Last week a senior editorial figure at the BBC spoke to me about the impact Brexit has had on news staff in British broadcasting organisations, including ITV, Sky and others. According to the rumour mill, one TV executive was accused of bias by putting his supposedly Brexit-supporting friends on TV programmes and pretending they are just members of the public. This story was given the oxygen of Twitter but was totally false. Another TV executive was accused, again on social media, of being the father of two young women who are well-known Brexit propagandists. I know this person and have met his children. Whoever the young propagandists are, they are not part of his family.
In a peculiar way, these social media lies and conspiracy theories are a compliment to the profoundly important place the BBC and other public service broadcasters, or PSBs, still have in British public life. Nevertheless, there is a serious problem for the BBC and all PSBs. Why do they still exist? The BBC is funded by the licence fee, a tax of £154.50 (Dh727) on every household that has a TV set. So – as the age-old argument goes – what do British people get from the licence fee that private broadcasters do not supply?
At times of political crisis, the BBC in particular is the target of political partisans. In its near 100-year history, it has been written off so many times that its survival seems the institutional equivalent of the celebrated escapologist Harry Houdini. BBC journalists and managers fell foul of the British government over the Suez crisis in 1956. There were numerous rows with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher over interviews with IRA terrorists in the 1970s and 1980s. During the Iraq war of 2003, Tony Blair’s government became so incensed with elements of the BBC coverage that the corporation’s bosses, director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies, were forced to quit.
These very public and quite vicious rows between the world’s most famous broadcaster and British politicians always struck me as ultimately a good thing – for the BBC and for democracy. They showed that the BBC was committed to standing up to political interference.
But now the BBC and other PSBs face something much more dangerous than the anger of a here today, gone tomorrow prime minister or government. The danger is apathy from audiences and appearing irrelevant to significant groups of potential viewers and listeners. That sense of irrelevance was put starkly last week in a new report from the British House of Lords' communications and digital committee. The report pointed out that the BBC fails to appeal to significant groups of British people, particularly 16 to 34-year-olds. Younger viewers are growing up in a world of greater choice. They show no loyalty to a particular broadcaster or TV channel. Children who love The Simpsons cartoons really don't care which channel they tune into to see their favourite programmes.
Moreover, one of the BBC's strongest selling points has always been that it is free to air and free from advertisements for those in the UK, but Netflix and other subscription video-on-demand services also offer ad-free options and have bigger resources than the BBC can possibly hope to obtain through the licence fee.
That has led yet again to this damaging argument: why should everyone in Britain pay a tax for a service that not everyone wants or needs? The House of Lords committee thinks the BBC's long-term future might be in danger. Its report is titled Public Service Broadcasting: As Vital As Ever. It warns that public service broadcasters need to be better supported so they can continue to produce high-quality drama and documentaries. But that means broadcasters need to ensure they serve and reflect all audiences, especially younger and racially diverse groups. At stake, the committee says, is the heart of British democracy and culture, as well as one of Britain's most successful creative arts – TV production.
None of this will be easy. Governments have used the BBC as a political football. Most recently, they have demanded that the BBC pay for people over the age of 75 to have free TV licences – something that represents a massive cut to the money available to make programmes. Then when it comes to sport, specialist subscription on-demand channels can charge huge sums for access to top-class football or boxing events.
One proposed answer is to increase the number of sporting events which by law must be shown on free TV. But there’s a catch. The executive of a cricket club pointed out that insisting sporting events go on free-to-air TV might be good for viewers and broadcasters but it can prove catastrophic for sporting organisations, who might lose a lot of money as a result.
The chairman of the House of Lords committee, Lord Stephen Gilbert, summed up the dangers. He said that at a time of deep political divisions, “public service broadcasters play a role in unifying the country through shared experiences. Audiences would miss them when they're gone.”
As someone who worked for years within the BBC, I think PSBs play an important role too. But spoiled for choice and deluged by other TV content, are we really sure audiences would miss them?
Gavin Esler is an author, journalist and presenter