Why the BBC has much more to lose than just funding
The new director general of the BBC takes up his post this month at a time of unprecedented challenge to the organisation’s aspiration to be the trusted and pre-eminent provider of radio, TV and online journalism to the UK and the world. This challenge is partly financial, but it also relates to more profound concerns over how dependable the BBC’s journalism is today and whether it can still act as a beacon for other media outlets around the world.
From its origins as a counter to Nazi propaganda in the 1930s, the BBC’s External Service, later the World Service, steadily built a reputation for journalism independent from state control. In the Arab world, the turning point for the BBC was the 1956 Suez crisis when Britain, France and Israel conspired to attack Egypt and depose then president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The British government was outraged that the BBC’s news output failed to support the war, but the BBC defended its impartial reporting of events and in doing so began to win respect and audiences across the Arab world that largely endures to this day.
Over the years, the BBC made the Middle East a priority area for its impartial style of journalism. Arabic was chosen as its first non-English television service. This was followed by Persian TV, which had a huge impact on Iranian audiences as its coincided with the 2009 mass demonstrations in Iran against presidential elections widely perceived as fraudulent.
Read More on the BBC
When the BBC has had to reduce the output of its over 40 different language services, because of periodic budget shortages, it has always sought to protect those directed to the Middle East. After the UK government decided to end its annual grant to the World Service six years ago, the BBC successfully lobbied for extra funds for programmes directed at countries and regions with a “democratic deficit” – including the Middle East and Africa.
But today further budget cuts and questions over the way the BBC should be funded threaten to severely impact the BBC at home and abroad. In January, 450 more newsroom jobs were slated to go in a series of cost savings that the head of the UK journalists’ union described as “an existential threat to the BBC". Savings in the Arabic service included shipping the bulk of its radio programming from London to Amman.
Today, alongside regular budgeting problems, the whole structure of BBC funding is under scrutiny. As more people, especially the young, turn to Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms for their news, some are asking whether the licence fee – the annual charge on all UK citizens under 74 to pay for BBC programmes – can still be justified. Should people be forced to pay to fund BBC news programmes they do not watch?
The head of BBC news, Fran Unsworth, said the BBC had to work a lot harder to represent all communities within the UK and escape the 'London bubble'
The BBC warns that if people are free not to pay the license fee, this could mean it would lose more than a billion pounds in revenue, inevitably requiring deep cuts to programmes and services. But an opinion poll in February found that found 60 per cent of British adults thought the licence fee should be scrapped. And the government has made it clear it is sympathetic to such arguments.
While some argue the BBC should be treated no differently from any other broadcaster and compete with them commercially, defenders of the BBC argue that as a public service broadcaster it has the unique task of reflecting regional and cultural differences across the whole of the UK and offering programmes that appeal to all. And they claim the BBC values of impartiality and editorial independence set it apart from the commercial sector and from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. But the BBC stands accused of not living up to these ideals.
During the debate over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the BBC was accused of reflecting a London-centric view and an urban liberal bias that failed to either detect or take into account the views of those outside London and the major cities opposed to EU membership. The head of BBC news, Fran Unsworth, appeared to accept this when she said the BBC had to work a lot harder to represent all communities within the UK and escape the “London bubble”.
If viewers desert the BBC, feeling their views, identities and concerns are not reflected in its programming, this will be a major failure of its public service broadcasting ethos. But an even greater danger would be if it was to lose its reputation for impartiality and unbiased reporting. If that goes, the BBC loses its claim to be treated differently from other broadcasters. And on the global level, the BBC will lose its international reputation as a reliable source of unbiased news that has made it admired for decades.
Last month, amid controversy over whether the Prime Minister’s chief adviser had broken rules over the coronavirus lockdown, a presenter of one of the BBC’s main TV news programmes felt able to tell viewers the adviser was obviously guilty and that the public was furious at the Prime Minister for failing to agree. Complaints brought a reprimand for the presenter from the BBC for breaching impartiality and declaring her views on air. In an earlier instance, another TV news presenter declared she was angered at what she saw as President Donald Trump’s evident racism. The BBC initially upheld complaints that, right or wrong, this was the presenter’s opinion, not dispassionate analysis. But after a storm on Twitter, the BBC reversed its decision.
The BBC has the ambitious goal of increasing its global audience from the current 308 million to 500 million by 2022. But this will not happen if the BBC fails to report even-handedly
This is the tip of a large iceberg of numerous BBC reporters and presenters confusing analysis with editorialising – feeling free to vent their views rather than explaining facts and the background to a topic and allowing views and listeners to make up their minds. Even though prominent BBC presenters of the past prided themselves of being able to conceal their political views, while engaging in robust interviews, the present generation seem to take the opposite view. It is as if the more followers they gather on social media, the more credible their voices will be. Fame is the siren voice that many BBC presenters appear unable to resist. Being outspoken in their views on the topic of the day provides a tempting platform. But as one former head of World Service warns, a journalist can choose either to be a celebrity or a journalist, but not both.
As the internet and mainstream media across the world reflect ever more political polarisation, this is the time when the BBC’s precious ideal of impartiality becomes ever more important. The BBC has the ambitious goal of increasing its global audience from the current 308 million to 500 million by 2022. But this will not happen if the BBC fails to report even-handedly and delivers up fashionable opinions rather than critical analysis. Such principles underpin journalism in a democratic society and abandoning them will weaken the BBC’s influence around the globe.
Outside the BBC’s news headquarter in London stands a stature of George Orwell bearing a quote from this champion of free speech and enemy of totalitarianism of all kinds. “If freedom means anything, it means telling people what they don’t want to hear.” The BBC presenters and reporters who pass the statue every day would do well to heed this advice or risk betraying the ideals for which the BBC must stand or risk its own demise.
David Powell is a media analyst and former journalist with a range of pan-Arab broadcast media, including BBC Arabic
Updated: November 16, 2020 05:40 PM