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What is the role of the BBC in 2020?

In 2022, the BBC will mark the centenary of its founding. Although it didn’t actually become a public service corporation until 1926, I’m fairly certain there will be plenty of upbeat programming released to commemorate its historic beginning. People who love the BBC will get teary and nostalgic, those who love to bash it will say it’s self-congratulatory and smug; a good time for all, essentially. Celebration plans have been in the works for years already.

But 2022 will be a big year for the BBC in another, less visible, way. The corporation is licensed as a public broadcaster via a Royal Charter, the terms of which are renegotiated with the government every 10 years. The current agreement doesn’t run out until 2027, but at the five year point in 2022, discussions with ministers will begin about its key funding mechanism, the licence fee. Those talks will determine what and how the public contributes financially to the BBC in the future. And judging by the current widespread antipathy towards the BBC from the political establishment, it’s likely that the corporation will not be able to count on much goodwill at those meetings. That’s why the current Director General, Lord Tony Hall, has just announced his resignation — he’s clearing the way for a new leader to tackle this process, free from the baggage of the past few months and years.

Last year’s general election campaign, which ended with a landslide victory for the Conservatives, accelerated a disintegration in the narrative around the BBC that had been happening slowly for quite some time now. For decades, the Conservative Party has been of the belief that the BBC sucks up too much public money and inhibits the operation of a free media market in the UK.

Private files finally made public in 2014 revealed that Margaret Thatcher had, during her tenure, tried to use an extensive financial review process to “knock the BBC down to size,” believing it to be “biased and irresponsible.” Her successors have done their best to carry on this work, from former Chancellor George Osborne forcing the BBC to take on the multi-million pound responsibility for free TV licences for over-75s to current PM Boris Johnson now considering the possibility of decriminalising non payment of the licence fee  — which would be a de facto funding cut, since without the threat of criminal proceedings it is widely believed that far more people would avoid paying. Now, following the last election, Johnson is in power with a substantial Conservative majority. It naturally follows that he’ll pursue this downsizing agenda while he has the chance. He indicated as such during his campaign.

Nothing happens quickly with the BBC, but speaking to people who both create and use the corporation’s services, it does feel like opinion has rapidly shifted in the direction that there is, indeed, a major crisis in the offing. My sense is that it’s largely made up of four different overlapping problems that have all come to a head.

They are:

(1) The rapid pace of evolution in media consumption habits ushered in by the streaming giants. The BBC’s regulator Ofcom has been tracking for a while now the extent to which younger audiences have been turning away from its services in favour of commercial subscription options like Spotify and Netflix. If the BBC doesn’t serve the whole UK population, the argument for a universal tax-like funding model backed up by criminal sanctions is substantially weakened, and the case for making the BBC an optional subscription service or splitting the licence fee with other providers that do reach these audiences is greatly strengthened. One presumes podcasting, in particular commercial podcasting, fits into this thread.

(2) The internal breakdown of trust engendered by numerous equal pay disputes. Just this month presenter Samira Ahmed won a landmark tribunal that ruled she had been unfairly discriminated against (she received £440 per episode for presenting feedback show Newswatch; Jeremy Vine got £3,000 for the very similar programme Points of View). And it’s not just the existence of these pay disparities across the corporation that is affecting morale, but the sluggish and sometimes bizarre way the BBC is choosing to handle the conflict. For instance, in the Ahmed case, they tried to claim that Vine’s much higher pay was justified because he was an entertainment presenter rather than a journalist who “would often dress up for small visual gags”. Ahmed’s lawyers pointed out that this in fact amounted to “one wig and one hat”, exposing a needlessly petty defence that was completely overruled. Staff are dissatisfied and plenty are keeping an eye out for other opportunities; just yesterday the Times of London announced a new daily podcast with Manveen Rana as host, who joins from BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs show Today.

(3) The new news battleground of social media. The BBC employs around 20,000 people, and being humans, they make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes small and easily fixable. Other times, not so much, as in the case of this past weekend, when the flagship nightly TV news programme used footage of LeBron James with a voiceover identifying him as Kobe Bryant, just hours after the latter was killed in a helicopter crash. During the election campaign, there were several instances where journalists made serious factual errors, such as when the BBC’s political editor tweeted that a Labour Party activist had punched a Conservative staffer on the campaign trail, when in fact nothing of the sort had occurred.

In that instance, apologies were made and tweets were deleted. But the problem is that these errors now happen in a place where hundreds of thousands of people can see them before they are corrected, and where they feed existing narratives about “bias” and poor journalism. The BBC’s Charter mandates that it adhere to high standards of editorial proof, but on Twitter correspondents can fire out bad information without any oversight. The BBC feels it needs to be on social media because its audience is, but it’s not clear that such standards can ever be compatible with the rapid pace of Twitter Discourse.

(4) The last battleground is an overtly political consideration. In addition to the previously mentioned ideological objection to the BBC from the Conservative side, there’s been a growing sense that the majority London-based, largely middle class staffed BBC has dropped the ball on covering issues like Brexit. Right wing commentators are now calling for a wholesale dismantling of the corporation, and those on the left are writing impassioned defences of it as a “public good.” In a similar way in which the NHS has become a political football in the UK, the BBC now seems to have become a weapon in a polarised culture war from which I pessimistically believe nobody emerges with honour. It’s worth noting that Hall already made a small step towards addressing this on a geographical level at least, announcing that two thirds of BBC staff will be based outside of London by 2027.

All four of these problems are interrelated. In addressing them, the BBC has to reconcile several near-impossible divisions: it has to keep its loyal older audience while also luring back younger people; it has to make world-beating public service content but also cut costs; it has to stop its best talent from defecting but also avoid any perception of overpayment; and it has to lead the way in a fast moving digital news environment while at the same time running time-consuming fact checking and verification processes. Whoever succeeds Hall as Director General has an unenviable task ahead of them.

There is an existential question at the heart of all of this. What do we want to BBC to be in 2020, 2030, and beyond? I don’t particularly like content-based arguments when making a case for its preservation, so I won’t claim that lane. (For what it’s worth, it produces my favourite foreign documentaries; therefore, it’s flawless.) But I do think there has to be a radical change, one that shouldn’t just be reactive and/or preservationist.  I don’t think the quality of journalism I want the BBC to be doing is compatible with the constant pursuit of “breaking” news on Twitter, for instance. And there are serious questions to be asked of how in areas like online news, podcasting and TV entertainment it inhibits the creation of commercial alternatives.

It’s always tempting to say that the BBC should just do, like, the “wholesome” stuff. The BBC Sounds app could be stacked with wonky shows about international affairs and public policy, while leaving celebrity-hosted sports podcasts and reality star chat shows to the commercial publishers. But I’m very wary of itemising the BBC’s output like that. Right from that beginning, way back in 1922, it’s always been the case that popular entertainment crossfunds worthy journalism. There are the things that draw people in, so they can be spread around to the others. Stripping out entertainment and then expecting dry investigative journalism to survive with an audience grown used to the vast array of choice on Netflix is unrealistic, to say the least. The BBC isn’t a publisher so much as an ecosystem, and it has to be diverse to thrive.

A line in this recent piece by journalism professor Emily Bell caught my eye while I was thinking through this dilemma. “The BBC’s social contract is for a civic, not commercial, enterprise,” she wrote. “Its promise is for something owned by society, offering more than the flat space of internet ‘content’.” Which is not to say that there isn’t space for rapid and widespread reform — there really is — but I think Bell is fundamentally right there. The BBC is best viewed as a civic project; it’s a way for the UK to aspire to make something better of itself. It’s going to be a tense few years watching to see if that vision can win through.