Saturday, 3 February 2018

Future of British Broadcasting 4

Time to scrap the licence fee

Public purposes: Re-evaluation and reform

Several attempts have been made to define the 'public purposes' of the BBC, beginning with Lord Reith's historic formula, but what is necessary now is not a new statement of purposes or values amplifying or clarifying that formulation, but an objective re-evaluation of what should continue to be produced and broadcast by the public sector broadcaster. A brief look at the historic formula reveals how deep that re-evaluation needs to be.

To entertain:

The provision of entertainment for its own sake is a legacy of monopoly, but what kind of a country needs a quango to entertain it? The BBC Charter 6(4) states that “The BBC should bring people together for shared experiences and help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom.” A modern turn of phrase, perhaps, but the notion of strengthening national identity through enjoyment of publicly-provided amusements belongs entirely to the pre-War era in which the Corporation was founded.  In any case, the dignity of our country is somewhat impugned by the suggestion that our social cohesion and wellbeing are affected by the trivialities of soap opera cliffhangers and celebrity contests. National unity is the result of celebrating the local heritage of each of the various nations and regions of the United Kingdom as elements of a common patrimony.

The BBC Charter demands excellence across the range of its services and talks about breadth of provision:

6(3) To show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services: the BBC should provide high-quality output in many different genres and across a range of services and platforms which sets the standard in the United Kingdom and internationally. Its services should be distinctive from those provided elsewhere and should take creative risks, even if not all succeed, in order to develop fresh approaches and innovative content.

Creativity is not the child of bureaucracy, and it does not flourish in the public sector; furthermore, variety is the fruit of plurality of provision rather than a monolithic corporation's attempts to provide a genre mix or grow new markets. It must, however, be acknowledged that, as with an annual income of some £3.7bn from the licence fee (minus somewhat less than £80m for S4C) the BBC is by far the best funded British broadcaster, it should have the highest production quality from a technical standpoint. In entertainment, and in news journalism, the BBC sets the standard by narrowing the field. Modern technology allows for the creation of a wide variety of broadcast material, and for British audiences to have access to material created overseas, but broadcasting to television sets and radios remains highly circumscribed. Expectations as to what should be broadcast, and who should be involved in the process, are often derived from BBC norms rather than the public interest, just as BBC investment steers creative economies to its own requirements rather than those of the people at large. 

Due to the breadth of provision in visual broadcasting/television there can be little justification for the public sector broadcaster's continuing to provide television drama or light entertainment. Radio, however, appears to require regulatory reform to encourage an expansion in the market before the provision of made for broadcast audio entertainment can be dropped. The option of encouraging production companies that currently supply the BBC with entertainment and non-journalistic factual programming to form a consortium or consortia to replace the existing broadcasting platform should be explored. Plurality, and with it diversity, variety and creativity, can only be enhanced by first a reduction and then a replacement of BBC services.

To inform:

The BBC Charter requires its news broadcasting to demonstrate “the highest editorial standards” of accuracy and impartiality: “To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people's understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world. It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers, using the highest calibre presenters and journalists, and championing freedom of expression, so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens” 6(1). This insults other news providers, and threatens to poach their staff, using the BBC's budget and pay/pension structures to lure 'the highest calibre' people away from their employers.

The quality of BBC news broadcasting is widely recognised and it is generally believed to be impartial on many issues, although those who examine it more carefully find biases towards social liberalism at home and abroad, and domestic policies favouring maintenance of large-scale public sector institutions. There is also a significant level of concern regarding cross-departmental collaborations enabling the Corporation to set an agenda for public debate and to shape social attitudes; close links between reporting, commentary and discussion do nothing to alleviate those concerns.  Its dominant position allows the BBC to determine the boundaries of public discussion; so its 'championing' of freedom of expression amounts, in effect, to its judging which forms of expression should have freedom. Where a decision is made to show impartiality it is demonstrated by inviting spokespeople to make contributions on behalf of particular positions on the subject in question, but norm-setting means that the entire context of the discussion will presuppose that one position is usual and other viewpoints are deviant. This is most noticeable with respect to life issues and traditional morality.

It is the BBC's status as a news broadcaster that is the basis of its claim to independence from H.M. Government, and enables it to avoid support for Government policy. There is, however, no reason why a public sector broadcaster that did not produce news programming should become more politicised than the current service, especially if neither drama nor factual/documentary programming were made in-house, nor what politicisation would entail in that context. In any case, it is entirely natural and normal that the policies pursued by the public sector should be those promoted by the elected Government.

We note that the FCO values the provision of an impartial news service as part of our country's engagement with other nations, but listeners and viewers abroad often regard the news provided by the BBC World Service as representing the opinions of the British Government because of the BBC's position in the public sector. Many people overseas are unfamiliar with the concept of a State broadcaster with editorial independence, and many other people both at home and abroad fail to see the point of such a broadcaster.

