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What future for the BBC?

AT OUR second virtual Branch meeting, on 8 June, we discussed the future of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Our speakers were Tom Mills, Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University and author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service; and NUJ National Broadcasting organiser Paul Siegert.

Tom Mills

Tom Mills online

As Committee member Tim Gopsill says, "The Beeb has been a much-loved public institution, rather like the NHS. Both have taken a battering from governments over the last 10 years but the covid crisis has shown how badly both of them are needed, in their proper fully-funded forms." Earlier this year LFB debated the BBC's future and voted for a motion (see here) to go to the union's national Delegate Meeting, to make sure the union itself mounts a strong defence of the BBC and the journalists who work for it.

Tom Mills noted that his book has been "marketed as a critique of the BBC - but it is an analysis of the BBC as it is and not how we'd like to imagine it." An updated and cheaper paperback edition is coming in a few months and would-be readers can wait for that - though you might want to look at the ebook now.

Tom said that he started his research looking at war reporting - but in 2008, following the stock market crash, switched to business reporting. That led to thinking about the BBC's foregrounding of "business correspondents" and thus to limitations to freedom of expression and journalistic freedom springing from its relationship to the state. For all its protestations of independence, the need to negotiate a renewal of the BBC Charter every decade gives governments an opportunity to impose conditions and subtler pressure.

How, then, can the BBC function better in the public service? Tom proposes firstly to abolish all government control; and that we need to think of the BBC as a public platform rather than a broadcasting organisation.

We need to win arguments for a public digital platform at the core of a "digital public space" - an idea developed by people working in BBC Archive Development, principally Tony Ageh and Bill Thompson. The idea of such a "space" is that everyone should be given unrestricted access to an open resource of culture and knowledge.

Paul Siegert

Paul Siegert

Before Paul Siegert worked for the NUJ as our Broadcasting Organiser, he worked for the BBC's Nations and Regions division - which "lent" him to the NUJ in an arrangement known as being a "secondee".

How, from that experience, would he see the future of the BBC?

"All through my adult life," he says, "it's been under threat - and at the moment there are more critics then there've ever been." In the ironic sense that people used to be described as "having a good war", the BBC has "had a good covid-19" though. It's "probably more popular than three months ago."

In the short term the pressure is off: "proposals for decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee seem to be on the back burner and the government seems to be surprised at how many continue to consult and to be positive about the BBC's coverage. Public trust is higher and rising."

Anyway, as Paul notes "the government has more pressing things to worry about than picking a fight with the BBC." But we'll see whether in a few months or a few years it will again focus on picking that fight.

The BBC does need to keep evolving and reinventing itself. Paul thinks "Netflix and Amazon are bigger threats than the government." But the BBC is "still better value for money". A standard TV licence is currently £157.50 per year. In the UK Netflix plans range from £71.88 to £143.88 a year and Amazon Prime appears to cost £95.88 a year.

We need digital public media

Tom responds that before we conclude that the BBC's popularity has increased we need to look beyond viewing behaviour. We need to research their attitudes and analyse their views more deeply. It is true that the government is less hostile. It is also true that the fact that the current Charter runs until 2027 means they can't get rid of the BBC altogether right now. Clearly Dominic Cummings (an adviser to the Prime Minister) wants to do that. What they can do in the meantime is to defund and undermine it.

In the last Charter the BBC allowed the mistaken policy of closing the "iPlayer loophole". Before then, you could watch BBC programmes online - for example with the iPlayer software - whether or not you'd paid the licence fee. Now, you can't.

This reinforces the "wrong idea" that we pay the licence fee to watch the BBC.

If we think of the BBC in a commodity relationship with the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix, it's in trouble. It cannot compete with Netflix - because the business model there is based on accumulating massive amounts of commercial debt in order to buy into a monopoly in providing certain kinds of entertainment.

The argument for the BBC has to be different and distinct. A renewed BBC has to be at the heart of a media system that sustains certain forms of cultural life - that "digital public space".

And there is an economic dimension: public service broadcasting is a very efficient way of distributing such cultural works, because there's no need for a paywall, nor even for the machinery of monetising users through advertising.

"My vision," Tom said, "is of a positive argument for digital public media, with the BBC at the heart of that system". We must avoid either technocratic or sentimental or commoditised arguments.

Paul responded, in turn, that "what Tom wants is extremely difficult." He still believes that "it is important to argue that the BBC is good value for money. People are comparing it." We'd still have to have that discussion "even if the BBC goes the way that Tom would like".

And we mustn't forget the value of regional TV: no privatised service will ever do that - "ITV don't make money from that". And it's a big mistake calling what people pay a "TV licence" - it pays for so much more than that, all the online services and 40 local radio stations...

Paying for a public space

We asked both speakers: how safe is the licence fee?

Paul accepts that it "is going to need to evolve". Whether we call it that or collect it in another way, it's a utility like your electricity bill. It's important that it doesn't become voluntary or a subscription service - some fee has to be paid by everyone

Tom observes that the government wants to abolish the licence fee and it wants to drain the BBC of resources. The core of our argument must be that there has to be universal provision: we can't have any service that everyone is not entitled to access. We need to find a way to pay for a collective resource.

People have, Tom observes, "been very, very attached to the idea of the licence fee because of struggles to defend it in the past". He finds no evidence that the licence fee funding structure has led to freedom from the government: there "is evidence that the government can control the rate of the licence fee. Public broadcasting is supposed to hold the government to account but that's difficult when it has to regularly go to the government for money."

Meanwhile, Tom observes, "the corporate sector that wants to get rid of the BBC is trying to instrumentalise the notion that the licence fee is 'regressive'," to exploit the observation that it is more of a burden the poorer you are as an attack on a public service. And the Right have always argued that technological change dooms the BBC.

