Jean Seaton explains the mortal threat to the BBC and public service broadcasting being planned by the Tories, and why it must be stopped
The Lionesses’ glorious, jolly, sweater-waving victory could only be cheered on by vast audiences because it was broadcast free to air by public service broadcasters. And, similarly, the Commonwealth Games were a tremendous and reinvigorated success for the BBC. They brought ‘us’ together in fun (a refreshing novelty), helped mend our tattered international image, put Birmingham centre stage, and could only inspire the more disadvantaged parts of our, and indeed international, society because, as one disabled athlete pointed out, “everyone could see them”. Public service broadcasting, with the BBC at the heart of it, really does work magic.
Yet the BBC, Channel 4, impartial news on Sky, ITN, and the role of the regulator Ofcom – the whole delicate ecology of public service entertainment, news and information which has kept us rooted in a common reality – is under a ferocious, planned, successful hydra-headed attack. There is a new white paper, rushed out before the circus of the leadership election, which aims to destroy the very fabric of public service communication. Repeated, partisan, uninhibited, flagrantly inaccurate accusations about the BBC and C4 – and that is just the secretary of state – have been normalised. The commercially self-interested Murdoch and Mail press, with added ideological bile, amplify and hunt the public service broadcasters day in, day out.
You might have thought that after Covid, when audiences for the BBC soared, and during a real-time international war in Ukraine, when dis-, mis- and malinformation are deliberately targeted at undermining our values, institutions and trust in the political process, that any sane government would want some really creative communicators in the public interest to find ways of accurately informing us. But instead of promoting this shared resource, our government is out to destroy it, as we face an economic and political crisis amid high inflation and the burden of the fallout from Brexit.
Balanced and accurate news and information across output, and sometimes in comedy shows, keeps societies and their publics tethered to some shared vision of what is wrong. Local UK content airs UK problems, holds UK power to account and makes the UK economy grow. Without some common set of agreements about problems, there can be no political solutions.
America discarded impartial news and information in 1987, when Ronald Reagan scrapped the ‘fairness doctrine’ that had obliged broadcasters to be ‘fair and balanced’ in matters of information and politics.
BBC funds have already been cut by 30% since 2010. These will be cut by another searing 20% by 2027. This is a considered attempt to dismember the corporation. But there is more. By proposing to sell C4, despite there being no economic or industrial argument to support doing so, it wants to attack another prop of the successful public service communication ecology. And of course, by a surreptitious and staggeringly dangerous interference and undermining of the rules and protocols that keep the institutions protected from political interference, it has sought to undermine the independence of all these industries. Meanwhile, the BBC is being ‘regulated’ to help foreign competition, as Ofcom is forced to ‘balance’ between the interests of the British public and those of the corporation’s, mainly US-owned, competitors.
This is an extreme example of a non-tariff barrier that systematically disadvantages a significant domestic player against foreign competitors. Perhaps when we finally ‘take back control’ and ‘make Britain great again’, we can remedy this egregious accident? Long-established legal constraints about the independence of public companies have been broken by the secretary of state demanding changes in the C4 annual report. The Government has broken the rules of public appointments procedures to get the chair of Ofcom it wanted by, behind the scenes, changing the public service obligations of Ofcom policies and so throttling fairness and impartiality – by attack, attack, wearying attack.
None of this is normal. But be clear: it is planned. A blog by Dominic Cummings in 2004 said: “There are three structural things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications… 1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent/talk radio shows/bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.” This has nearly all come to pass. Of course, all of the campaigns against the BBC are well funded. So, there is a strategy, and it is working.
It is part of the petty dictator’s tool kit and it is successful. Call people you don’t like ‘an elite’. Make institutions into ‘the enemy of the people’; hollow them out and frighten them, place your people into positions of power. Then institutions crumble from within. So far, the British system has shown some resilience. But the pressure is intense.
Then there is the Midas effect. We face a ghastly version of the mythic king’s touch in our public life. In the face of crises for which the answers are complex and need us to understand each other and pull together, the Midas strategy turns every issue into ‘politics’, never solves any issue, but rather transmutes it into a polarised political battle. Recklessly throwing any public good, politically complicated thing into this fire as a distraction. The BBC makes good front page attack material.
Just to remind us what is at stake: the public service broadcasters (PSBs – the BBC, ITV/STV, C4, C5, S4C) are, unlike most news and entertainment media, universally available and free at the point of use. They are a big part of everyone’s life in the UK, used by 99% of the public each week, but even more so for older and poorer people, especially those without pay TV and broadband. As the cost of living escalates catastrophically, more people will be dependent on them.
The UK’s ‘due impartiality’ broadcasting rules ensure that political debate in Britain is largely based on shared facts, helping us avoid the extreme divisions we’ve seen in the US and elsewhere. It is one of the main reasons why we have the lowest level of Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy in the developed world.
The British public trusts broadcast news far more than other news media. This is because the BBC and other PSBs make programmes about us, imbued with our mores and humour, and they make programmes that become worldwide successes. Largely thanks to commissioning by the PSBs, the UK is the world’s second-biggest exporter of TV programmes after the US, and the biggest exporter of TV formats, contributing significantly to the country’s high global soft power ranking.
Through the BBC World Service, the UK’s soft power is further reinforced, with a global weekly reach of 468 million and growing, outside the UK – more than any other international news service. This reflects its high trust level around the world. Because it provides impartial information to people in countries with little or no independent journalism, authoritarian governments actively harass it and seek to prevent their citizens from accessing it.
The PSBs have driven the growth of the UK’s world-class independent production sector and are at the heart of many of our successful wider creative industries. And this is spread throughout the UK – there is undoubtedly a company working in some way for BBC or C4 near you.
The left has historically been in favour of public service broadcasting and, indeed, the BBC. Of course, it has had rows with it. No longer. The BBC has certainly not been perfect: not about Brexit, when a kind of false equivalence trumped proper impartiality. But in a slightly self-indulgent way, the left largely and simplistically argues that somehow all news is ‘subjective’. It depends on how the news is made, and without journalists and editing we know nothing. The Media Reform Coalition wants to devolve and break up the BBC. There is a left-wing distrust of impartiality (which suggests it is just a mask for power). But Tom Mills – a very acute thinker who has argued that the BBC has never been ‘independent’ or indeed ‘impartial’; that it was, as it were, finally taken over in the 1980s (despite programme evidence to the contrary), understands full well that saving the BBC matters.
Actually, BBC local and regional needs to grow, not be diminished. There are news vacuums all over the UK. The BBC needs to be big enough to hold government to account (and power wherever it lies). It has one of the last reporting forces left standing and has reported fairly, bravely and ingeniously from Ukraine. As the union cracks asunder, we need the BBC as a balance against one-party rule in Scotland, Wales and England. In Northern Ireland, the BBC, braced after decades of tension, holds all sides to account in the tightest circumstances. To do this there needs to be a bigger BBC, reasonably and securely funded.
The British Broadcasting Challenge, We Own It, Voice of the Listener and Viewer and the IPPR are all trying, but we need a coalition of campaigning. If we lose the BBC, we will lose public interest broadcasting and what it could be in the future. You can reform the BBC. But we need to understand what we will lose if it goes.
Recently, Ali Fowle, fleeing Myanmar in danger of her life for her reporting, and Polina Ivanova, the FT reporter who had to leave her home in Russia at little notice because of the danger she was in, both appeared on an Orwell Panel. They spoke of the relief, the ease, the joy, really, of returning to the Britain, where you could report and where public service values – in their eyes – were uniquely still alive.
So, perhaps we need to focus on what matters right now to save what is precious.