It is worth noting that the BBC Charter states “Its international services should put the United Kingdom in a world context, aiding understanding of the United Kingdom as a whole, including its nations and regions where appropriate” in the same subsection 6 (5) as that in which broadcasting news to international audiences is mandated. This strongly suggests that international news broadcasting as well as general or broadly educational programming should give due weight to all the home nations and their regions in a way which it does not at present. There might even be said to be an implicit call for the use of the indigenous minority languages in news and other international broadcasting at least in broadcasts to appropriate regions. It would be natural that news broadcasts in the minority languages would focus on the relevant places and on cultural issues relating to use of the language in question. The Council of Europe has commented adversely on the BBC's failure to give adequate broadcasting time to the Cornish language, which it limits to a single weekly news broadcast. There is also a recommendation from the Welsh Assembly that the Welsh language should be promoted across Britain as having been the historic tongue of large areas of England and lowland Scotland; the BBC's omission of any of the IMLs from its national digital platform does nothing to advance that. Failure to reflect the entirety of the United Kingdom even in national, let alone international, broadcasts indicates structural weaknesses within the BBC at both editorial and management levels. That half its employees are based in London suggests something of the nature and scale of those weaknesses.  Within the provisions of the current Charter it would be possible to address the problem by making more specific demands of the BBC through addenda to the Framework Agreement. In the future a similar approach can be used to ensure that geographical balance is delivered when news broadcasts are commissioned for international programming.

The BBC is not only crowding out commercial competition in an unjustifiable manner, but shapes the media landscape and culture as a whole in ways that reduce audience choice and narrow possibilities. The expansion of the BBC leads to reductions elsewhere. The most recent expansion, described as forming partnerships with regional media, amounts to acting as a press agency for local news; this will inevitably lead to staff reductions in local newspapers and the news websites related to them (a sector already facing considerable pressure).The BBC's employing reporters under the auspices of local publications and broadcasters will achieve little to improve the situation for regional media outlets; it can only compromise their independence, and provide a framework under which the BBC may take their place swiftly should they fail.  We do not have recent figures giving the balance between direct and graduate entrants into journalism in the BBC's regional offices, but local newspapers have traditionally provided opportunities for direct entry into the profession consonant with H.M. Government's policy of promoting apprenticeships. It is also inevitable that, as it proceeds, this partnership will result in a close relationship with Trinity Mirror and other regional news publishers. It is unclear how far the regional media partnership will include direct cooperation with the new local television stations; in any case they will certainly be affected by the reduced availability of news from other sources.

We recommend the privatisation of BBC News. Whether or not this recommendation is adopted, it should be entirely separated from the rest of the Corporation at the earliest opportunity and should have separate management structures. Retention of the news service within the public sector has led to inefficiency and perceptions of a lack of impartiality, it cannot be regarded as necessary in the context of today's media landscape, and it reduces the ability of the public sector in broadcasting to serve public purposes as defined by the democratic process.  

To educate:

Education in a broad sense provides justification for public sector broadcasting even under today's circumstances. There are three aspects to the educative function of public sector broadcasting, of which the BBC Charter addresses only the first: education of the audience, education of performers, and education of those involved in technical and creative aspects of programme-making.

Technical education can be provided via an academic route, or else in any production company through an apprenticeship system. The system could easily be formalised to allow for the award of accredited qualifications. We would envisage a significant growth in the number of companies if the public sector is radically reduced in scope, and that would lead to an increase in opportunities for creative experience. Academic approaches to creative education would become more meaningful with increased opportunities for students to broadcast even while their studies are still in progress. The BBC aspires to employ 'more than 400' apprentices 'by 2018' out of a total workforce of nearly 20,000 but does not specify their distribution across the Corporation.

Education and professional development of performers constitutes the most important aspect of the work currently performed by the BBC, and provides something of a justification for continuing to maintain a public sector broadcaster. This work is principally carried out in the field of audio (radio) rather than visual (TV) broadcasting, where ample opportunities exist in the commercial sector for talent shows and competitions of various kinds. The BBC provides work and some professional development for actors, but is not a significant contributor to their education as such. It provides rather more training and professional development for its journalists through its academy, but hires very many of them from other news providers or as graduates rather than as direct entrants to the profession. However, the Corporation should certainly be congratulated for its work across a wide variety of music genres, identifying and fostering new talent through several competitions and award schemes as well as through BBC Introducing; providing work and professional development for orchestral musicians; and giving élite mentoring opportunities through the New Generation Artists scheme. All of this work could continue under the auspices of the Arts Council.

Education of audiences may be divided between the general education of broadcasting documentary and factual programmes, and the specific education of programmes for schools and the Open University. There is no reason to suppose that fewer factual or documentary programmes would be made if they were not made by the BBC. Commercial broadcasters and websites make, commision and transmit more factual programmes, drama and light entertainment than the BBC. It is clearly necessary that programmes are made in support of specific academic curricula, but the value of the programmes depends upon their being tailor-made to the requirements of the course; they should, therefore, be commissioned by the examining bodies and educational institutions involved. If they are to appear on television or radio it is likely that a public sector broadcaster would need to carry them.

There is, however, no reason why such programmes should appear in those media rather than exclusively on the internet, nor is there any reason why they should not be commissioned by course providers or examining boards and made available on a commercial basis. It must be noted that the Massive On-line Open Course (MOOC) model has proven popular in adult education and can easily be adapted for tutoring children.

Although the BBC Charter talks about 'partnerships with educational, sporting and cultural institutions', 'commercial and non-commercial organisations', it must be noted that the structure of the BBC prevents the integration of its work with that of Government Departments and impedes collaboration with other public bodies. It is generally true to say that any partnerships that take place do so on the BBC's terms unless the partners are large, wealthy overseas broadcasters or film-makers. Partner organisations from outside the media might very well form partnerships more advantageous to themselves and more educational to the audience in the absence of the BBC. There is certainly no reason to imagine that the removal of the BBC would result in the loss of anything of value in terms of audience education.

By Prayer Crusader St Philip Howard

Note: 3.5 Million Brits have ditched the licence fee in favour of streaming sides like Netflix and Amazon Prime

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