealing. Of course, we know it was this government that forced pensioners to pay for licences at all. In 2021, the average UK household spent £444 on TV services; as the TV licence is only £159, well over sixty percent of the average TV bill is for privatised services.

And let’s talk value. Streaming site subscriptions cost more than a TV licence but pay only for one type of content (with a notable portion of that content being repeat broadcasts from other networks). That licence fee covers everything from production and broadcast of original content to national and local radio to BBC websites and iPlayer. Would anyone seriously claim that cookie-cutter privatised local radio stations have added much to our national life?

Our world as it stands does require a new form of public broadcast, however. I want this government to be talking about how to tackle that £444 average cost of TV to a UK home. When TV was terrestrial, plenty of great drama, sport, and news were accessible to all. Increasingly, there is a digital divide on who can afford to be informed, educated, and entertained. That’s not a conversation about the public sector—it’s about the regulation, delivery, and nationalisation of privatised streaming, cable, and satellite services.

What you won’t hear from commentators though is the true story of what the BBC means for our national cultural infrastructure. Artists depend on the stable work and good terms of the BBC to help pay their way in a precarious sector. As Equity forces up pay and protects theatre under threat from pandemic cutbacks, the bedrock of income for many actors comes from broadcast pay underpinned by the BBC, and the BBC’s unparalleled nationwide network is the stimulus for growing independent production outside of London and the South East.

This matters—with a broken or badly funded BBC, it’s the whole of the country that’s affected, from educational programming in schools to challenging new writing and development, as well as developing that soft power across the globe which Tory MPs tell us they care about in a post-Brexit world. We won’t have an independent producing sector without strong public sector broadcast providing infrastructure from training to platforms to studios.

We also need some honesty about what’s broken in the BBC. There’s a growing scepticism about the independence and quality of its journalism. The obvious questions of accountability raised after the revelations of Jimmy Saville’s crimes have never been addressed, while its Byzantine management structure is so comical that they make their own satire of it. For Equity members, years of internal privatisation has meant the serious undermining of terms and conditions.

But as with everywhere, the workers are the first to feel the consequences of their bosses’ failings. It is only due to the good work of entertainment unions (BECTU-Prospect, Equity, Musicians Union, the NUJ, and the Writers’ Guild) that terms have been defended to date. Each year the BBC is forced to reveal the salaries the market makes it pay for its highest earning on-screen workforce—no regard is paid for the vast majority of artists and workers who have struggled to keep pace with the cost of living after years of underfunding.

This confidence gap, and the lack of accountability at the top of the BBC, has a simple fix. It’s the fix which is a natural reach for those with a progressive approach on public services, whether water, electricity, gas, or broadcast: co-operation. A new structure where the BBC is owned and run by both the licence fee payer and its workforce (both those permanently employed and the freelance army it relies on) is a pragmatic way to ensure the UK can trust Auntie again.

It is to Labour’s credit that their 2019 manifesto included steps toward building workforce and fee payer democracy at the BBC with a semi-elected board. Just as importantly, the manifesto planned to create genuine independence for the BBC from government for the first time by putting its structure and funding on a statutory footing, and not an arcane Royal Charter subject to periodic review. Taxes on big streaming players were also proposed—as both regulation on private service costs and relief for low-income licence fee payers.

The entertainment unions were key to these first proposals, which are genuinely new and radical, and show that a different, progressive vision was already forming over two years ago. It’s quite the contrast with Dorries’ plan to start musing now after a real-terms cut is delivered. Hopefully Labour’s current leadership can find some pride in this blueprint of concrete reform.

The battle for public broadcasting is a very real one, and Equity is setting out its proactive vision for what it should look like in the coming months. Notwithstanding the de facto cut in funding delivered through a licence fee freeze, there are reasons for hope. Simply, a government with no new ideas on broadcast hasn’t even implemented the regressive plans it already had.

In January 2021, plans to decriminalise licence fee non-payment were abandoned. Then, Dorries has proved confused on the more immediate question: privatising Channel 4. As with the BBC, this attempt to privatise is driven solely by a few MPs and their dislike of journalism, rather than any coherent financial argument. Channel 4 costs the taxpayer nothing to run, and, by commissioning British independent producers, is an essential part of the infrastructure by which the private sector exists and booms. On this basis, the once seemingly inevitable sale now hangs in the balance.

True public service broadcasting is worth fighting for, and there is hope that we can save it. Whether it be the physical and human infrastructure it provides, or the principle that to be ‘informed, educated and entertained’ is a basic right in a civilised society—now is the time to fight for a better BBC. Moreover, it is a fight against the same foe that wrecked our traditional industries and threatens our NHS—pernicious, pointless, and disproven privatisation does not deserve a repeat series.