Review: Patrick MullinsMatthew Ricketsonon public broadcasting

How To Scuttle A Public Broadcaster

The national public broadcaster is ‘smug, sanctimonious, naïve, guilt-ridden, wet, [and] pink,’ said one politician. It is ‘shamefully frivolous, vengeful, and partisan,’ said the prime minister. It ‘is a mortal enemy’ that should be ‘turned upside down’, said that prime minister’s advisor.

Funding cuts delivered to it by the government, said the broadcaster’s executives, meant there was only one inevitable outcome: ‘You will get less services, and less programs.’ Criticism of the cuts by opposition politicians was pronounced. ‘Slashing the funding of a beloved national treasure just because you don’t like the headlines of the 6 o’clock news is no way for a responsible government in a democracy to behave.’ The government’s response was unsympathetic and unrepentant: ‘They can learn to cut waste like any other business.’

Sound familiar?

To anyone in Australia, this should be. Over at least the past decade, an increasingly shrill chorus of voices, primarily those of Coalition politicians and journalists at commercial media outlets, led by News Corp Australia, has attacked the national public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in just these terms. Yet all these comments were directed at the British Broadcasting Corporation, primarily by conservative British politicians. Don’t think commercial media outlets have refrained from these attacks. Far from it, as we’ll discuss later.

What exactly is going on? Are the BBC and the ABC peas in the public broadcasting pod? Not really, though core elements of their culture and mission are common to both. Are the politics of the United Kingdom and Australia identical? Self-evidently not, though again there are shared systems of governance. No, what is striking, especially in reading The War Against the BBC, is just how similar the attacks on the BBC and the ABC have been, in tone, style and substance (or lack thereof). For that is the other striking thing: whatever the flaws of the two public broadcasters, they deserve more rigorous scrutiny than the litany of partisan, inflammatory, straw man-seeking and just plain wrong arguments that are routinely slung at them.

This year marks the centenary of the BBC and the ninetieth anniversary of the ABC. The BBC was the first public broadcaster in the world, remains the biggest and has probably been the most influential, in its approach to programming as well as the programs themselves. The ABC is only ten years younger but generations of its managers have looked enviously at the stability and scope of funding provided to the BBC by the license fee that is levied on all households with a television.

Not surprisingly, a new history of the Beeb has been published to coincide with its centenary. David Hendy’s The BBC: A People’s History mines a rich vein of former employees’ oral histories, private papers, and official records. It provides something of a ‘history from below’ for the broadcaster and illuminates how topics recur in debate over public broadcasting and how, over time, that debate has become unhinged from fact and serious deliberation.

Integral to setting the parameters of that debate were the three men who stood in a ‘slightly seedy rectangle’ of London streets in December 1922, searching for office space for the newly-established BBC. Shaped by despondency from the horrors of the Great War and spurred to nurture from these ashes a new world, Cecil Lewis, John Reith, and Arthur Burrows exerted significant influence on what they rather grandly dubbed the ‘enterprise’. They set out what a public service broadcaster could do, how it could do it, and how it would accommodate and compromise in the face of competing obligations and tensions.

The jumble of commercial radio stations broadcasting in the United States at the time proved salutary to the British Post Office, which came to believe that a ‘measure of government direction’ was required for the development of radio broadcasting in the UK. Thus the decision – thrashed out between the Post Office, government, and radio manufacturers – that there should be an organised service, initially named the British Broadcasting Company, that it would broadcast music and educational talks, and that it would be funded not by advertising but by royalties from radio sales and a portion of licence fees levied each year on owners of receivers.

This was the extent of the direction extended to Lewis, Reith, and Burrows. By the time they began looking for an office, in December 1922, there were no ‘sealed orders’ to open and dutifully follow. They, along with the men and women they gathered, Hendy writes, did something ‘utterly new and untried’: ‘It was a new industry, a new institution, a new way of life, a new art form, even’.

