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Setting a new course

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The BBC has not had a good pandemic.  For all that it prides itself on its supposed quality journalism, when it comes to following the science it has done a worse job than the government itself.  On several occasions the corporation has been caught uncritically repeating press releases from pharmaceutical companies aimed at boosting their share price or undermining potential competitors.  Time and again it has amplified antisocial behaviour in support of draconian lockdown measures which are likely to cause more long-term deaths than Covid-19 itself.

Understandably, more people than usual regard this as evidence of an orchestrated conspiracy in which “they” are using the pandemic to strip away our rights and freedoms.  The more likely explanation though, is simply that an ordinary selection bias within the BBC’s organisational culture has helped to create an increasingly insular and inward looking organisation adrift from the public it claims to serve.  Just as social media echo chambers evolve, so the BBC has gradually become an echo chamber of its own.

Ironically, the BBC’s historical objection to this criticism – that we are equally accused of bias by left and right alike – is in reality further evidence for the insular BBC echo chamber.  The terms “left wing” and “right wing” – which have their origins in the national assembly of the French revolution – serve to obscure more than they explain in the modern world.  It is more than a decade since the political compass was devised to demonstrate that politics are multi-polar.  In that instance, the poles used are an economic (traditional) left-public ownership v right-free market pole, together with a left-liberal v right-authoritarian pole.  The insight which this gives us is that many self-professed left wing parties are actually on the political right (this is true for example, of the Blairite UK Labour Party and the US Democrat Party).  Importantly, these are far from the only poles which might be used to clarify what is happening in the political arena.  Since 2016 for example, the local v global pole has risen to prominence.  So too, has the metropolitan-anywhere v home town-somewhere pole.  In short, politics in the modern world is far too complex to make sense of by shoe-horning everything into two outdated left v right boxes.  This though, is precisely how the BBC has attempted to maintain impartiality.

Like many other public and quasi-public bodies, the BBC has been firmly centred at the heart of the neoliberal consensus that emerged out of the Thatcher-Reagan years and which was cemented into place by the governments of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.  The consensus was built around two poles which secured half of the aims of the parties of traditional left and right.  For the right, the economic imperative of operating a private market free(ish) from state interference was secured.  Much of the social conservatism of the traditional right – such as opposing abortion, supporting the death penalty, discriminating against LGBTQ groups and repatriating migrants – was quietly dropped.  Instead, the social liberal programmes of the traditional left were ceded in compensation for abandoning public ownership in the economy.  By the time John Major became Prime Minister, a Tory leadership which had given us Section 28, “if you want a n***** for a neighbour vote Labour” and the cricket test was firmly wedded to multiculturalism even if backbenchers and activists continued to embarrass the leadership.  It is also worth noting that it was David Cameron (the UK’s last neoliberal prime minister) not Tony Blair who passed Britain’s same sex marriage legislation.

Understanding these polarities helps to explain why a neoliberal BBC, whose view of the public’s Overton window had shrunk considerably after the 2016 shocks, came to be criticised by supporters of the Labour and Conservative parties for their coverage in general and the 2019 election coverage in particular.  While Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policy was considered far beyond what BBC insiders believed the public would vote for, Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit and socially conservative platform was deemed too illiberal.

The problem though, is that time and again the British public have voted for policies that fall well beyond the limits of debate set by the BBC.  Indeed, by favouring people with pro-remain views on mainstream political programmes such as Any Questions and Question Time, the BBC may well have contributed to the “myth of the 48 percent,” which held that it was only a matter of time before the British electorate overturned the result of the 2016 referendum.  Rather than regarding Corbyn’s performance in the 2017 election as a blip, resulting from Corbyn’s then support for an alternative version of Brexit, the BBC amplified those voices which claimed that the 2017 result was evidence that the electorate was shifting to a pro-remain position.  This flew in the face of evidence available at the time.  Nevertheless, it aided Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party in shifting the party to an anti-Brexit position by 2019.  This was doomed to failure.  As David Cutts,  Matthew Goodwin,  Oliver Heath  and Paula Surridge explain:

“As in 2017, Labour had entered the 2019 campaign considerably behind in the polls. Two years earlier the party’s fortunes and Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings had improved throughout the campaign, thanks to a well‐received manifesto, the ineptness of Theresa May, and unpopular Conservative Party pledges on social care. History was not about to repeat itself. Dogged by party defections, allegations of anti‐semitism and growing concerns on national security following the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury, Corbyn came under attack from those within his own party as much as his rivals…

“With the Liberal Democrats standing on a more extreme ‘Revoke Article 50’ position, Labour sought to ‘own’ a more moderate position by backing a ‘People’s Vote’, which would include a Remain option for Remainers, and a renegotiated Brexit deal with a customs union, which it was hoped would appeal to Leavers. Corbyn himself announced during the campaign that he would take a neutral position in the referendum…

“Estimates suggest that in 2016 Leave won more than 60 per cent of general election seats.  Its vote was therefore spread far more evenly across England and Wales, while the Remain vote was more concentrated in cities. Three years later, Boris Johnson succeeded by capitalising on this inbuilt advantage. Of the 401 seats that were estimated to have voted Leave, the Conservatives won 73 per cent of them (292 seats). By contrast, of the 231 seats that were estimated to have voted Remain, Labour only won 41 per cent of them (ninety‐five seats). Crucially, the Conservatives also won 32 per cent (seventy‐three) of Remain seats. All of the eleven seats won by the Liberal Democrats had voted Remain.”

