speri.comment: the political economy blog

Debating the BBC

We should be boosting the corporation’s role in public life, not cutting it

Luke Temple, Research Associate, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield

Luke TempleAs the new Conservative government finds its feet it has made it clear it wishes to ‘sort out the BBC’.  If reported comments from the most hard-line and anti-BBC Conservative MPs are to be believed, some might even be planning to ‘go to war with it’, as painfully predictable as such political rhetoric is.

The Coalition government already froze the Licence Fee from 2010 for six years, amounting to a funding cut in real terms of 16%.  Now the idea of decriminalising non-payment is back on the agenda, a move the corporation believes could cost it up to £200 million a year.  The new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, has also been calling for a dramatic rethink on how the broadcaster is financed for over a decade. One approach could be a government grant, although in the age of austerity this seems quite unlikely – indeed, last year the BBC World Service was moved off such a grant and on to the Licence Fee.  Another approach could seek to bring in more revenue through advertising, although the Trade Union of Journalists complains that this devalues the brand and threatens the impartiality of the service.

In between these options are numerous different tax choices as practised across Europe: from rolling it into council tax, taking it from income tax or simply introducing a whole new broadcasting tax.  But all these options lack appeal to a tax-adverse government.

Whatever route is eventually taken, it appears that the BBC faces cuts.  In response, its Director-General has said, in a typically BBC-like way, that he expects a ‘lively and robust debate about the future of the BBC and its role in public life’.  If this comes about, it should consider the boost that the BBC gives to the quality of our democracy.

A healthy democracy needs many obvious things, such as a fair voting system and protection of civil rights.  However, most democratic theorists over the last half century also argue that the system benefits from an informed citizenry.  A free press is generally seen as a way to achieve this, with newspapers traditionally the biggest players in this role.  But this misses out an important part of the story: a free press does little to guarantee the quality of information.

And where better to look at and question this relationship than during a general election? Here, newspapers still remain at the forefront of political debate.  It is admittedly easy to overstate their influence; yet, at the same time, it isn’t the end of the story to point to falling sales and then brush them aside.  Newspapers don’t have to be bought to be read; this is the case in cafes, offices, waiting rooms, pubs and libraries, of course, but also applies online.   For example, The MailOnline pulls in an estimated 53 million unique visitors a month.

Unsurprisingly, the News Media Association (the voice of national, regional and local news-brands), strongly asserts its democratic role:

A free press is fundamental to a democratic society.  It seeks out and circulates news, information, ideas, comment and opinion and holds those in authority to account … It is the public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler.

Newspapers have special VAT-free status in the UK, with the tax, before it was abolished, being rightly criticised as a ‘tax on knowledge’.  If we are to take the idea of an informed citizenry seriously, the knowledge circulated by a free press as a ‘watchdog’ and ‘educator’ should be presented fairly: the journalists’ code of conduct requires that they strive to ensure that the information they disseminate is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair, with a clear differentiation between fact and opinion.

However, during the recent election campaign the Media Standards Trust found that 95% of The Sun’s leader columns were anti-Labour.  On Election Day itself the Daily Mail provided information on exactly how its readers could vote tactically in their area to keep ‘Red Ed’ out.  At the other end of the spectrum, The Mirror was a major offender for writing a hugely disproportionate number of anti-Conservative leader articles.  If newspapers took their role in democracy seriously, they would recognise that they were not being honest, accurate or fair.

In general, the right-wing leanings of the UK press are well known.  Bart Cammaearts, now a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics but formerly a spokesperson for the then Belgian vice-prime minister, points out that during the 2015 election the UK media acted overall as an ‘uncritical loudspeaker’ for the Conservative campaign; he argues, in fact, that some media behaviour during the election was ‘blatantly anti-democratic’.  This argument has merit.  If information in the free press is so heavily distorted, it can disrupt the process of a fair election.  Party spending on political campaigns in the UK is closely scrutinised by the Electoral Commission to ensure fairness.  Yet newspaper endorsements and biased ‘reporting’ provide publicity and politicised advertising for the parties which would otherwise cost them millions.

In comparison, the BBC has impartiality at its core: editorial guidelines forbid it from expressing an opinion on current affairs or matters of public policy.  When these guidelines are broken, there are regulations in place to hold people to account.  Of course, the impartiality of the BBC is frequently questioned – as it should be.  As a result, throughout the election campaign it faced charges from the right of being pro-Labour, whilst left-wing supporters complained it was pro-Conservative.  For the BBC’s election coverage to annoy both the left and the right perhaps suggests that, as regards impartiality, it’s actually doing pretty well.

In sum, whilst the TV Licence Fee system is perhaps a messy compromise, we should remember that many democratic solutions are exactly that.  It tries to keeps the broadcaster one step removed both from commercial interests and government interference (more so than a direct grant, at least).  When we look at the democratic failings of a large part of our free press, it becomes clear that, whatever funding ideas are thrown up by the new Conservative government, we should be boosting the future role the BBC plays in public life, not going to war with it as an organisation.

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