Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Blog

In Times Like These, What is the Future of the BBC?

Jean Seaton


Annie Spratt

| 12 mins read

We need a reformed and bigger BBC putting information engineering in the public interest at the centre of a new vision for the UK. We are in the middle of an information war and we need policy based on the national interest, not narrow commercial competition. Coronavirus has sent the government scurrying back to the BBC (and experts) to combat the real harm inflicted by malicious destabilising of information at a time of emergency. 

Nevertheless, in the longer view ­­– unlike most of the institutions we might turn to manage our relationship to information – the BBC is also maestro of emotion. This combination of expertise in assessing evidence and brilliance at helping us express, shape and master sentiment makes it uniquely well placed for the contemporary communicative world. British values of fairness, inclusion, daftness, empiricism and romantic imagination run through every aspect of the BBC. Global Britain has an already global BBC: it just needs to let its power and creativity be unleashed in ways that fit the new world of communication.

The future of the BBC license fee

Yet Number 10 says ‘Out with the BBC licence fee! Off with its head!’ as if it were a public enemy. The licence fee needs re-imagining. But ‘abolishing’ it without thought appears to be related to the petty will to tame the BBC and subordinate its separate power. Of course, destroying great complex things like the BBC is ridiculously easy. Like the sixth century Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the sixteenth century Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya – once gone, they are indeed gone.

Do you want corrupt local government? Then sell off BBC local radio. Brexit has shown how communities suffer when they have no media to represent them to themselves or others. The local press has disappeared. Without scrutiny local decisions will inevitably be captured by business interests. BBC local reporting is the last coherent public reporting force left locally, it ought to be grown. Lose it and you lose the local, the regional, and the corporation’s unique capacity to push issues up and down the national agenda and the political machine.

You want to diminish the nation’s capacity to understand itself and listen to other points of view? Stop it celebrating its past, not as a set of rhetorical fabulations, but the real, shared, nasty and great past. Wreck children’s capacity to identify with the values and temper of the nation they belong to? Stop the BBC innovating, diminish it further till it is a rump, slice the resources, respond to the twenty-first century and its challenges and opportunity with short-term, narrow spitefulness.

You want to diminish our role in the world to weaselly propaganda? Slash and burn the BBC but leave something called the World Service in place. The World Service ought to be bigger, it is vitally important in a news-impoverished world, where information is distorted by political interference, business interests and where journalists are attacked with impunity.

But without the mothership of values and heft on the world’s stage of an independent BBC, proud and sufficiently financed to back up its robust voice, the World Service could mutate into a government poodle. That will do us and the world no good at all.

The mood around the BBC licence fee has shifted in the twinkling of an eye. To abolish the licence fee is to abolish the BBC and no one has actually wanted to do that before. For very good reasons. The full extent of this casually applied yet bizarre and dramatic turnaround is hardly appreciated in the storm of ‘change’ and dissolution we are in. Yet institutions like the BBC are very hard to build: they take long term, assiduous care. They are the product of the development and application of principles. In the case of the BBC, these were, first, protection of independent editorial judgement (the kind that made the BBC a world phenomenon during the second world war);  second, impartiality so that everyone can be an informed citizen; third, imaginative boldness (the kind that made Fawlty Towers, Fleabag, The Thick of it and Strictly); and fourth, the accuracy and breadth of information and tone that made the World Service the station of the sound of freedom for audiences in the closed, un-free, world behind the walls of the Cold War.

Good institutions

Good institutions keep us safe. They create a secure place for individuals and societies to flourish. In the case of the BBC it has created a public space of the mind for the nation and the world. Change is good. The BBC needs a direct connection to the temper of the epoch. But it is also there as an anchor to decency. Do you want to lose part of the nation’s conscience?