Fundamentally, what the BBC does it deliver audiovisual content. But how? "I'm not young," Tom observes, "and I haven't had a TV in 10 years. We need to adapt the classic argument for public broadcasting to demand public media - independent of the state and independent of commercial media."

A switch to a "digital licence" would be symbolic of a change to the kind of future that we want. It would assert a public and democratic claim on our digital resources - and that we are taking on those corporations that are instrumentalising our every move and thought to sell targeted advertising.

Paul believes it would be "be fantastic if the government had less influence - but no political party has ever addressed that question."

And, Paul said, just because the government has influence "doesn't mean it has influence over the type of coverage it gets". Tom responds that though that may be true "in the narrow sense", it's "not how things work if you look at the whole managerial hierarchy". Control doesn't feed from the government to the Director-General down to controling individual journalists' decisions and freedoms in a simple way.

"In the last 10 years," Tom said, "there has been a rightward shift" in the BBC's coverage. "A BBC that was genuinely free would be much more able to upset the government." Instead, we have a report that Kamal Ahmed, editorial director of BBC News, in April emailed editors responsible for political coverage and concluding that it "may have an impact on our impartiality and trust scores if we appear either too soft on the government or too condemnatory... That delicate middle ground is where we need to be."

That, Tom concludes, "is not good journalism. The BBC should be covering what's happening regardless of government's views."

And as for political parties, "certainly there were sections of the Labour Party that were amenable to a new vision of the BBC. As Jeremy Corbyn has said: if we were going to invent the BBC now we would invent a British Digital Corporation.

We're not going to win over Conservatives. If they win the next election, Tom thinks "it'll be curtains for public service broadcasting."

But, people may ask: if you remove accountability to the government, then how is the BBC going to be accountable to anyone? Tom proposes, first, internal democracy within the BBC; and then public accountability structures. "I don't want the Director-General to be elected - but I do want to see the managing boards democratised. We also need a more decentralised BBC. One of the reasons the news machine gets 'captured' is because it's based around Westminster."

"We've been gifted an organisation that wasn't vulnerable to commercial pressure," Tom notes, "but it is vulnerable to the state. Now we have to consider making it not vulnerable to the state. This much more doable as a digital rather than a broadcasting operation."

Questions

Dapo Ladimeji asked about "a step before what you're addressing - the way that the US is funding its dominance of cultural institutions". US interests have long done this, back to steel billionaire Andrew Carnegie donating vast sums to build public libraries at the beginning of the last century. "What is the effect of ignoring market value, as Carnegie did?"

Tom responded: "I don't think you can measure useful things in a market sense. Cultural goods or news aren't well-tracked by a market measure. We need freedom for producers to take risks that the market wouldn't warrant, because people may not know what they want until they see it..."

Paddy French asked how we could be sure that BBC journalism was "trending to the right". He reported that John Ware, who was the reporter and presenter of the July 2019 BBC Panorama programme "Is Labour Anti-Semitic?" has threatened to sue him over a pamphlet he wrote entitled Is The BBC Anti-Labour? [update here]

Tom replied that researchers at Cardiff University had done a big study of BBC content: it showed much more presentation of right-wing opinion. He had the impression that there has been an attempt to be more distant from the government during the covid-19 crisis - "but look at Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis getting slapped down..."

Paul suggested that that Panorama programme was made by an independent production company. "I don't know how you measure" a trend to the right, he said: "In the years I worked for the BBC there was never any pressure from above on me as a journalist. I appreciate that there is government pressure on the Director-General but that has to filter down to programme heads."

He went on: "there are many Conservative supporters who think that the BBC is too far to the left - which is probably a sign the BBC is getting it right when attacked from all sides."

Anke Luedekke asked further about the effect of privatisation of BBC departments. "Will the new Director-General continue this trend?"

Tom "doesn't know anything more than anyone else about Tim Davie. We do know stood as a candidate to be a Conservative councillor in the 1990s and was a senior marketing manager at Pepsi." Tom declared an interest: "I am personally annoyed about privatisation because it completely wrecked some research I was doing on BBC news. The bit of the BBC that allowed us to search news clips was sold off in the Osborne austerity years."

Paul observed that previous Directors-General have come from news (or perhaps other programming backgrounds). Tim Davie has no programming experience, having joined the Corporation as Director of Marketing, Communications & Audiences in 2005. And "I'm not sure what else you could easily sell off, anyway."

Ruth asked Tom how a public digital platform would play into future rules and how would it be structured and how would the public have a voice on it?

He replied that he wants see more come out of the Nations and Regions, and feed into a platform that needn't necessarily be "the BBC". See for example the the Media Reform Coalition proposals for the BBC.

And "if the BBC does something then other public broadcasters will follow." We "could have a network around the world - we could have an international organisation innovating technology for a digital public space..."

At risk of being Devil's advocate, Dan asked: is it worth trying to save the BBC or is it a distraction to battle with the Tories over what's left of the it?

Tom observed that it would be much more difficult to build a public space from scratch. "The BBC, for all its faults, embodies values which we should be embracing and repurposing." Of curse there'll be small-c conservatism in any institution. He reminded us that "insofar as my book is a critique of the BBC it's not a critique of the journalists, but of the management and the high politics."

Phil Sutcliffe asked what role of the union was in all this.

Paul responded that he's spent a lot of time negotiating with the BBC, and pointed to the equal pay successes. There are now set rates for freelances who work at the BBC... some radio stations were paying £60 a shift but now there are rates set in stone based on staff rates. And NUJ pressure led to the Covid-19 hardship fund and offering loans of £1000 a month. The union is continuing pressure, he said, to extend the furlough scheme to freelances paid PAYE.