Public-Service Broadcasting Is a Noble Ideal, but the BBC Needs Radical Change
The BBC marked its centenary this week, but its long-term future is deeply uncertain. We should defend the idea of public-service broadcasting while sharply criticizing the BBC in its current form for its conservativism and deference to the British state.
- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
No broadcaster in the world today can rival the cultural prestige of the UK’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). From nature documentaries to period dramas, its programs are watched by a global audience. In Britain itself, the news reporting of the BBC is by far the most trusted source of information about current affairs.
But the company that established a template for public-service broadcasting has come under aggressive scrutiny in recent years. Critics have accused the BBC of using its reputation to peddle propaganda. Now it faces a challenge to the funding model that has sustained it since the 1920s.
This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
How did the model of public-service broadcasting that the BBC exemplifies first take shape?
The short answer is that it emerged almost by accident from a jostling of different interests in the 1920s, which was when the BBC was founded. Obviously, the early BBC was based around radio. When radio first emerged as a technology, it was an activity for geeky amateurs with their own sets, as well as being used in military communications. It was during the early 1920s when the idea of radio as a profitable commercial area developed.
The basis on which the big companies like Marconi assumed they could make money out of radio was by patenting the technology. Their economic interest at the time was in selling radio sets. In order to sell the sets, you needed to have something that was being broadcast, because up to that point, radio was being used in much the same way that you might use the telephone. You needed to have some kind of programming for people to listen to.
That was where the BBC comes from. There was a group of companies that had patented the technology and they wanted to develop broadcasting content. The Post Office then stepped in as the state regulator. You need to have regulation in radio because of the technology: it’s a finite resource and you have to assign people particular wavelengths. There must be some sort of regulation for broadcasting to work.
The companies approached the Post Office, wanting to produce content to sell their radios. The solution that the Post Office came up with was to say that they could band together and create what was essentially a corporate consortium, which became the British Broadcasting Company. It was notionally a for-profit company like any other. The purpose of the company was to broadcast music, drama, and so on, so these companies could then make money off selling their radio sets.
Obviously, you have to cover the costs. The corporations paid for it, but then money came out of the license fee, which is still the major way that the BBC is funded today. That was the set of interests that pioneered the BBC model. This was in distinction to what was developing in the United States at that time in terms of broadcasting, which British politicians and regulators saw as a much more chaotic process. They wanted to avoid that, which is why you had a more statist administration of radio in Britain.
We might think of the Post Office as being rather quaint, like a lot of British institutions, but that would be a mistake. David Edgerton has done useful work recently on the technological and warfare capacities of the British imperial state during the interwar period. When we talk about the Post Office, we’re actually talking about one of the most powerful states that had existed in the world up to that point. It was at the core of Britain’s imperial state.
When those big companies joined to form a consortium, they appointed John Reith as the BBC’s first director-general (although that wasn’t his title at this stage — he formally became the director-general when the BBC itself changed from the British Broadcasting Company to the British Broadcasting Corporation). The companies weren’t particularly interested in making the programs: they just wanted to sell their radios. The state administrators didn’t want to do it themselves. Reith created an administration that became the BBC, and they essentially ceded all control to it.
Reith started to develop various rationales for the form that broadcasting took, based on a high-minded sense of public purpose, with Victorian notions of morality and service. This created an idea of the BBC as being aloof from commercial culture. That distinct character started to define the BBC.
It’s important to remember at this point in the story that it hadn’t really occurred to the big corporations that the broadcasting content itself could be monetized. That later became clear in the United States, especially in the 1930s, when there was a central cluster of advertising companies that realized radio was a very useful medium for creating a commercial culture. For various reasons, the British system went in a different direction.
In 1926, the BBC took on the distinct form that it essentially still has today, as a public company operating under a royal charter — very much part of the British establishment, removed from commercial pressures, and with an arm’s-length relationship to the state (although we can talk about how that plays out in practice later). That’s where the BBC came from. You sometimes see the idea bandied about that the BBC was meant to be independent from politics, but the reality was rather different.
In its early years, what was the relationship of the BBC to the holders of political power in Britain?
In the period that we’ve just discussed — the early 1920s when the BBC was a company — it operated under certain rules, and it was still subordinate to the political system. But it wasn’t really until 1926, with the negotiations about the BBC becoming a corporation rather than a company taking place, that a very distinct relationship to politicians started to emerge. Those negotiations were taking place when the general strike happened in 1926 — the first and only general strike in British history.
