‘The nation divided always has the BBC on the rack,’ Michael Swann, then chair of the BBC governors, told a meeting of irate Tory backbenchers in 1971. The MPs were unhappy about the BBC’s coverage of Northern Ireland, which, though fastidiously cautious, they deemed insufficiently patriotic. Swann’s line came from a draft, written four years earlier, of a report for the governors eventually published as Broadcasting and the Public Mood and intended to outline the corporation’s approach to the social and political turbulence of the 1960s. It became a catchphrase for senior BBC figures in tight spots. Huw Wheldon, then managing director of BBC TV, invoked it in a prominent lecture later in the 1970s, as relations with governments of both hues faltered further, over reporting on Ireland, industrial relations and the aftermath of the oil shock. Greg Dyke, when he was director-general, used it often, usually attributing it to Wheldon, most startlingly in his evidence to the Hutton Inquiry concerning Andrew Gilligan’s reporting on the Today programme of the Blair government’s ‘sexed-up’ Iraq dossier.

The phrase is useful because it expresses something of the BBC’s relationship – in the minds of its senior staff at least – to the nation. It is portable between controversies. It underlines the corporation’s indispensable place in the way Britain understands itself, and places it firmly at the centre of the country’s political life. It suggests that attacks on the BBC are an inevitable feature of the national psychodrama, and that they tend to be a displacement activity. It echoes the loftiness of Lord Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, with its whiff of paternalism; the ‘always’ implies the BBC’s permanence in the pantheon of British institutions.

The BBC continues to rank alongside the NHS in the national imaginary, and is still the country’s most trusted source of news. Its evening bulletins are watched by more than 12 million people every week, and three-quarters of UK adults listen to, read or watch its news in some form. It claims to reach 91 per cent of the population at least once a week – one of its chief defences as a public broadcaster with an income of £4.9 billion a year. The BBC World Service is responsible for projecting the country’s image – and its sometimes dubious values – abroad, so usefully that until recently it was funded by a Foreign Office grant-in-aid. It also performs a feat of domestic diplomacy, presenting the nation to itself, often shorn of its uglier aspects.

It’s clear enough that the ‘nation’ is currently divided, and this should mean, according to the corporation’s own axiom, that it is ‘on the rack’. It’s true that critics on both left and right panned the BBC’s election coverage, though the majority of formal complaints were about its bias against the Tories and against the prime minister in particular – which may come as a surprise to anyone who observed the venting of Labour voters on Twitter (it may simply be that Tories are more likely to write to the manager). The BBC News website, however, remained the most visited news source throughout the campaign. The government began attacking the BBC soon after the election, which should cause anyone who read the Conservative manifesto to raise an eyebrow. The BBC was mentioned only twice: there is an offhand reference to its use as a form of international soft power, and an indication that it should continue to offer free licences to the over-75s. Johnson floated the idea of a licence fee review during the campaign: it looked at the time like unsubtle intimidation, or cheap showmanship. His refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil, and his insistence that ministers boycott the Today programme (now relaxed, temporarily at least, so that Matt Hancock, the health minister, can inform the nation about Covid-19) seemed more like instances of a general aversion to scrutiny than of a particular animus against the BBC. But Nicky Morgan’s final speech as culture secretary, before leaving the government in the recent reshuffle, showed that the government had the BBC in its sights: unless it stayed ‘relevant’, she said, it would be impossible to justify its continued existence in an era of YouTube, Amazon and Netflix. It’s unclear whether the BBC’s reach figured in her assessment, or whether she knew, as the BBC was quick to respond, that it had proposed a Netflix-style service in 2009. Morgan indicated, as she had before, her ‘openness’ to the BBC’s becoming a subscription service. She also announced a consultation into decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence. Anonymous briefings – which may as well have been signed ‘D. Cummings’ – appeared in the weekend papers promising to ‘whack’ the BBC, to end the licence fee and gut its output. The renewal of the BBC charter, which takes place once a decade, isn’t due until the end of 2027, but the government can do plenty of damage in the meantime.

Right-wing complaints about the BBC take multiple forms: it’s culturally liberal, metropolitan, with an ingrained bias towards ‘diversity’; it’s an anti-competitive behemoth, distorting the broadcast market with its state-backing; its talk of public service is feel-good hokum disguising economic self-interest and managerial lassitude. Norman Tebbit derided the ‘insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of the third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the 1960s.’ These complaints are not pursued with the fervour they once were by the organs of the right: the Telegraph no longer runs a ‘Beebwatch’ column, and though the tabloids lambast the BBC’s attempts at diversity, few have recently campaigned for its privatisation.