In effect, those who had promoted reversing the result of the 2016 referendum had undermined those – including a majority of remain voters – who favoured what came to be called a “soft Brexit.”  The shift in public attitudes and the political geography of Britain though, meant that the kind of settlement offered by Corbyn in 2017 was the best that the pro-remainers could realistically hope for.  In hindsight, we see that by undermining this position, we have ended up with a choice between a hard Brexit deal versus no deal at all.

The BBC’s stance on Brexit, along with the abolition of the free licence for the over-75s are the primary reasons for the growth of the “defund the BBC” campaign.  Similar campaigns have popped up over the years.  But what makes this one different is the degree of hostility toward the BBC among government insiders together with the media environment within which the campaign is taking place.

The way in which the BBC is funded is archaic.  It dates back to the post-First World War years, when the military controlled access to the airways.  Initially through public radio, and later television, the BBC enjoyed a domestic monopoly on broadcasting.  As a result, the receiving equipment could only receive domestic BBC broadcasts (although foreign radio stations could be accessed).  It followed that the easiest means of funding the broadcaster was to place a tax – the licence fee – on the equipment.  Once established, this arrangement continued after 1955 when the first commercial television channels were created.  Indeed, it was only with the creation of Channel Four in 1982 that the BBC-ITV duopoly was eroded.  It was only in 1989 that the first satellite television platform – Sky – was launched.  But even then, access to television required discrete equipment; allowing the BBC licence fee to continue.

By this time though, the sky business model was conflicting with the antiquated licence fee approach.  In effect, Sky viewers had to pay twice – once for the privilege of using a television, and again for watching Sky channels.  This also raised the problem that viewers who never watched the BBC were still required to pay for its programmes.  And while this was considered reasonable for the public service elements – particularly regional news, major sporting events and minority arts coverage – it was increasingly resented when the BBC broadcast content – such as soap operas and drama – no different in quality to that being created by commercial channels.  Indeed, there was more than a suspicion that the BBC was using the licence fee as a form of state aid with which to generate commercial television for sale abroad.

The context worsened for the BBC with the development of fast broadband and mobile connectivity.  Subscription services like Amazon Prime, BT Sport and Netflix helped turn the BBC into just another broadcaster; albeit one which enjoys state aid.  At the same time, viewing television no longer requires discrete equipment which can be easily taxed.  While older viewers remain wedded to television sets, those who grew up in the internet age are more likely to watch content on phones, tablets and laptops.  Moreover, the development of on-demand services mean that far fewer viewers watch “live” – i.e. as it is broadcast – television; and thus are not required to pay the licence fee.

As early as 2009, the House of Lords began to explore how the BBC might be funded in the face of this changing environment.  Although the committee recommended maintaining the licence fee for the time being, they were concerned that further funding “should come not from further demands on the taxpayer.”  A decade on, even this looks unsustainable.  Having irked the government in their election coverage last year, the BBC is now facing the very real threat that the legal status is about to be downgraded.

Non-payment of the licence fee is subject to criminal penalties.  Among other things, this flies in the face of BBC claims to support diversity.  In the 1980s and 1990s, non-payment of the licence fee was among the biggest reasons for women being imprisoned in the UK.  Although prison is used less often today, non-payment of the licence fee disproportionately affects women.  According to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies:

“The criminalisation of debt disproportionately affects women, and nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the prosecution of TV licence fee evasion. In 2018, 72 per cent of all prosecutions for licence fee non-payment were against women, despite women being half of licence holders. It is the most common offence for which women are prosecuted, accounting for an astonishing 30 per cent of all female prosecutions.”

For this reason alone, it is hard not to agree with members of the current government that non-payment should be treated as a civil matter.  In a multi-media age there is no good reason why BBC funding shouldn’t be put on a similar footing to the funding of utilities like energy and water; which must pursue non-payment through the civil courts, where they are required to demonstrate that they have first made efforts – such as rescheduling debts – to avoid going to court.

It is unlikely, however, that the government will stop at downgrading the status of the licence fee.  Although the BBC’s Royal Charter will not be renewed until 2027, government policy toward the BBC will have been formulated before the next general election – which has to happen before December 2024.  This gives BBC management a very short window in which to prove that the BBC can adjust to the new environment, and especially to the politics of the post-neoliberal era.