The BBC found itself in a very difficult, precarious situation, because all the newspapers had been shut down. In terms of news reporting (which was obviously very important in the context of a national-level strike), this shutdown left only the government’s propaganda sheet and the BBC. At this point, the BBC was notionally independent of politics, but the formal powers that government had over the BBC were considerable.
The government could command it to broadcast (or not broadcast) something, and there were all kinds of limitations on what the BBC could do. So far, it also hadn’t wanted to encroach on the power of the private press and the wire services, so it had had a relatively limited role in news. But it stepped up in the context of the general strike, out of necessity.
There was a split among ministers in the Conservative governments over the right way to handle the BBC. Hardliners like Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill wanted to take it under direct control. The more moderate, strategic wing, which included Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, wanted to give the BBC a degree of notional independence, while maintaining the threat of commandeering it if necessary. The moderates’ reasoning was that the BBC would be a much more effective instrument in terms of persuasion for defeating the general strike if people believed it to be independent.
A lot of the literature on the BBC refers to its impartiality and independence during this period, but these authors have really underplayed the degree of proximity and conspiracy — for want of a better word — between the government and the people at the top of the BBC. On the one hand, the BBC leadership was subordinate to the politicians. On the other hand, Reith was a willing participant in the strike.
He was very supportive of Stanley Baldwin and even gave him a speech to deliver. Reith later remarked on how wonderful that was, and said he should have a plaque on his desk to commemorate it, because it was so important for breaking the strike. He felt that the BBC needed to serve the national interest, which as far as he was concerned was the position of the government. There was no question of impartiality in any substantive sense from people at the top of the BBC. It was explicitly partial.
The reason I go into this history is that I think it sets a pattern that you see throughout the BBC’s life, where it enjoys a degree of autonomy from the government. The corporation has operated in a gray area between genuine independence on the one hand, and being a direct mouthpiece of government on the other. When you get down to details, there was often a degree of tension between politicians and people at the top of the BBC, but at the same time they often tended to see eye to eye, while remaining very mindful of how people thought about the BBC and perceived its independence.
From the perspective of politicians, they wanted to maintain a degree of power and influence over the BBC, but they didn’t want to be seen to be doing so, because then the broadcasting becomes less effective. You can see it as a meeting of minds and interests at the top of the BBC. How that works throughout the whole organization is a slightly more complex picture. My work is for the most part focused on the high politics of the BBC and the impact that tends to have on its journalism and its cultural production.
How was the BBC affected by the social movements and the wider cultural climate of the 1960s?
This isn’t a straightforward question. There was definitely a period of considerable cultural change from the 1960s, even carrying on up to the 1980s. The golden era of broadcasting is usually seen as having been under the leadership of Hugh Green in the 1960s, but that was really before the social movements of the late 1960s and ’70s got into their swing.
For the BBC, the heyday of its liberal culture was in the early 1960s. It was a period of relative affluence in general and at the BBC in particular, as there was an increase in the number of people buying television licenses. A less deferential culture started to develop at the BBC, continuing into the 1970s as well.
You had a shift in the BBC’s cultural production, which reflected the broader culture, and you began to see more working-class dramas and more political documentaries, but also a different sort of journalistic ethos. One of the legacies of the “death of deference,” as it has sometimes been called, was a redefining of the idea of journalism as an oppositional endeavor. That definitely had an impact on the BBC.
However, the picture is slightly complicated because almost immediately, from the late 1960s on, there was an early conservative turn at the BBC against some of that 1960s culture — the investigative journalism, but also the anti-racist movements and other such forces. There were debates within the BBC and a consciousness at its top levels that the network needed to represent the whole nation, as they understood it, and the commitment to impartiality meant that they shouldn’t be supporting anti-racist struggles.
Nonetheless, you had a combination of younger people arriving at the BBC with the broader cultural shift and the arrival of new broadcasters: firstly ITV, the BBC’s major commercial rival, and much later Channel Four. Each of these factors had an influence on the broader industry of which the BBC was part, while at the same time, there was an attempt at the top of the BBC to put the lid on things. You can see those cultural conflicts playing out in the documentary record at the BBC during the 1970s, with people discussing what impartiality means, and what the BBC’s relationship should be to social change.
How has the BBC approached the wars in which the British state was involved?
There’s been a lot of research on the BBC’s reporting. Some of it is based on content analysis, looking at how the BBC frames particular issues — who gets to speak, who doesn’t, and who is afforded legitimacy in its reporting. There’s also a lot of historical work which uses the very extensive documentary record that’s available on the BBC.
