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What is the BBC for? Why not let the people have a say for a change

Straight down the line: one of the BBC’s values. Reuters/David Nicholls

What is the BBC for? Why not let the people have a say for a change

The BBC was set up to inform, educate and entertain, but the government’s recent green paper tries to conflate those public purposes with commercial issues in a blatant attempt to limit the range, scope, scale, primary remit, funding and regulation of Britain’s public broadcaster.

Looming large is the government’s desire to give something to the unhappy commercial sector which is presently floundering without a viable business model. You only have to read recent editorialising in some of Britain’s biggest papers to get a feel for the sort of pressure being piled on David Cameron by the commercial news sector.

Here’s the Daily Mail:

The BBC is supposed to be a public service broadcaster but it is acting more like a rapacious commercial giant, trying to corner the market in news delivery. Why on earth should the taxpayer have to fund this naked empire building? Mr Osborne hinted at plans to curb its website but he needs to be bolder. With four TV channels, a sprawling radio network and international business arm, the BBC is simply too bloated. It must be forced to slim down, cut its costs, sell off non essential functions and concentrate on what it does best – make brilliant programmes. Everything else should be left to the market.

Needless to say many of the other national papers have been singing from the same songsheet.

The problem with all this is that the BBC’s commercial rivals are castigating the public broadcaster for doing what they ought to have done themselves. It is laughable to criticise the BBC for developing ways to expand into digital, global and engage with future young audiences, develop diversity and invent think tanks to lead the field in areas such as gaming and interactivity.

That’s what any forward-looking media organisation ought to have been doing for years. If the BBC wasn’t doing it, the taxpayer would be entitled to ask why not.

Future proof

An extensive report called Broadcasting by Consent was published in February which warns that discussions of the BBC’s public purposes and its funding should not be converged. The BBC, it says:

Needs to be fit for a pluralistic, competitive and digitised future and thus online needs to be brought into the licence system which should embrace consumption of all BBC content on any device.

The report was written by Jacquie Hughes who is special advisor to the Lords Communication Committee on Charter Renewal, now in its eighth sitting. The inquiry invites expert witnesses to give oral evidence on the BBC’s Public Purposes and how they are measured.

Unlike the commercial sector which wants less regulation, former director general Lord Birt said: “We must regulate with as much precision and rigour as possible.”

The public, he went on to say, understands the remit, has expectations about and trusts the BBC. When the public broadcaster makes a mistake or drifts away from its public service remit, the public is usually the first to complain.

Public purposes

So what are the primary aims of the BBC? For the best part of a century its mandate has been to educate, inform and entertain. The founding principles were further developed in the last charter review into six public purposes which form the starting point for the BBC’s processes of internal and external regulation, accountability and testing of judgements. The purposes are a set of principles and values, underpinning everything the corporation does, not a shopping list of strategic objectives or corporate plans.

Future proofed … until 2016. Steve Parsons / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Currently these are: sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities, bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK and in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services to the public.

The BBC wants more regulation of the purposes which it wants underpinned by the following set of values: independence, impartiality, value for money and a mandate to uphold the highest editorial and creative standards.

The BBC’s initial response to Whittingdale’s review updates the public purposes to do the following:

  1. Provide news and information to help people understand the world around them, so – production of high quality news and current affairs for all parts of the UK and the wider world.
  2. Provide specialist educational content to support learning in ways that are accessible, engaging and challenging.
  3. Show the most creative ideas and highest quality content, set the national and international standard, be distinctive and bring the best new talent to audiences.
  4. Reflect diversity and represent the whole UK population, its nations, regions and communities.
  5. Be a catalyst for the creative industries, promote the UK abroad, and work with other sectors to bring the benefits of technological change to UK citizens.

The future charter should then, be inclusive, universal and representative of all corners of the UK. Not scaled back at all.

Age of enlightenment

Following the green paper, a group of academics wrote an open letter published in a number of newspapers which expressed concerns that the terms of the review were “skewed”.

They are so preoccupied with an assumed negative impact of the BBC on the commercial media market that they ignore the considerable evidence of the BBC’s enormous contribution to the UK’s creative industries and to society more generally.

The green paper, they wrote: “seems determined to repeat (without any empirical justification) criticisms of the BBC that regularly surface in the commercial press” and it’s intent is: “not to secure a future for a well-funded, genuinely independent and innovative public service provider, but to shrink the BBC in the interests of its commercial competitors”.

In The Observer the following weekend, BBC director general Tony Hall warned that: “While no one wants to abolish the BBC, there will be some who want to diminish us for their own narrow interests. We must remind them that the British public do not share their views.”

As the BBC embarks on its biggest survey of public attitudes yet, maybe its time for the people to start talking loud and government to be forced to listen.