The Left Should Stand for a Democratically Run BBC

Threatened with further cuts to its funding, the BBC has become ever less willing to hold the Tories to account. But while BBC news coverage has done little to enamor it to the Left, we should defend the principle of public broadcasting.

Left hostility to the BBC is understandable, but the UK needs public broadcasting. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

In five years’ time, the BBC license fee — the broadcaster’s major source of income for almost a century — will be abolished. At least that’s the declared intention of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. Last month, culture secretary Nadine Dorries briefed the press that the license fee would not be renewed after 2027, when the BBC’s current Royal Charter expires. An anonymous ally was quoted proclaiming that “the days of state-run TV are over.”

This was met with some alarm, but also by a degree of indifference or even schadenfreude among some on the Left who have grown disillusioned with BBC news coverage, and with good reason. Others dismissed the announcement as a classic “dead cat,” also with good reason. Despite presiding over a chaotic period of social murder with 140,000 COVID-19 deaths in England alone, support for Johnson’s government had until recently proven surprisingly resilient. In recent months, however, it has experienced a polling collapse and a serious loss of political authority following a series of revelations, most damagingly of Downing Street staff holding parties during lockdown.

As commentators began to speculate about Johnson’s departure, it was widely reported that he planned to rally support through a series of right-wing policy announcements known as “Operation Red Meat.” Abolishing the BBC license fee was top of the list. This was unsurprising: Johnson’s government had briefed plans for abolition shortly after the 2019 election, telling the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times that it would force the BBC onto a subscription model and dramatically downsize its operations. While not much came of this early fighting talk, it was followed by an announcement that the government was considering decriminalizing nonpayment of the license fee — a transparent attempt to further reduce the BBC’s income.

The BBC and the Culture War

You might be wondering what the government hopes to achieve by attacking a much-celebrated and still relatively popular national institution. But the red meat wasn’t for the public, at least directly. Rather, the key audiences were Tory backbenchers and the owners and editors of Britain’s powerful right-wing press. Not only are these two groups pretty much the only mechanisms of political accountability in between general elections — and thus the major threat to Johnson — they are key allies of the prime minister. Johnson made his name at the intersection of conservative media and politics, and reputedly remains obsessed with the agenda of the right-wing press. And while driven more by personal ambition than political ideology (let alone loyalty), he firmly allied himself with the Right of the Conservative Party in his jostling for power after the Brexit referendum.

The BBC is a long-standing obsession for both these core groups. Having campaigned against it for decades, in recent years they have waged a relentless, often absurd, “culture war” targeting not just the BBC but liberal institutions in general. One Tory MP, for example, recently called for the national anthem “God Save the Queen” to be played at the end of each day on BBC One, and there have been recent complaints about racist jokes being edited out of classic comedy programs — just one of many accusations around “woke” culture at the BBC.

One reason why the Right targets the BBC is that this cause unites key parts of its coalition: private media interests, neoliberal and libertarian ideologues, and social conservatives (all well represented in the House of Commons). This was the case in the Thatcher era, the last time we saw such a determined right-wing attack on public-service broadcasting, and it remains so today. Private news media have an interest in stoking up culture wars as well as an interest in intensifying the commercialization of the UK’s media system. Social conservatives’ hostility toward the BBC is based in various cultural grievances, but these dovetail well with economic and regulatory agendas. The long-standing allegation, which drives the petty grumbling mentioned above, is that the BBC is guilty of a liberal-left “groupthink,” supposedly propagating elitist, liberal, and metropolitan values while edging out national pride and common sense.

This anti-liberal political rhetoric will be very familiar to American readers, and British conservatives have certainly been influenced by their comrades in the United States. But the current culture war has a long history in the UK, too. During the conservative ascendency of the 1970s and ’80s, liberal institutions, and the BBC in particular, could be blamed for social change. In this account, the decline of traditional authority was neither the result of subaltern groups mobilizing nor a cultural feature of liberal capitalism (all that is solid melting into air). Rather, the much-lamented shifts in social attitudes were being imposed from above by an arrogant liberal elite. Margaret Thatcher and her fellow travelers successfully linked petit bourgeois moralism and the defense of social hierarchies with the neoliberal critique of public institutions. The decadent liberal culture of the BBC, which it imposed on its captive audience, stemmed from the protection it and its middle-class staff enjoyed from the moral discipline of the market.