The overall picture from that research is that the BBC, as you’d expect from our preceding discussion, tends to be overly representative of conservative politicians and official sources. It tends to be deferential toward the British state. It’s not that oppositional voices don’t appear. But the voices who do appear tend to be a sort of “establishment opposition,” if you like. The BBC tends to be looking for fractures within the elite itself and to try and represent that, because it sees those voices as having greater legitimacy.
There’s also a broader sense at the BBC that politics happens in the sphere of Westminster and officialdom. In periods of war, obviously you get disagreements within those circles as well. The BBC tries to represent the different voices within that elite consensus, while the government tries to narrow the debate.
That explains what may seem like a paradox to some people: on the one hand, most of the academic research on the BBC’s reporting and the BBC’s own documentary record suggests that it tends to be very favorable to wars in which the British state is involved, yet on the other hand, governments tend to perceive the BBC as being antiwar or anti-government. You see this contradiction all the time in discussions of the BBC’s coverage.
The record is very clear, whether you look at its coverage of Northern Ireland, or nuclear weapons, or the Iraq war, which we can discuss later in a bit more detail. You tend to see exactly the picture that I mentioned earlier. The BBC is generally favorable to the case for military intervention, or nuclear weapons, or whatever the discussion topic may be.
You also see the behind-the-scenes relationships between people at the top of the BBC, the secret state, senior politicians, the cabinet office, and so on. It’s through those informal networks and in negotiation with the government that the BBC formulates its editorial policy. That explains why the BBC has a distinct prowar bent in its coverage.
During the 1980s and ’90s, what steps did the Thatcher and Major governments take to reshape the BBC?
Most people who write about this tend to focus on the BBC’s relationship with the Thatcher government rather than the Major government. In fact, there’s a case that it was the Major period that was more significant for the BBC. In the 1980s, the Thatcher government, much like the Conservative government today, was engaged in a very ill-tempered war of words with the BBC.
It also started appointing politically sympathetic figures to the BBC’s board. There had been a convention up to that point that the political parties would be broadly bipartisan in their approach to appointments. But the Thatcher government decided to take every opportunity for greater political and cultural influence at the BBC.
After a series of conflicts over the BBC’s reporting, the government, via its appointees, was able to drive out the then director-general, Alasdair Milne (father of Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s former adviser). He was replaced in 1987 by Michael Checkland, who was less important in the long run than the figure who was appointed as deputy director-general, John Birt.
Michael Checkland didn’t have any experience or background in journalism — he was the BBC accountant. That was quite unusual. They brought Birt in from an ITV company, LWT. He was known for highbrow political journalism. He had various rationales for why they should do journalism differently at the BBC, and he became a very unpopular character there.
Birt was close to the Institute of Economic Affairs — the foremost neoliberal think tank in the 1970s — and he was an adherent of what we now call neoliberalism, which was then usually referred to as monetarism. He was also very close to Peter Jay, a journalist who was a famous proponent of monetarist ideas at the Times of London. Birt came in with some classic neoliberal ideas about how a public organization should be run.
In the 1990s, he introduced something called “producer choice,” which was essentially an internal market. The idea was that you needed to have buying and selling relationships within an organization like the BBC, because that would make things costable, and you could thus measure efficiency. There was an assumption behind it that public organizations are wasteful and inefficient, and that they only serve the interests of the bureaucrats who run them.
As well as introducing the internal market, Birt brought a lot of the BBC’s journalism under more direct managerial control, and the BBC started commissioning programs from the private sector. This had been essentially imposed on the BBC at an earlier stage by the Thatcher government through a review of broadcasting in 1987.
That review was chaired by Alan Peacock, who was a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Thatcher wanted the BBC to take advertising, but the newspapers didn’t want that, and neither did the advertisers, so it never happened. Instead, they said it was necessary to create a broadcasting market by getting the BBC to commission programs from the private sector. These two measures led to a stifling market bureaucracy at the BBC that profoundly changed its culture — as was the intention.
The record on this is very clear — not only the internal record, but also the accounts of people at the time. I don’t think many people read Birt’s biography, but he was very explicit about his politics and his mission at the BBC. He wanted to bring about a profound cultural change away from what he saw as a kind of Soviet-style command economy toward a market-based system of organization. That’s how he saw his program of change.
A lot of people at the BBC didn’t understand it in those terms. In fact, if you read the way it’s described by people at the BBC, they often talk about “Stalinism” when they’re describing Birt’s management style. But it was exactly what we’d now call neoliberalism. Anyone who’s worked in public organizations in Britain today will be very familiar with the sort of management practices which were pioneered at the BBC at that time.
