Public broad­cast­ers like the BBC are un­der threat

The National - News - - OPINION - GAVIN ESLER Gavin Esler is an author, jour­nal­ist and pre­sen­ter

Last week a se­nior ed­i­to­rial fig­ure at the BBC spoke to me about the im­pact Brexit has had on news staff in Bri­tish broad­cast­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing ITV, Sky and oth­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the ru­mour mill, one TV ex­ec­u­tive was ac­cused of bias by putting his sup­pos­edly Brexit-sup­port­ing friends on TV pro­grammes and pre­tend­ing they are just mem­bers of the public. This story was given the oxy­gen of Twit­ter but was to­tally false. An­other TV ex­ec­u­tive was ac­cused, again on so­cial me­dia, of be­ing the fa­ther of two young women who are well-known Brexit pro­pa­gan­dists. I know this per­son and have met his chil­dren. Who­ever the young pro­pa­gan­dists are, they are not part of his fam­ily.

In a pe­cu­liar way, these so­cial me­dia lies and con­spir­acy the­o­ries are a com­pli­ment to the pro­foundly im­por­tant place the BBC and other public ser­vice broad­cast­ers, or PSBs, still have in Bri­tish public life. Nev­er­the­less, there is a se­ri­ous prob­lem for the BBC and all PSBs. Why do they still ex­ist? The BBC is funded by the li­cence fee, a tax of £154.50 (Dh727) on ev­ery house­hold that has a TV set. So – as the age-old ar­gu­ment goes – what do Bri­tish peo­ple get from the li­cence fee that pri­vate broad­cast­ers do not sup­ply?

At times of po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, the BBC in par­tic­u­lar is the tar­get of po­lit­i­cal par­ti­sans. In its near 100-year history, it has been writ­ten off so many times that its sur­vival seems the in­sti­tu­tional equiv­a­lent of the cel­e­brated es­capol­o­gist Harry Hou­dini. BBC jour­nal­ists and man­agers fell foul of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment over the Suez cri­sis in 1956. There were nu­mer­ous rows with then prime min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher over in­ter­views with IRA ter­ror­ists in the 1970s and 1980s. Dur­ing the Iraq war of 2003, Tony Blair’s gov­ern­ment became so in­censed with el­e­ments of the BBC cov­er­age that the cor­po­ra­tion’s bosses, di­rec­tor gen­eral Greg Dyke and chair­man Gavyn Davies, were forced to quit.

These very public and quite vi­cious rows be­tween the world’s most fa­mous broad­caster and Bri­tish politi­cians al­ways struck me as ul­ti­mately a good thing – for the BBC and for democ­racy. They showed that the BBC was com­mit­ted to stand­ing up to po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence.

But now the BBC and other PSBs face some­thing much more dan­ger­ous than the anger of a here today, gone to­mor­row prime min­is­ter or gov­ern­ment.

The dan­ger is ap­a­thy from au­di­ences and ap­pear­ing ir­rel­e­vant to sig­nif­i­cant groups of po­ten­tial view­ers and lis­ten­ers.

That sense of ir­rel­e­vance was put starkly last week in a new re­port from the Bri­tish House of Lords’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions and dig­i­tal com­mit­tee. The re­port pointed out that the BBC fails to ap­peal to sig­nif­i­cant groups of Bri­tish peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly 16 to 34 year olds. Younger view­ers are grow­ing up in a world of greater choice. They show no loy­alty to a par­tic­u­lar broad­caster or TV chan­nel. Chil­dren who love The Simp­sons car­toons re­ally don’t care which chan­nel they tune into to see their favourite pro­grammes.

More­over, one of the BBC’s strong­est sell­ing points has al­ways been that it is free to air and free from ad­ver­tise­ments for those in the UK, but Net­flix and other sub­scrip­tion video-on-de­mand ser­vices also of­fer ad-free op­tions and have big­ger re­sources than the BBC can pos­si­bly hope to ob­tain through the li­cence fee.

That has led yet again to this dam­ag­ing ar­gu­ment: why should ev­ery­one in Bri­tain pay a tax for a ser­vice that not ev­ery­one wants or needs? The House of Lords com­mit­tee be­lieves the BBC’s long-term future might be in dan­ger. Its re­port is ti­tled Public Ser­vice Broad­cast­ing: As Vi­tal As Ever. It warns that public ser­vice broad­cast­ers need to be bet­ter sup­ported so they can con­tinue to pro­duce high-qual­ity drama and doc­u­men­taries. But that means broad­cast­ers need to en­sure they serve and re­flect all au­di­ences, es­pe­cially younger and racially di­verse groups. At stake, the com­mit­tee says, is the heart of Bri­tish democ­racy and cul­ture, as well as one of Bri­tain’s most suc­cess­ful cre­ative arts – TV pro­duc­tion.

None of this will be easy. Gov­ern­ments have used the BBC as a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball. Most re­cently, they have de­manded

Free-to-air chan­nels are fac­ing the chal­lenge of stay­ing rel­e­vant, par­tic­u­larly to young peo­ple

that the BBC pay for peo­ple over the age of 75 to have free TV li­cences – some­thing that rep­re­sents a mas­sive cut to the money avail­able to make pro­grammes. Then when it comes to sport, spe­cial­ist sub­scrip­tion on-de­mand chan­nels can charge huge sums for ac­cess to top-class foot­ball or boxing events.

One pro­posed an­swer is to in­crease the num­ber of sporting events which by law must be shown on free TV. But there’s a catch. The ex­ec­u­tive of a cricket club pointed out that in­sist­ing sporting events go on free-to-air TV might be good for view­ers and broad­cast­ers but it can prove cat­a­strophic for sporting or­gan­i­sa­tions, who might lose a lot of money as a re­sult.

The chair­man of the House of Lords com­mit­tee, Lord Stephen Gil­bert, summed up the dan­gers. He said that at a time of deep po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions, “public ser­vice broad­cast­ers play a role in uni­fy­ing the coun­try through shared ex­pe­ri­ences. Au­di­ences would miss them when they’re gone”.

As some­one who worked for years within the BBC, I be­lieve PSBs play an im­por­tant role too. But spoiled for choice and del­uged by other TV con­tent, are we re­ally sure au­di­ences would miss them?

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