There have been arguments about the licence fee. A sense that politicians never wanted to raise it when it was needed, worry about equality. Though it is an anti-BBC urban myth that people get imprisoned for non-payment (unless they are multiple debtors who the courts determine are well able to pay). People like to moan about the BBC as people relate to it and it has ‘celebrities’ you can always take a pop at. Then a vast lobbying industry has constantly attacked the corporation in their own interests. Attacking the BBC knocks other things off the front pages and puts politicians on the side of the ‘public’. Yet in the end the licence fee has always emerged as the best way of supporting the BBC as a public service.

Pious superiority

But there is a new unbridled savagery. Somewhere in the early 2000s, fuelled by social media, public life began to be conducted in terms of angry righteous indignation. It is an unrewarding form of discourse – which starts from the assumption of pious superiority.  It developed nasty tone which had migrated from the tabloid press out into every day and social media. The BBC became the perpetual butt of this.

What makes the current argument more surprising is that the BBC is not in the middle of any great scandal. Yes, equal pay was nasty but on the scale of BBC crises it was not major. Tony Hall took over during Savile affair and that was a beast of a crisis, putting the BBC at odds with audiences. Hall dealt with it compassionately and properly. He steadied the corporation, was adroit, clever, and transformed the BBC so that it looks more like the UK, as it is.

One lesson of the 1980s, when the BBC was struggling with a hostile government, against the background of an intractable conflict in Northern Ireland, is that while the BBC must, gloriously and bravely report power as it exists, it should not appear to ‘be’ the Opposition. Then BBC governance matters. One of the unique aspects of the BBC is that it has an identifiable leader in the DG. Tony Hall is retiring when Sir David Clementi (the Chair) can independently appoint a new DG before the government replaces Clementi. Hopefully this will be done not against government but in involving and yet robust negotiation with it.

A refreshed argument for the BBC has to be made: the public needs to articulate what place it has in their lives. Many groups need to bring pressure in ingenious ways to support the rational and creative space the BBC offers. This is not a flummery from our past – it is one of the ways we can shape the future.

Twenty-first century information wars

For there is a bigger picture. We are in the middle of world war three: an information and cyber-attack conflict, much of which goes under the radar. To combat it we need a fit-for-purpose BBC as much as we did during the Blitz. Any defence review must put information in the forefront. Hostile nations are attempting (quite successfully) to destabilise democratic institutions including elections in Europe, America, India. The insidious spreading of uncertainty and exploitation of the social media de-stabilises the notion of evidence itself. Misinformation sincerely shared and disinformation malignly spread are not trivial.

The BBC is the perfect vehicle for spearheading the response to this. Not because it is perfect, but because it is dedicated to trying to get things right. It is a tool of the enlightenment that can operate in the modern world if only it is given the space.

With friends like these…

The alarming thing is the inadequacy of the BBC’s traditional protectors at this crisis. An impartial civil service, whose members looked sideways at an institution whose core principles they understood has often secured it. Can it still perform that role? Traditionally the opposition, to whichever party is in power, has defended the BBC. But we do not have a functioning opposition, and are unlikely to have one for years. Meanwhile the one nation conservatives within the Conservative party who have traditionally protected the BBC lost their seats in the strange election of 2019.

Put the BBC at the heart of a new vision for the UK

Yet argument for the BBC cannot continue on the same merry-go-round. The BBC faces a far more competitive market than ever with the vast media platforms dominating people’s lives. It has been shorn of some of the capacity to engage with people where they now are as financial and industrial interests have determined policy. Now is the moment to change all of that.

The BBC used to be run by engineers who set the world’s standards. We have never needed information engineers working in the public interest more. The BBC – a locally based, nationally embedded and internationally effective institution –is a perfect tool for a new vision of the nation. All around the world people are worrying about how to manage the wild west of the internet. Well, we have the institution that could do something about it. The BBC.

You want to take back control? After getting Brexit done, what makes us more distinct, more ourselves? The BBC is your tool. Make it bigger, don’t bully it. Trust it. The BBC makes the public space of our national imaginations bigger and more generous. And in the end, that is what Britain is.

  • Jean Seaton

    Jean Seaton

    Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster. She is the Director of the Orwell

    Foundation and a member of Political Quarterly's editorial board.

    Articles by Jean Seaton