Exhilaration co-existed with terror at messing it up. Lewis likened running the BBC to being given a tiger that he and colleagues were obliged to ride down Piccadilly. In their excitement and need to fill the static, staff across the stations that sprung up throughout Britain offered a frenzied assortment of programs, often improvised or unrehearsed, ranging from musicians doodling on pianos to ad-hoc adaptations of Walter Scott novels. A more ordered and settled approach came as the circle of those attracted to BBC microphones expanded. For fear of the error that might endanger the public’s trust, words that had been ad-libbed became scripted; for fear of the inaudible that might endanger the public’s goodwill, voices that were natural were trained. An air of amateurism remained for some time yet: Hendy cites the performance given by a Shakespearean actor who decided he should ‘really let himself rip’ for the benefit of his two million-plus listeners. At a producer’s alarmed behest, two effects boys had to grab the man’s sleeves and pull him from the microphone to ‘prevent him blasting the whole place’.

No critic could deny the power of the results. A clerk in a provincial city declared BBC programmes ‘a real magic carpet’ that took him from the football field to the rowing meet to places he had never travelled. Concert organisers and theatrical companies, initially fearful no one would pay to come to a show they could hear cheaply from the comfort of their homes, realised that BBC broadcasts actually expanded the number of people who might be willing to even consider coming to those shows. The monarchy took longer to come around, but King George V’s broadcast of a Christmas message, in 1932, inaugurated a tradition that endures to this day, binding as one the royal family and the families listening: ‘the nation as family’, as one contemporaneous observer put it.

But amid all this were the tiger’s teeth: the tensions aroused by broadcasting’s appeal and the possibility of harnessing it. In May 1925, coal miners in Britain decided to strike rather than accept drastic wage reductions. As 1.75 million workers in related industries joined them in solidarity, Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Party government declared a state of emergency. With commercial press outlets mostly shut down, the BBC took on an unprecedented role, broadcasting news bulletins throughout the day and across the country. Its power to determine how the strike was understood, and who was in the right, quickly became apparent to the government; nearly simultaneously, it became apparent to the BBC that the government might commandeer that power. Then-chancellor of the exchequer Winston Churchill was foremost in this view, peremptorily chomping at suggestions that the BBC was independent: ‘Absolutely wrong!’ Apprehensive that the rest of the government might come to this view, managing director Reith issued a quisling assurance: ‘Assuming the BBC is for the people, and that the Government is for the people, it follows that the BBC must be for the Government in this crisis, too.’ Thus the agreement to lend the airwaves to Baldwin to inveigle against the strikers, but not to a critical opposition leader Ramsay MacDonald, nor to a peace-loving Archbishop of Canterbury; thus Reith’s input in drafts of Baldwin’s speech; thus internal directives to staff that the BBC should evince ‘a certain natural bias toward the Government side’.

Reith agreed later there had been ‘embarrassing’ accommodations but claimed that these had been a price worth paying to avoid a full government takeover. It was the start of an ineluctable tension in how governments and the public broadcaster interacted with and regarded one another: ‘As Reith’s behaviour during the strike had demonstrated,’ Hendy writes, ‘the mere threat of a takeover had been “a powerful inducement for compliance”’. Such threats would not even need to go so far as a takeover to induce that compliance; nor would threats even be wholly necessary to persuade staff in the BBC to play it safe. In the 1930s, the willingness to deal with contentious issues withered thanks to one executive’s willingness to refer scripts to government and to take to heart the aversion of government departments to deal ‘with the actual conditions’ of issues such as unemployment.

In 1925, at least, there was a powerful reason for the BBC’s accommodations: pending plans to reconstitute it as a corporation, funded by a guaranteed portion of the licence fee, operating within the terms of a ten-year Royal Charter, managed by a Director-General, and governed by a board. In the the absence of a similar goal and a more developed sense of independence, the BBC made a belated atonement three decades later. In 1956, as an agitated and drugged-up Conservative Party prime minister Anthony Eden hatched plans to invade Egypt for its nationalisation of the Suez Canal, functionaries in his government took the BBC to task for its unwillingness to lend uncritical support. They talked of World War II-like circumstances and a need for unity. The BBC’s refusal to fall in line prompted 10 Downing Street to draw up a legal instrument for a full takeover, but still the BBC remained defiant. It allowed opposition leader Hugh Gaitskill to broadcast a fulsome criticism of what proved to be Eden’s humiliating misadventure. ‘The country was divided,’ recalled one BBC executive, ‘and our job, our principles, made us give a voice – a very full one – to those who opposed this venture [in Suez] altogether.’