What was the significance of Iraq and the Hutton Inquiry for the political culture at BBC news and current affairs?
There was a short period after Birt when Greg Dyke was director-general of the BBC. Dyke didn’t differ so much politically from Birt — he was a sort of right-wing Labour man, very pro-market — but he was certainly a more affable, personable character than Birt, and he was also less dogmatic about the managerial practices that had defined the Birt period. With his arrival at the BBC and the election of the New Labour government, there was a shift in the mood, with the new funding they’d received and a sense that the leadership would support journalism.
There have now been several inquiries that have dealt, directly or indirectly, with what happened as a result of the BBC’s reporting on Iraq. Dyke and the BBC chair, Gavyn Davies, were forced to resign after the Blair government ferociously attacked the broadcaster — principally Alastair Campbell, who became absolutely obsessed with the BBC and went after its leadership in a vindictive fashion.
For a second time, the leadership of the BBC was taken out by a government that was determined to tame it. Like any organization that has gone through such an experience, it then took a more conservative turn. There were processes implemented in the aftermath of the Hutton Inquiry which were clearly intended to create a more risk-averse editorial culture.
There’s a risk of exaggerating this and seeing the pre-Hutton BBC as having been much more independent compared to its later trajectory. But look at some of the figures who were involved around that time, such as Andrew Gilligan, who was responsible for the report on the Today program that became the subject of Campbell’s attacks. He had been brought in specifically to try and create a more news-breaking, risk-taking journalistic culture at Today, but he didn’t really fit in there. The program’s editor Kevin Marsh lamented some of Gilligan’s reporting practices and thought he would get the BBC in hot water.
The BBC was already risk averse. There was a period of growth and greater confidence that created more room for people to do good journalism. But you can also make a case for Hutton as representing a return to what has broadly speaking been the norm for the BBC. It certainly became the norm in the Birt period, when more risky, oppositional journalistic culture — which had taken hold as a legacy of the 1960s social movements — had already been rolled back.
What did the reporting on the financial crisis tell us about the relationship between the BBC and the world of business?
This is the other half of the neoliberal transformation of the BBC, which was the focus of my original research on the BBC. I looked at two things. One aspect was the BBC’s response to the social democratic crisis of the 1970s and how it understood its own role and its relationship with politics in that context. The other main element was looking at the BBC’s process of cultural change in the aftermath of Thatcherism.
We’ve already talked about the internal market, producer choice, and the process of neoliberal bureaucracy and commercialization that took place at the BBC. The other part of that was not only a more controlled, risk-averse journalism, but also a much more commercial culture in terms of the BBC’s output. This was stated very explicitly by the leadership of the BBC. They wanted the BBC to be more pro-business. They saw the existing reporting practices of the BBC as being out of step with cultural change in Britain.
To put it rather crudely, the BBC had embodied a certain set of democratic principles and practices in its economics reporting. After the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike and the deregulation of the City of London, the BBC leadership saw that as anachronistic. They previously had labor correspondents and industry correspondents. When there was an economics story, the angle would be looking at its impact on wages and employment.
It’s important to say that a lot of the reporting by these labor and industrial correspondents was quite conservative. They weren’t necessarily left-wing figures, and the way they reported on the economy and explained its workings to people did tend to disadvantage the perspectives of organized workers and reflect the dominant assumptions of business and the government, even in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, there was a very marked shift away from that type of reporting. Those who used to report on the world of work and the trade unions basically disappeared. They were either summarily dismissed or moved into politics reporting. The new kids on the block were all economics or business correspondents.
When Birt came in, he brought in his old friend from the Times, the monetarist Peter Jay, who I mentioned earlier, to become the BBC’s first economics editor. Over time in the 1990s, you saw the emergence of these guys who were doing a lot of business programming at the BBC. It was also becoming more popular on Channel 4 and in the press, because there was a lot of money in advertising if you had that kind of content. This was changing the broader industry and the BBC doubled down on that.
Eventually it merged its economics and business reporting into one giant organization called the business and economics unit. That was operating with Robert Peston at the forefront at the time of the 2008 financial crisis. There were certain embedded ideas in how they understood the economy. First of all, there was no sense of any conflict in the economy between the interests of workers and employers, for example. Secondly, there was no sense that when we think about the economy, we have to think about the impact it has in terms of the public good.
