In Defence of the BBC

Cast your mind forward to a not-too-distant future in which the BBC is no more, or at least is drastically cut, following criticisms of the cost, ‘bias’ and it allegedly ‘not being a suitable broadcaster for our multimedia age’. There would be national mourning; paroxysms of nostalgia similar to the nationwide reactions in the wake of Ceefax ending and HMV’s threats of forced closure. Call it misty-eyed sentimentalism if you will, but there may well be more to it.

BBC 1

These reactions prove there’s still affection for such things, even if there are more straightforwardly rational alternatives – the internet to Ceefax, Amazon and iTunes to HMV and arguably Netflix and YouTube etc. to the BBC. But humans are not robots and rationality can’t always win out. In an age with so many different things competing for our on-screen attention, there’s a good case for television that brings people together. People still remember where they were and who they were with for landmark televisual events like when England won the World Cup, Live Aid and Who Shot Jr/Phil Mitchell.

Of course, this would not be totally destroyed if the BBC closed down, other channels can create memorable moments. But there’s a risk, in creating better choice for people, of losing that shared cultural conversation and even creating a more atomised society. As Barry Schwartz has shown, too much choice can actually lead to less satisfaction, as people fixate over the other possibilities and consider if the grass would be greener –ultimately descending into a never ending browse of Netflix. I’m not arguing for a cultural North Korea, but surely there’s a happy medium between this and each member of the family in the living room watching different screens.

All of which combines to make the constant barrage of criticism constantly directed at the BBC, seem somewhat unjust. The most recent example was the reaction to Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee findings, which found the broadcaster should be “braver”, stop trying to do something for everyone and that the licence fee should be scrapped and replaced with a ‘broadcasting levy’ on all homes. This produced a frothing reaction from the right wing press, describing the BBC’s “titanic incompetence” and claiming any mandatory fees should be scrapped. It’s a strangely paradoxical reaction from papers that take such pride in instilling the shared customs of a ‘traditional British way of life’. But it’s not just attacked from the right. ‘BBC too right wing’ gets 2.68 million Google hits. ‘BBC too left wing’ gets 2.05 million. It’s far from an exact science – for starters, maybe this acid test is inherently skewed towards the young (and hence a denunciation of the right).

But ‘neutrality’ is a hard, if not impossible, thing to achieve, as the debate itself over the BBC’s bias proves. People often complain about papers’ bias even though, as private entities not paid for by the taxpayer, there’s no financial motive for papers to be impartial. (That’s even if they are determined by mere political considerations, rather than more sinister commercial ones, as Peter Oborne revealed about his former employer The Daily Telegraph in his resignation letter, in regard to the paper’s limited coverage of the tax scandal at HSBC, one of its biggest advertising clients.)
If the main criticism of the BBC were the whole principle of it – that it’s not (really) chosen, not ‘free media’ – then I’d understand, if not agree. No one wants to live in a monoculture and, ridiculous as the comparison with Communist media is, the BBC is a state broadcaster. Hence the BBC arguably runs at a distinct commercial advantage to other media outlets, because of its funding means it has a far better knowledge of its short and long-term budget than many of its rivals, in turn meaning it can plan better than rivals.

The cost-cutting and naked profit-chasing, which the BBC is somewhat protected against, is corrupting the (once?) reputable practice of journalism.

However, this has its advantages. It’s a common criticism of journalism, and one made brilliantly by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, that cost-cutting and naked profit-chasing, which the BBC is somewhat protected against, is corrupting the (once?) reputable practice. Their unique state funded footing allows the BBC to make ambitious, groundbreaking, but very expensive work like Planet Earth and Life; having cameramen, for example, wait in the middle of Arctic wasteland for weeks waiting for a mother polar bear and its cubs.

Us Brits have probably become inured to the BBC, but it’s worth pointing out how much the rest of the world loves it (or conversely, how shit TV can be abroad). As revealed by The Guardian in February, the international sales arm of the BBC now claims the corporation is the largest producer of television outside Hollywood, and this year it has 2,800 hours of shows to sell. Also, it’s estimated that British TV exports for 2013-14 were valued at £1.28bn.
This atmosphere of constant political scrutiny of the BBC can serve as a straitjacket to good journalism and broadcasting. Naturally some news and topics are more likely to be seen to convey a political stance, but news, or more pretentiously truth, should be sought wherever it is, not on what people happen to think. As such it can’t be claimed the Beeb is perfectly impartial (though pretty good), but how could it be? It’s surprising to me as it is that the BBC still produces hard-hitting news, like the HSBC tax avoidance exposé.

And it seems it was ever thus. An archive piece in the New Statesman from E.L.Forster in 1931 defended the BBC against similar complaints of bias on various sides. He wrote: “Perhaps we grumbled too often. If we did, Nemesis has descended, bringing all the powers of darkness in her train. For the easy days are over, brightness falls from the air, and the conflict has begun. The BBC, because of its success and growing importance, is being constantly attacked, in the pulpit, in Parliament, in the Press, and the attack is on new and dangerous lines. The aim is suppression. When suppression has been achieved, control may be attempted, but suppression is the immediate objective. The cry is not for fuller programmes but for feebler.”

It’s always hard to argue for the status quo.

It’s always hard to argue for the status quo in the face of various angry complaints, and easier to think the grass is greener on the other side.Those who enjoy the BBC’s output need to vocalise their support for it amid the loud criticisms from all sides, attempting to strangle this great British institution, with political rhetoric and budget concerns into boring, timid submission.

By Joel Durston

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