By this time, the BBC’s aura and influence was at its zenith. World War II had been a galvanising experience. BBC news coverage was a vital lifeline for domestic and international audiences, whether Allied troops in free Europe or clandestine listeners in occupied territory, and acknowledgement of its work afterward was widespread. When Paris was liberated, new French broadcaster Radiodiffusion Française paid tribute: ‘The BBC was a torch in the darkness.’ This reputation allowed the BBC to thereafter become an arm of British soft power, a model of public broadcasting, and an exporter of so many programs for overseas consumption that one Canadian public broadcasting executive dubbed it a ‘form of imperialism’. It was the war experience too that inculcated an esprit de corps of professionalism and initiative which surfaced in the BBC’s response to the Suez crisis.

But pockets of disdain for the BBC remained, especially within the Conservative Party. Churchill never moderated his disdain for it, and as prime minister from 1951–55 made no secret of his belief that it was ‘run by reds’. Margaret Thatcher almost certainly agreed. She was simultaneously as fond of Yes, Minister as she was of her husband’s dinner table diatribes against the ‘British Bastard Corporation’. Her time in government, 1979–90, was marked by a succession of hostile appointments to the BBC board as well as a series of confected scandals, jingoistic attacks, and unremitting pressure. The BBC was ‘beaten up, pushed and shoved and pummelled for a very long time, relentlessly, week after week, month after month,’ one senior news editor said. There was never any reprieve. ‘By God,’ said one editor, ‘they [politicians] gunned for years afterwards.’

What is notable, here, is that the Conservative Party’s antipathy for the BBC has never been mirrored by Labour Party support for the broadcaster. Hendy suggests that the two have ‘an uneasy relationship’ partly prompted by Labour’s disappointment that the BBC is not a combative counterweight to the more rabid and right-wing commercial press. But the usual tension between government and public broadcaster is also a contributor. In 2003, a BBC reporter’s claim that Tony Blair’s Labour government had ‘sexed up’ a dossier about Iraqi weapon systems prompted that government to pile on and demand an apology. Then, when the source for that claim, Dr David Kelly, committed suicide, the government called an inquiry that dismissed the claim as unfounded and incorrectly damned the BBC for failing to follow editorial processes. In the short term, the inquiry spurred the departure of the BBC chair and director-general, but in the long-run it has become clear that the inquiry was mistaken, that the original claim was broadly true, and that the Blair government’s response was but a scoop of mud, flung in order to distract from the revelation it had launched a war on false pretences. The Blair government’s cruel venality, and the BBC’s supine grovelling and accommodations, are at twenty year’s distance only ever more embarrassing.

So too is the enduring hostility from commercial media rivals. Since the Thatcher years, the right-wing press in the UK has attacked the BBC in a manner that is predictable, hypocritical, and corrupt. As Hendy writes, lightly but seriously, ‘The London Evening Standard would go on about the BBC’s “remorseless mediocrity”. The Spectator would grumble about it being anti-British. The Daily Mail kept referring to the Corporation as “Biased, Bankrupt, Corrupt”. The Sun would shamelessly accuse it of being “boring” one day and “sleazy” the next.’

In recent years, Hendy writes, attacks on the BBC have been pronounced: ‘more persistent, more organised, more vitriolic – and more destructive.’ Wondering whether an organised fightback might yet emerge, he writes of his hope that the hundredth anniversary of the BBC’s founding might be a ‘call to arms’: ‘A simple reminder that we sometimes never know just how much we need or want something until it is gone.’

The stirrings of such a fightback may be found in Patrick Barwise and Peter York’s The War against the BBC (2020). As its title suggests, theirs is a book that takes for granted the relevance and worth of the BBC, but not its future. The BBC is ‘facing an unprecedented, and potentially lethal, combination of forces’, they write. Like Hendy, they believe that if those forces are allowed to prevail then the outcome will be irrevocable; but they are certainly more alarmed than Hendy about the possibility: ‘The BBC could be destroyed’.