Instead, you had a view of the economy as something that must be managed in a technocratic fashion. Figures like Peter Jay and Evan Davis, coming out of Oxford with a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics background, started to dominate. Alongside them were business reporters who wanted to develop a populist vision of Britain as a nation of shareholders. This way of thinking ended up conflating business with the economy.
By the time of the financial crisis, those were the voices that the editors wanted on air to explain to people what had happened with the financial system and the process leading up to it. That was particularly important when it came to the reporting of austerity.
A lot of work has been done looking at the BBC’s reporting on the policy response to the crisis and the way that the Conservative government ended up transferring the costs onto the most vulnerable people in society. In my view, the way that was explained by the BBC laid the groundwork for the political assault that was launched by the David Cameron–George Osborne government from 2010 onward.
What impact did the policies and appointments of the Conservative government have on the BBC in the years after 2010?
In 2010, when you had the arrival of the Conservative government and the New Labour period firmly coming to an end with the departure of Gordon Brown, they tried to draw the BBC into the politics of austerity. There was a harsh license-fee deal imposed on the BBC that year, in the context of the so-called comprehensive spending review, which was the initiative that gave rise to austerity.
The license fee was frozen, and George Osborne wanted to impose a whole series of other costs on the BBC, including the cost of free television licenses for people over seventy-five years old, which the government itself had been covering since Gordon Brown was chancellor of the exchequer. It was a way of cutting the BBC’s income in practice without doing so in theory. From 2014, the BBC had to cover the cost of the World Service, which had been funded directly by the Foreign Office up to that point, since it was understood to be an instrument of soft power or propaganda for the British state.
The Conservatives doubled down on that approach five years later when they returned to government, this time with a majority. Osborne imposed another very harsh funding deal that was effectively negotiated behind closed doors. This time, he imposed the cost of the over-seventy-fives license fee, which had been narrowly avoided in 2010. The result of all this has been a huge decrease in the BBC’s funding — somewhere in the region of 30 percent in real terms over the course of a decade, which is an extraordinary level of cuts for any organization to have to endure.
In combination with that financial squeeze, you had the appointment of conservative figures at the BBC who explicitly set out to shift its editorial culture. The people at the top of the BBC are government appointees, and in any case, they also have to negotiate with the government for the settlement of the license fee. If you reduce the license fee, that increases your power over the BBC as a government, because it means that the people at the top have to come back to you again to ask for more money.
It also increases the authority of your appointees, because if you’re imposing cuts on an organization, somebody has to drive through those cuts. It empowers that kind of managerial authority. When an organization has more funding, that means you can create new departments and recruit new people. Periods of austerity, on the other hand, tend to entrench and strengthen managerial control and create a more conservative culture.
If you look at some of the figures at the top of the BBC today, you’ve got Tim Davie, the current director-general, who was a Conservative activist in the 1990s and was formerly head of the BBC’s commercial wing. You’ve got the chairman, Richard Sharp, who’s a major donor to the Conservative Party and a funder of some very right-wing think tanks. You’ve got Robbie Gibb, who previously moved to Downing Street from the BBC to work as an adviser for Theresa May, and who has reportedly tried to block the appointment of liberal journalists to the BBC from his position on its board.
This rightward shift at the BBC is also borne out in content analysis by scholars, looking at the BBC’s general editorial culture, the balance of different voices that appear in programming, the sorts of experts that appear on television, and so on. Earlier this year, the Tories announced that the BBC’s license fee was going to remain frozen, and there has been a ratcheting up of political pressure in the so-called culture war. A lot of this has resonance in earlier periods of the BBC’s history, but I think it’s fair to say that the BBC now is probably more right-wing and more dysfunctional than it has been at any point in its history.
How did the BBC respond to challenges of the last decade, such as the Scottish independence movement and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and what did we learn from that experience about its current editorial and organizational culture?
With my research, I was trying to think about the structures at the BBC that give rise to the content it produces. There’s a lot of work in media sociology looking at how the BBC reports and understands issues. We know a lot about how the BBC reports, but I was interested in the question of why?
The story I tell in the book, based on other people’s research as well as my own, shows that the BBC has a distinctive relationship to officialdom and the state that we have already discussed. It is tied to formal politics and to Downing Street via appointments and its funding model.
On top of that, you have the social background of the people who populate the BBC. Its top executives are paid extraordinary amounts of money. Its senior journalists, who shape its day-to-day reporting and are its best-known figures, all tend to come from similar class backgrounds. Almost all of them attended Oxford, Cambridge, or another elite university. People who went to private school are massively overrepresented at the BBC.