It is in this light that the BBC’s incoming Director General Tim Davie’s remarks last week should be taken:

“…our challenge is not to convince each other that we are relevant. That is the easy bit. We can surround ourselves with people like us. We see this institution as essential and important. We debate the latest political shenanigans, internal dramas and the latest press flare-up as though these things represent what matters. This is dangerous. It means that we can take our eyes off the key issue of how much value we are delivering to each member of the public, and the UK as a whole. A world where the supply of content is almost infinite. This digital world demands that we ask profound questions about the role of public service broadcasting…”

 “The evidence is unequivocal: the future of a universal BBC can no longer be taken for granted.

“We have no inalienable right to exist.”

“To be clear, this is not about abandoning democratic values such as championing fair debate or an abhorrence of racism. But it is about being free from political bias, guided by the pursuit of truth, not a particular agenda.

“If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC… to be clear, there will be new guidance on how we best deliver our impartiality guideline; new social media rules, which will be rigorously enforced; and clearer direction on the declaration of external interests.”

It surely cannot be long before we witness the sacking of at least one of the BBC’s high-profile “talent” for not being impartial, in order to set an example.  Something similar is already happening behind the camera.  As the latest (11 September 2020) edition of Private Eye reports:

“Tim Davie has wasted no time in stamping his mark on the BBC…  Chief technology officer Matthew Postgate… brought forward his departure to ensure he went out of the door just as the new D-G was coming in.  Two days later, Davie announced that Postgate’s role was being downgraded and that the CTO would no longer have a seat on the BBC’s executive committee…

“Also jettisoned from the committee… were representatives of the corporation’s HR, policy and legal departments.  John Shield, director of communications and corporate affairs under former D-G Tony Hall has also got the boot…

“Most spectacular, however, was the demotion of James Parnell… The slapdown of a former Labour cabinet member…sends precisely the signals Davie is hoping to transmit to the government…”

Despite this radical start, Davie faces an uphill struggle to save the BBC.  Changing an organisational culture is a bit like trying to steer an oil tanker away from the rocks; it takes a long time before any change in direction can be seen.  And in the meantime, the post-pandemic economy is likely to add fuel to the “Defund the BBC” campaign as millions more former workers struggle to pay the licence fee.

Although Davie argues against any plan to fund the BBC through subscription fees, a prolonged recession may make this the only viable long-term option.  As ordinary incomes fall, minority cultural programming largely viewed by affluent metropolitan liberals will increasingly look like the well-off forcing the poor to subsidise their viewing and listening habits. 

More worrying however, is that the think-tanks driving demand for reform have avoided the kind of privatisation models which would automatically force the political left to defend a BBC which has historically harmed them far more than it has the pro-Brexit Tories.  There is no call to scrap or break up the BBC.  Nor is there any enthusiasm for selling off the money-making parts of the BBC to the usual gang of Russian oligarchs, Chinese bureaucrats and Arab oil sheiks.  Instead, organisations like the pro-free market Institute of Economic Affairs favour a subscriber-owned mutual structure similar to the way building societies used to operate and how the National Trust operates today:

“… [A] feasible model  for  BBC  ownership  would involve turning the licence fee into a subscription. Within this model, individual and commercial subscribers to the BBC could become equal owners in a mutual structure. Instead of the representatives of the licence fee payer (notionally the government) appointing the trustees of the BBC, they would be elected by the subscribers in the same way as the trustees of a charity such as the National Trust or the board of a mutual building society are elected. The National Trust has 5,000,000 members and so the scale of the organisation would be similar to that of the BBC under a mutual model…

“The BBC mutual could have a charitable arm and also commercial arms, the income from which would be used to reduce member subscriptions. At any time, members and/or their trustee representatives could choose to float off commercial arms or, indeed, purchase new commercial entities or engage in joint ventures.  A number of mutual insurance companies used to operate in this way…”

Although this would not meet the traditional leftist aim of state ownership (which isn’t met by the current model either) it would leave the BBC distinctly different to the commercial subscription companies with which it must increasingly compete.

Tim Davie may yet succeed in steering the BBC away from the jagged political rocks ahead; but only if he can shift the BBC’s Overton Window away from the increasingly discredited neoliberal consensus of the Major-Blair-Cameron years.  To achieve this, however, requires breaking through the steel-clad denial that has afflicted the neoliberal right following their defeats at the hands of the emerging national-populist movements.  Over the last four years the neoliberal right has preferred to dismiss a growing majority of the population as racists, fascists and morons than to acknowledge that the world changed while they were comfortably ensconced in their echo chamber.  Davie needs to break the BBC out of that echo chamber in the course of the next few months if he is to avoid anti-BBC sentiment growing so great that it becomes unstoppable.

As you made it to the end…

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