Preventing this prompts their investigation and, indeed, evisceration of the criticism of the BBC. Barwise and York keep their tone measured but they are clearly appalled by the sloppy nature and bad faith of those attacks, which are only ever more egregious when considered closely. (As if to show the BBC’s critics how criticism should be done, Barwise and York fortify their 292-page text with five appendices and 1,018 footnotes that add another 195 pages to the book. )

Take the Daily Mail’s 2015 claim that the BBC spent less than half its cash on programmes, and that much of its budget was taken up paying for ‘ostentatious buildings, middle-managers, and services such as human resources and marketing’. Complete with a table of other eye-catching items of expenditure – £230,000 on tea, £48,000 on sofas, £120 on cupcakes, £9194 on booze – the column inches the paper devoted to this supposed largesse would have seen the Uncle Vernon Dursleys of this world harrumphing in agreement with the drastic action that Tory MPs obligingly called for. And yet, as Barwise and York painstakingly lay out, the Daily Mail was wrong on nearly every front and in every way. The BBC spent 93 per cent of its licence revenue on programmes, not ‘less than half’. It had not diverted money from the licence fee to subsidise its commercial activities – it had received a £174m return on those activities. The BBC was also vastly more efficient than its peers in the media, public, and non-profit sectors. Barwise and York refrain from wondering about expense accounts for alcohol at the Daily Mail, but they do allow a dry observation that it is impossible to run a broadcaster, let alone a newspaper, without a building.

They are similarly scathing of the many widespread accusations of left-wing bias, citing study after study and survey after survey to show that the BBC is widely regarded as politically neutral or balanced. In addition to being the most trusted news source in Britain by a country mile, the newspapers and TV channels that snap at its heels and shout about bias are hardly trusted at all. The Mail – one of Britain’s two top-selling newspapers – was rated, Barwise and York report, as the top source of impartial news by just 1 per cent of respondents in a 2019 survey. The BBC was rated top by 44 per cent, a finding which strongly suggests that the relentless barrages of criticism against the BBC have largely failed to shift public opinion.

Public opinion is rarely sought or cited by newspaper critics of the BBC but Barwise and York do and it is telling. A market research firm was commissioned by the BBC in 2014 to find out what people, ranging from those happy to pay the licence fee to those who resented it deeply, thought if they were deprived of BBC services for nine days. The result was clear-cut. More than two thirds of those who would like to be rid of the licence fee changed their minds about its value. Among the reasons they gave were: that they missed the BBC much more than they had expected; that it had unique content and services they could not get elsewhere, and that they now appreciated its quality especially when compared to the alternatives.

But if the public has been so far immovable then so too are the BBC’s critics. The absence or existence of facts is irrelevant to the newspapers and television channels that lead on Mondays with confected scandals, on Tuesdays with tub-thumping outrage, on Wednesdays with outrageous demands, on Thursdays with dire threats, and on Fridays with denunciations. Debunking their talking points might seem pointless but charting how they relentlessly grow and evolve from one another is crucial to understanding the BBC’s present predicament.

For some time now, politicians have been aware that the BBC can be best targeted through attacks on its funding mechanism, the licence fee. This yearly £159 fee is decried by the right-wing newspapers, thinktanks, and online agitators whose voices blare insistently in Barwise and York’s book for its regressiveness (that is, all households pay the same fee, regardless of income or the number of people), its compulsory nature (even if the home does not use the BBC, they pay it), and – more spuriously – the costs of collecting it. ‘Axe the TV tax!’ runs the attack from one thinktank. ‘Life could be so much better without the BBC’s TV Licence Gestapo,’ says online agitators Ban the BBC.

Barwise and York give these arguments short shrift. While the fee is regressive, when conceived as the price for a good or service it is no different to any other good or service that one pays for: you don’t get a discount at the grocery store because your income is low. Criticism of the compulsory nature of the fee is compelling in the abstract but unmoored from reality: 99 per cent of homes in the UK consume at least some BBC services every week: ‘The suggestion that a significant number do not use any of these services in the course of a whole year is nonsense.’

The licence fee has nonetheless become the avenue for so many attacks on the BBC because it has been linked with accusations of profligacy and entitlement. That link was forged by the Blair Labour government’s short-sighted decision, in 2000, to abolish the fee for households with one or more members aged over 75. The BBC did not have to cover the £300m per year in foregone revenue that this would cost; instead, the government agreed to reimburse the BBC out of general revenue. To no one’s surprise, that agreement proved ephemeral. The election of the Cameron-led Conservative Party in 2010 saw that government begin to wriggle out of the agreement, which it succeeded in doing in 2019. From then on, the concession – now costing £745m per year, or a fifth of the BBC’s yearly revenue – was the BBC’s to shoulder. The government washed its hands. It declared that whether to reduce services or reinstate the fee, and thereby anger pensioners the length and breadth of Britain, was a decision for the broadcaster to make.