Putting all of those things together, what would we expect that kind of institution to do? In terms of the Scottish referendum, the BBC is obviously tied in its culture and its structure to the British state. We’ve seen a degree of regionalization in BBC production, which has matched the political shift toward devolution in the nations, but it remains heavily orientated toward Westminster in terms of its understanding of issues.
When it comes to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, he was an outsider. He wasn’t well known to the BBC. He had been involved in left-wing activism rather than the usual Westminster politics. There were two main prongs to Corbyn’s political agenda. Number one was the anti-austerity movement, which was a response to the Conservative policy enacted after 2010, combined with a growing opposition to neoliberalism and an awareness on the broad left that we can understand New Labour and Thatcher as having shared a particular political agenda.
The second prong, even more significantly perhaps, was anti-imperialism and internationalism. Those two elements clashed profoundly with the dominant culture at the BBC, in terms of its orientation toward officialdom, its extensive relationship with the British state (including the secret state), and the elite circles in which BBC journalists are embedded.
Corbyn was an outsider, and his politics were anathema to the BBC as it was in 2015 — even though in the 1970s, most people at the top of the BBC would have taken for granted the sort of policy positions that were being advocated by Corbyn and his followers.
Is there a model of public service broadcasting around which the Left can organize today?
There are profound problems with the BBC, so the question is, how should the left orientate itself toward that? Traditionally, the liberal left has tended to shy away from criticism of the BBC on the basis that this would encourage the BBC’s enemies — the Rupert Murdochs of this world. But if you don’t offer any kind of critique, you can’t really offer an alternative vision that can address some of the problems.
Take the license fee. I’ve called for its replacement with a digital license fee, which wouldn’t be a flat tax, so we could address the problems with it falling disproportionately on low-income households. You could have it as a household levy or a public broadcasting tax. I favor a digital license fee, for symbolic reasons as much as anything.
The original license fee wasn’t supposed to be a fee for accessing BBC services. It was a fee for having television- or radio-receiving equipment. In my view, it should be a symbolic claim on a shared resource. In the case of broadcasting, the shared resource was the so-called airways. In this case, I think it has to be a shared democratic claim on our digital space.
We are at a profound juncture, where we are seeing the emergence of extraordinarily powerful corporations, mainly US multinationals, with extraordinary powers of surveillance and control over our communicative system. The Left needs to be thinking about what the political response to that should be, and the left-wing position on the BBC must be considered in that context.
Let’s start off by thinking about the BBC as part of a broad system of digital communications and cultural production. Think about how that could be organized and how it could be funded. One of the key questions is around the idea of a subscription model, which basically seems to be what the government is advocating. Part of the problem is that the Left and the BBC itself have fallen into the trap of thinking about the license fee as a kind of compulsory subscription.
We should be moving away from that and thinking about it as a democratic claim. That brings us to questions of governance and political accountability. The central problem with the BBC is its relationship to the British state and the broader culture and institutions around that state in London — the powerful institutions in British society. If we want a genuinely independent and representative organization, then we need to break up that London-based managerial culture. We need a devolved platform that is democratically accountable and far more participatory.
The key thing when it comes to subscription is that public media has to be universal, because the underlying principle of public-service broadcasting was that everybody should have access to shared political, informational, and cultural resources in order to facilitate full participation in society. That’s something that the Left should be arguing for, and it’s something that liberals should share, because there’s nothing particularly radical about it.
Part of the problem with having to make these arguments about the BBC is that it feels so far removed from the BBC as we know it today, and particularly as the Left has experienced it in the last decade. I completely understand that. The BBC is fundamentally broken, but that’s why I think it needs to be fundamentally fixed. You should start by asking what kind of institutions we want, and then think about how we get there.
To me, if you’ve got an existing public infrastructure, which has history and resources and capacities, then you can take what’s good from that. But you have to make reality-based political demands that aren’t starry-eyed in the way that people often are about the BBC, thinking about the BBC as it actually exists, and trying to identify the problems with the institution so that we can think about building something different.
We have to see our attitude to the BBC as part of a much broader political response to the rise of big tech, and also to problems with politics. It doesn’t have to be merely a national question. The BBC pioneered public-service broadcasting and was emulated in many countries around the world.
Ultimately, I would like to see a network of public media organizations and platforms which could share resources, programming, and staff, building up a much more international community and a system of cultural exchange, which is arguably one of the good elements of the tech platforms — but without some of the very serious regressive tendencies that you have on these private platforms.