Today’s Right is less ideologically coherent, and while similar arguments are still being made for the same reasons, they are probably less persuasive. For one thing, the BBC, like other public institutions, has been thoroughly integrated into the market, and is run not only by businesspeople but by figures who are literally Conservatives — its current chair is a major Tory donor and the director-general is a former Conservative council candidate. And while the BBC certainly remains metropolitan, it is hardly a purveyor of woke culture. Older people, who tend to be more socially conservative, are much more likely to read, watch, or listen to the BBC — and to hear reactionary talking points from the press parroted in more sober tones. Younger people, who are disproportionately left-wing and socially liberal, are more likely to use the private platforms and video on-demand services that, despite their generally liberal cultural character, are currently being praised by Conservatives as alternatives to public provision.

The License Fee

Insofar as the contemporary cultural grievance against the BBC is combined with an economic critique, it is to portray the license fee as an imposition by an affluent liberal elite on a financially struggling and culturally conservative working class. This has always been part of the British right’s grift, but it has been amplified by Brexit, which allowed the Tories to significantly expand their support base. For the Mail on Sunday, “the war over the future of the BBC pits a working-class woman who grew up on a council estate [Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries] against the heart of Britain’s liberal elite.” The groundwork for these arguments had already been laid in 2020, in the consultation on decriminalizing nonpayment of the license fee.

In the UK, anyone who watches or records television, or who uses iPlayer (the BBC’s video on-demand service) has to pay the license fee. As with other taxes, licenses, and levies, there are criminal enforcement mechanisms for nonpayment. While evasion doesn’t lead directly to criminal sanctions, as commentary often implies, the nonpayment of a resulting court-imposed fine can, in extreme cases, lead to a prison sentence. As with the criminal justice system and with flat taxes more generally, the burden falls disproportionately on low-income groups — and in this case, on women in particular.

The Tories have been in power, alone or in coalition, for well over a decade. During that time they have overseen unprecedented wage suppression and implemented brutal cuts to public expenditure and social security. Austerity alone is estimated to have resulted in over 120,000 excess deaths, benefits reforms have caused immense hardship and psychological distress, and there has been an extraordinary increase in reliance on food banks. Not only have improvements in life expectancy stalled but, for women in the poorest tenth of the population, they have declined. There were estimated to be over a million households experiencing severe poverty in 2019, and this has likely worsened during the pandemic. Recently, the government withdrew the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit, described by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as “a lifeline for parents and children.”

It takes some nerve, therefore, for the Tories to claim their policy on the license fee is intended to help the poor, but that is what they have done and continue to do. Right-wing outlets quoted Secretary Dorries promising to stop “the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors.” This was particularly audacious coming from a Tory minister. Those over seventy-five were previously exempted from license-fee payments thanks to a subsidy introduced by the last Labour government, which the Conservatives later abolished.

The cost of living was a central theme in Dorries’s official statement to Parliament. Here she made only passing reference to pensioners, instead focusing on struggling families: the government “simply could not justify putting extra pressure on the wallets of hardworking households” through “the potential threat of bailiffs knocking on their door, or criminal prosecution.” The price of the license fee was therefore to be frozen for two years, followed by a rise in line with inflation for another four. To appreciate the significance of this announcement, consider that the BBC has already endured a decade of severe spending cuts — estimated at up to 30 percent in real terms. Further cuts, whose extent will depend on inflation and license-fee collection levels, is likely to heavily impact programming.

By the time of this January 17 speech, the government’s position on the future of the license fee, however, had softened somewhat compared to what was earlier briefed. The culture secretary announced a review of the BBC’s funding mechanisms, not its abolition.

Marketization and Political Repression

Where does this leave government policy? While there has been some alarm at bellicose statements emanating from Downing Street since 2019, there is considerable continuity. Already in 2015, then chancellor George Osborne (who, after leaving office, became editor of London’s only daily newspaper) imposed a harsh license fee settlement on the BBC. This was negotiated in secret with the BBC leadership, and was justified with reference to the government’s austerity agenda. The BBC leadership then developed a radical commercialization program, building on the unpopular market-reform agenda imposed by neoliberal management in the 1990s (detailed extensively in my book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service). The reforms led to the creation of BBC Studios, a commercial subsidiary that can sell programs to private platforms like Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, and which more recently merged with the BBC’s global news arm. The BBC also launched a commercial joint venture called BritBox with its domestic corporate rival ITV, seeking to monetize old programming. As with some of the original content produced by BBC Studios, this means license-fee payers being denied access to BBC programming — and, in the case of BritBox, being charged to view content they’ve paid for once already.