The BBC’s compromise, of restricting the concession to low-income households, left it in an invidious position. People aged 75 and over were outraged; prime minister Boris Johnson told the BBC to just ‘cough up’ the funds; critics up and down the spectrum of rancid right-wing opinion carped groundlessly that the concession could be easily made absolute by reducing salaries, winnowing managerial staff, and being frugal. All this was prelude to the announcement by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries in January this year – after Barwise and York’s book was published – that the licence fee arrangement in operation until 2027 would be the last of its kind. ‘The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences, and bailiffs knocking on doors,’ she tweeted po-faced, ‘are over.’ For Barwise, at least, this has been vindication of the alarm that he and York raised. ‘Some people thought the title [of our book] a bit over the top,’ he wrote, after Dorries’s announcement. ‘No one says that now.’

What will replace the licence fee is an open question. Barwise and York explore the various models put forward by the BBC’s critics and find all wanting. Advertising is a no-go: commercial media will not stand for it; it would incentivise the BBC to attend to advertiser needs over viewers’; and audiences everywhere have an immense dislike for it. A subscription-based business model – the most oft-cited replacement – would mean a fundamental change in the BBC. It would no longer be a universal service. It would have much less revenue to work with and its output would be immensely diminished. The desire to attract subscribers would see it produce programming predicated on that attraction. Competing media organisations would be dramatically affected. An earmarked tax might be better, but there is little doubt that the BBC’s critics would seize on any mechanism, no matter what, to be critical. ‘BBC licence fee shock: bizarre new fee system could see YOU paying more,’ ran the Daily Express headline in 2020, in response to a report canvassing these and other alternatives.

As of 2022, the British public is paying 30 per cent less for the BBC than it was in 2010, thanks to successive freezes to the rate of the licence fee and the over-75 concession. And while aggravated by the presence of video-on-demand rivals, increasing costs for content production and distribution, attacks on its impartiality, and constraints on its ability to innovate and compete, that funding shortfall has put the BBC in the most perilous position it has yet faced. What will come of it in 2027, when the licence fee arrangement comes to an end, is now anyone’s guess. Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries might be gone, but new prime minister Rishi Sunak has given no sign that he is well-disposed toward the BBC. If he is anything like his predecessors, though, he will surely ape Margaret Thatcher, and regard the BBC as an ‘enemy vested interest’, to be ‘knocked down to size’ with reviews and inquiries into everything from journalistic standards to its operations to its funding.

Under the most recent Liberal-National Party government, the ABC might be said to have been on a similar trajectory. A decade of funding cuts, attacks on its impartiality, abuse of the appointments process for its board and chair, and hostility from commercial media, left the ABC reeling. If the past is anything to go by, the future should be brighter under the Labor government: as we show in our book, Who Needs The ABC? Labor governments tend to increase funding for the ABC, not cut it; nor are they as willing to denounce its impartiality. There will undoubtedly be tension, but Labor’s announced willingness to abide by formal processes for appointments, to extend the ABC’s funding term from three years to five, and to restore a portion of money lost to cuts instituted by the Morrison government, are a welcome change.

And yet there are reasons to remain concerned. The Liberal and National parties show no sign that they esteem the ABC any more than they did before losing office, and the broadcaster is still grappling with funding cuts that leave it doing more than it ever has with less money, in real terms, than it has had at any point since 1983.

Having debunked every attack and criticism they can think of, Barwise and York argue that safeguarding the BBC requires a political will that can only be developed by public involvement – challenging the myths and lies, drawing attention to the strengths and range of what it does, and creating enough noise that political parties have to listen. ‘If we want to save it,’ they write, ‘we can.’ The same opportunity exists here in Australia. The ABC may not anymore be in the immediate peril that the BBC is, but the danger remains broadly the same. If we want to save the ABC from that danger, then taking it for granted will no longer be an option.