If “public service broadcasting” means anything, it surely means having an independent broadcaster which holds the powerful to account without fear or favour. And perhaps, many years ago, the BBC tried to fulfil that role. But over the past few decades, the BBC has undergone the same collapse in journalistic standards which afflicts the legacy media in general. This might not be an issue were it not for the £169-per-year license fee levied on anyone who wants to watch any television as it is being broadcast or to use the BBC’s i-player service. It is not – as some right-wing activists claim – a tax… millions of people have opted out in recent years, choosing either not to watch TV at all, or to only use catch-up services (for which no license is required) – although this has not stopped Capita (the corporation which sells licenses) from employing coercive and despicable force even against the most vulnerable people… a third of convictions against women are for not paying the license fee, and it remains among the biggest reasons why women are in jail.
Appalling though this is, it might (possibly) be justifiable if the BBC actually used the money to hold the powerful to account. But increasingly, the BBC is merely a mouthpiece of the permanent state and the big corporations – mostly simply rehashing press releases from official sources. Which is why I view the BBC as a UK equivalent of the Soviet Union’s Pravda – an organ which had to refer to what was happening, but only in the way the state dictated.
Politically, activists on both the left and right have reason to criticise the BBC – although not on opposite sides of the same economic pole (as used to be the case, allowing BBC spokespeople to claim they were “balanced”) but because a neoliberal BBC, reflecting corporate and state interests, leans right on economic issues and left on social issues. But even this obscures the deeper problem – that the BBC has abandoned serious journalism altogether. No doubt, the BBC makes high quality drama (which it sells via its commercial arm). But at a time when subscription services like Amazon Prime and Netflix do it better, this hardly counts as a public service. Quality investigative journalism, on the other hand, is the one thing that might make that £169 fee worth imposing.
So, let’s look at a recent example of non-journalism. The press release from the Office for National Statistics reported the slight “unexpected” increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to 4.0%, which it blamed on alcohol and tobacco. The BBC duly regurgitated this and linked it to possible interest rate cuts later in the year rather than seeking to interrogate the data provided by the ONS. And one reason why a genuine public service broadcaster might do this is because the data is at odds with the experience of most ordinary people. In particular, housing costs have risen steeply along with energy prices (which were subsidised by the state last year). And yet, according to the ONS, the price of both of these had fallen steeply. What gives?
As is so often the case these days, it falls to an independent on social media to ask the questions the BBC are supposed to – in this case, former banking insider Sasha Yanshin, whose latest YouTube commentary sets out the various sleights of hand used by the ONS to massage the figures in the government’s favour. Certainly, the million-and-a-half or so households whose mortgages have been or are about to be rolled-over onto a much higher rate will be shocked to find that their increased mortgage payments are not included in the data at all. Nor will those having to choose between food and heating this winter understand why the ONS has weighted those costs in a way that doesn’t reflect their importance to most people.
Of course, Yanshin’s arguments can be challenged. His claim that the UK is in the grip of a wage-price spiral, for example, is exaggerated. While it is correct that some – often already reasonably well paid – public sector employees have received above-inflation pay rises, the majority of workers have seen their real wages fall. And, indeed, the likely outcome of the raise in the minimum wage from April 2024 is for cuts in hours and redundancies rather than an inflationary wage bonanza. But that’s not really the point. The issues raised by Yanshin are issues that ought properly to have been raised by a public service broadcaster whose only claim to legitimacy is surely to hold state organs like the ONS to account.
Without quality investigative journalism (of a kind that only citizen journalists seem to do these days) the remainder of the BBC’s output is no different to that provided by the plethora of alternative channels now available. That makes the BBC a broadcasting service, but not a public service… and certainly not a service people should be extorted for.
As you made it to the end…
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