The current direction of travel is thus a familiar one. Since the 1980s, Conservative governments have sought to undermine the BBC’s independence by appointing political loyalists to its board, pressuring the BBC over its political programming, and pushing commercial reforms that erode the BBC’s public-service ethos. In short, a combination of political repression and marketization, both of which were evident in the culture secretary’s recent statement to Parliament. Dorries said that “the BBC needs to address issues around impartiality and groupthink”; in a less commented upon move, she announced that the government would increase BBC Studios’ borrowing limit, allowing it to attract more private finance.

Cutting the BBC’s funding aids both agendas. It increases the BBC leadership’s dependency on government by raising the stakes of future funding settlements. And since cuts are necessarily implemented by management, they strengthen the internal power of a politicized and politically subordinate leadership while weakening the morale and autonomy of independently minded producers and journalists. This also increases the incentive for further commercialization, both as a financial strategy to offset lost public revenue and a political strategy to placate corporate and conservative critics.

Forced Errors

The BBC has been on this same downward spiral for several decades, and it is now at the breaking point. It has been thoroughly commercialized and politically compromised. Even the BBC’s most tireless and intellectually incurious apologists are noticing problems with its journalism, which are now hard to ignore. In one remarkable recent episode, the BBC responded to the verdict in the Ghislaine Maxwell trial by inviting Alan Dershowitz — who himself stands accused of sexual abuse — to comment on the case. Rob Burley, who was until recently head of political programming at the BBC, for once declined to defend the organization. He attributed the mistake to the years of cuts and organizational upheavals. The next morning, the BBC put out a statement saying that the Dershowitz interview did not meet its editorial standards.

On one level, Burley’s assessment was correct. But attributing the BBC’s many editorial failings solely to funding cuts is something of a half-truth. The broader and more fundamental problem, which the BBC’s supporters have a much harder time acknowledging, is its relationship with the British state. That is, the simple but rarely admitted fact that the BBC enjoys at best a kind of quasi-independence that is completely ill-suited to its stated mission of holding power to account. Funding cuts do undermine the BBC’s programming capacities, but they are also part of the machinery of political control. This explains why, though there have been a series of high-profile unforced editorial errors in recent years, they largely occur in one political direction. To put it somewhat crudely, the default editorial position at the BBC has always been (and is increasingly) to defend power. The principle of impartiality that is so central to public-service broadcasting can serve as a limited counterbalance to this tendency, offering editors and journalists some defense against political pressure. But the internal procedures that allow for power to be scrutinized are arduous, and Burley is probably correct to suggest that in routine reporting they have now been seriously undermined. This is why day-to-day editorial decisions can appear erratic — probably feeling “more like cock-up than conspiracy,” as journalists like to say — yet still have a notable political character.

This broader understanding of the long-standing problems with the BBC is crucial. For it means you can’t simply throw money at the organization (the likely instinct of any incoming Labour government) and expect the problems to go away. As an increasing number of people are recognizing, the BBC is broken and in need of radical reform. The problem, however, is twofold. First, the liberal left finds it very difficult to face up to the reality of the BBC’s failings and to support major changes to its funding and governance. Second, many on the socialist left are unwilling to expend political energy defending an organization that dispensed with basic journalistic norms to join in with the ceaseless and often absurd chorus of smears, denunciations, and derision that was heaped on the Left during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Defending Public Media, Without Illusions

Part of the problem is that the debate over the BBC’s future has usually focused on content as opposed to the structures that give rise to it. This is understandable. After all, it is only through BBC content that most of us have any relationship with or understanding of the organization. This is why the BBC has tended to point to popular programming, rather than public principles, when making the case for itself. Indeed, in recent years it is notable that it has tended to highlight its cultural rather than its journalistic content; e.g., the popular comedy drama Fleabag, or its much-celebrated wildlife documentaries.

