The debate about the future of the BBC is underway.
There are many issues that run through it – how to pay for the BBC, how well it uses the money – though the most fundamental question is about its purpose.
Since the advent of digital broadcasting and content streamed over the internet, spectrum is no longer the scarce resource that it was when the BBC was created. The costs of entry to the market have fallen. There is a lot more for us as viewers and listeners to watch and listen to. As Culture Secretary John Whittingdale puts it in the foreword to the Green Paper that started the Charter Review, “What should the BBC be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been before?”[i]
The BBC Trust, in its initial response, makes a suggestion – a ‘proposed set of public purposes’ for the BBC – headlined by “providing news and information to help people understand the world around them”. This is canny; if public service broadcasting has any irreducible core, then it must presumably be this. From Reith onwards, the BBC and others have consistently spoken about public service broadcasting in these terms.
However, disregarding what the BBC provides, do people lack for news and information about the world around them? There are plenty of websites that are free to access. They provide a range of perspectives. Many of them feature audio and video. Commercial broadcasters supply news and information too. Even if viewer demand didn’t compel them to, regulation could require it, and indeed already does for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The Culture Secretary’s question isn’t so easy to answer.
This paper argues that the solution is to introduce greater pluralism into the BBC itself and break the hold of a single view of how to do public service broadcasting with the funding provided by the licence fee.
- The ‘public purposes’ that underpin the role of the BBC in the wider market have a high level of popular support.
- But, because the BBC dominates how those purposes have been fulfilled in our experience, we are unlikely to be effective judges of whether the BBC is good at living up to its mission of public service broadcasting. It has a dominant market position and remains the exclusive recipient of licence fee funding. The game is rigged in its favour.
- Nevertheless, accusations of political bias, made by all sides, persist. Those using the BBC are on the whole older and richer than the base of licence fee payers. And audience research suggests that connecting to younger and minority audiences is an ongoing challenge, with the BBC’s performance getting worse rather than better.
- The solution is to introduce greater pluralism into the BBC, break the hold of a single view of how to do public service broadcasting with the funding provided by the licence fee.
- For example, licence fee funding should be used to commission out BBC Two and Radio 2. This will create alternative interpretations of how to do public service broadcasting; and a real life experiment in whether those alternatives are higher quality, lower cost, more innovative or can reach a larger or different audience.