It’s not the first time the leading public broadcaster British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has faced political or financial pressures. Yet, plans by the British Conservative government would be a serious blow to the future the century-old giant media outlet.
Even the idea of scraping the licence fee was floated before, not only by Tory governments but by Labour as well. There was a suggestion to deprive the corporation of the exclusivity of public money by sharing it with other broadcasters in the UK.
Politicians sensed the British public still wants the BBC as it is: non-commercial, non-partisan, and a ‘truly British’ media outlet that prides itself with its traditional editorial line and produces the best drama and documentary. For fear of antagonising the electorate, politicians refrained from advancing the proposed measure.
The BBC might not disappear altogether, might turn into a semi-public, semi-commercial media outlet, but in the near future it is not going to be the same BBC we know now. It’s a pity to lose the world's pioneer public broadcaster
To put in context, any change to licence fee will hurt the BBC (The corporation gets £3.9 billion — Dh18.5 billion — annually from that TV tax).
The Boris Johnson-led government is not planning on ‘raiding’ these finances to add it to government coffers, but the aim seems to be putting an end to the “BBC as it is”. You can’t sell it like the royal yacht Britannica, and will be difficult to include it in trade talks with the US like the NHS (National Health Service).
But Johnson’s government, especially his adviser Dominic Cummings, seems intent on a ‘final solution’ for the public broadcaster. They suggest starting with decriminalising evasion of paying TV licence fee, forcing the corporation to downsize by selling some 40 Radio stations and fragmenting its digital presence and scraping some of it. That will be — in reality — the start of the end of the BBC.
Since it was first launched in 1922, the BBC became one of the few jewels in the British crown and when it launched the BBC World Service in 1932 it became the most effective and impactful British brand globally. No wonder the world service was first named ‘Voice of the Empire’ as British colonies extended in different continents to be called at the time “the Empire on which the sun never sets”.
By the time of its diamond jubilee, BBC started to go through recurrent bouts of shaking and decline, forcing it to compromise with government — whether Labour or Tory — on its renowned editorial integrity.
As John Birt (Baron Birt) became Director General in 1992, a restructuring and financial efficiency process started where accountants and marketing managers took control at the expense of editorial and journalistic corps. World Service became one of the victims under Tony Blair’s government until David Cameron’s government scraped the £270 million annual fund for it.
Voice of the empire
The voice of the empire that reached audiences in hundreds of millions, broadcasting in more than 40 languages shrunk to a few departments now. The best soft power Britain had for decades is now less effective than nascent ‘international’ broadcasters like Russia Today. Consecutive British governments in recent years are only concerned about squeezing the corporation and trying to sway it away from its non-partisan editorial line in covering British politics.
But it’s not only the government attitude as the public mood itself is changing with new generations not interested in the public broadcaster costing them millions to run a “foreign language’ service. Though those same Brits who seem strongly ‘nationalistic’, claiming British superiority, are the ones backing curtailing the main source of pride for ‘Britishness’ in UK and all over the world.
Also, BBC didn’t do itself good in its struggle to waiver political pressure of governments and face public concern about the inflated corporation. Yes, it pioneered in online journalism and developed its digital platforms but its editorial integrity suffered on many occasions.
Though it still produces good drama and documentary, news and current affairs are lagging behind competitors. Instead of building on its unrivalled legacy, the corporation tried to emulate others, resulting in the metaphor one BBC veteran once used earlier: “An old Auntie insisting on playing the role of a teenager, losing both generations with vulnerability to any little poking”.
BBC’s dilemma could be an example of what many global media corporation face due to shifting information dissemination patterns and fast developing digital world. But journalism still matters.
Unfortunately, the BBC’s quality of journalism has been dented over the last few decades to an extent making it difficult to reclaim that strong professionalism as a wall of defence against current pressures. The shaking made by Director Generals like John Birt and Mark Thompson is bearing fruits now — poisonous ones.
The BBC might not disappear altogether, might turn into a semi-public, semi-commercial media outlet, but in the near future it is not going to be the same BBC we know now. It’s a pity to lose the pioneer public broadcaster in the world.
—Dr Ahmad Mustafa is a UAE-based journalist.