Some on the Left who are still minded to defend the BBC take a broadly similar approach — conceding that there are very serious problems with its political journalism but maintaining that the BBC should be defended for its cultural value. Yet this overlooks the extent to which the BBC’s cultural production has been damaged by decades of commercialization, and moreover — more fundamentally — risks reducing the crucial political question of what kind of media and communications we want and need to a personal question of views on, or feelings toward, the BBC and its programming.

The Left should instead direct its focus to the underlying structures that give rise to content (good and bad) and how they relate (and are likely to relate in the future) to the wider and rapidly shifting structures of media, communications, cultural production, and the state. From this perspective, the future of the BBC is a political question distinct from any assessment of BBC programming, whether political or cultural, even if they are, of course, related.

As I’ve argued in Jacobin before, the hostility some on the socialist left feel toward the BBC is perfectly understandable. But we should resist allowing the treatment of the Left in BBC reporting to cloud our judgement. We naturally seek amends and retribution from people who have wronged us. The key decision-makers in powerful organizations like the BBC (i.e., elites) should be held accountable, and should face consequences for their often poor or unethical decisions. But such institutions are still not moral entities. They are not people from whom we can expect contrition or on whom we can enact revenge. They are social structures that give rise to particular effects, and they can be restructured and repopulated. Some institutions are inherently unjust, to the point that they need to be abolished rather than restructured. Slavery would be an uncontroversial example. But the question of whether an institution is amenable to reform or whether abolition is more favorable is a slightly different question to whether it has been mostly good or bad in its effects. In the BBC’s case, there are clear reasons why it does what it does, and clear ways in which it could be reformed to address those basic problems. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, including in my book, and developing a vision for a transformed BBC and media and communications system has been a key part of the work of the Media Reform Coalition (which I chair).

In laying out the government’s position on the BBC to Parliament, Dorries spoke of the need for “a BBC that is forward-looking and ready to meet the challenges of modern broadcasting.” An organization that “can thrive alongside Netflix and Amazon Prime” and command “support from across the breadth of the UK — not just the London bubble.” These points from the culture secretary should be uncontroversial. An effective project for radical media reform cannot simply revamp the patrician ethos of twentieth-century broadcasting or indulge in starry-eyed and nostalgic defenses of the status quo. And while the Left must challenge the way the notion of the “London bubble” is mobilized by the Right, the dominance of the South East of England is plainly a political problem that needs addressing. What is needed is a clear reckoning with the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the public-service model, and the challenge of Big Tech and the potential of public digital technology.

At present, the government’s plans for the BBC appear rather half-baked. But it seems highly unlikely it will cede the current mechanisms of political control. The Left’s position, by contrast, should be the abolition of all forms of government influence over the BBC, and their replacement with independent regulation and genuinely democratic and devolved forms of accountability and participation. It is also likely that the government will again push the BBC further along a path it set down of its own accord, and that some form of a voluntary subscription model will be introduced. If so, this would violate a core principle of public media: universal access.

The public-media model isn’t just important because it shields journalists and cultural producers from commercial pressures and interference by private owners, crucial though that is. Public media also allows for equal access to collective knowledge and culture, facilitating democratic participation in a way that is simply not possible with private media systems.

With capitalist modes of cultural and journalistic production there are basically two business models. Either you monetize your content with paywalls or you monetize your audience with advertising and user surveillance (or a combination of the two). In the former case, this is obviously highly exclusionary, and in the latter, there is a tendency to cater more toward affluent audiences (exactly what Dorries seems to be complaining of in the case of the BBC). A public media system, by contrast, can make all content universally available and (in theory at least) cater to all audiences equally. Such a model evidently requires public funding, but this needn’t come from a license fee. In fact, many countries have recently moved away from license fees in favor of an individual or household levy, or an independently administered public-service fee, and the Left should certainly not be defending television licenses, which are economically regressive and based on obsolete technology. We need to replace a politically compromised state broadcaster, funded by regressive taxation, with a democratic and devolved public platform supported by secure and equitable public funding. The culture secretary told Parliament, “Let’s discuss what a BBC in 2027 will look like.” That’s exactly what the Left should be doing, not defending the status quo.