Such grumblings have been displaced by two interrelated arguments: first, that the licence fee is archaic and unjust; second, that digital technology has so profoundly transformed our behaviour that the BBC’s model is untenable. Both have some weight. The licence fee is a flat tax, and like all flat taxes it imposes the greatest burden on those with least: the dripfeed of headlines about poor mothers in desperate situations being prosecuted for non-payment – three-quarters of those prosecuted are women – is a PR headache with no obvious solution for the corporation. It’s also hard for the BBC to complain about being made to bear the costs of the government’s welfare policy: from June it will have to fund licences for those over 75 who are eligible for pension credit (this replaces a scheme in which all those over 75 were eligible for a free licence funded by the government). It has typically distrusted models – common across Europe – in which a public broadcasting levy is made through general taxation, on the grounds that financial administration by and dependence on the state might undermine a broadcaster’s commitment to impartiality. But such a model would give relief to the poorest and allow for a variation in fees, perhaps determined by council tax band – a move away from the system instituted in 1946, when a wireless receiver was a relative luxury.

The BBC can fight on firmer ground on the digital front: it is at pains to point out that to compare it with digital TV giants like Netflix and Amazon is a category error, since the BBC provides a much broader service comparatively cheaply, and its operations aren’t financed by multi-billion debt funding. BBC provision includes forty local radio stations as well as six national ones, three TV channels, a 24-hour news channel and website, the BBC orchestras (five of them) and the Proms. This list isn’t exhaustive. The BBC can do all these things because it doesn’t have to defer to the ruthless and degrading logic of the market – though it doesn’t make this argument because it fears the notion is unfashionable, and needs to demonstrate that it provides ‘value for money’.

The left, meanwhile, sees the mooted decriminalisation of non-payment as a pretext for gutting the corporation’s revenues, bridling its journalism, and preparing the ground for a much reduced service to be enshrined in the next charter. Cummings’s ferocious briefing is seen as announcing a wider assault on public institutions and the public sphere. Such fears lead many on the left to suspend their criticisms of the BBC, though with a nagging feeling that they are fighting for the corporation as it might be, rather than as it actually is. This unwillingness to be too critical of the BBC means that the left’s defence of it can seem anodyne and generic: the private sector is trivial and rapacious, and will not deliver the kind of service, or the impartiality, offered by the BBC; shared public goods are worth defending; Conservatives always try to shrink the state. The questions begged here are good ones: does the BBC live up to the impartiality it professes? Should the service be thought of as part of the state, however distant? Can we still talk of a public good in broadcasting? As defences, however, they seem to evade the arguments being made on fees and technology, and tacitly to endorse the status quo.

The left’s critique of the BBC hasn’t been restricted to the undefinable question of bias. Those sceptical of the BBC’s claim to independence cite its accommodation with the government during the 1926 general strike, the political control of the appointment of its chair, its eagerness to have its staff vetted by MI5 (this didn’t end until the 1990s), its embrace of commercial structures under John Birt, director-general in the 1990s, and the shadier aspects of its foreign language broadcasting. Arguments about the relationship between the BBC and politics usually concentrate on its journalistic output, ignoring its cultural programming, but then the British left has often preferred to address itself to stolid economic questions rather than the flotsam of culture. Programmes for reform tend to focus on structural and constitutional changes to the corporation’s make-up and funding settlement, usually arguing that it should be put on a statutory basis – obviating the need to supplicate to the government when the charter comes up for renewal – and that the right to appoint its chair be removed from the government. Occasionally they address the narrow social make-up of presenters and staff; complaints about a lack of diversity in programming and commissioning are less common than they once were.

According to its Royal Charter the BBC aims to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. The matter of how those elements interact, the balance between them and the ‘public interest’ they are supposed to further, is left rather vague, and is argued over in the periodic government committees convened to ruminate on the BBC’s future. The values are Reithian, evidence of the enduring stamp the corporation’s first director – with his lofty Calvinism and paternalist bent – left on the organisation. Whether they can endure in an era of cynicism about institutions – much of it merited – must be an open question. Reith’s proto-corporation benefited initially from government indifference, but also from his insistence that the public interest should be understood as something greater and more cohesive than a miscellany of sectional tastes, and not be reduced to a collection of base wants divided into advertising aggregates: ‘Few know what they want, and very few what they need.’ There speaks a man who commands a monopoly; no BBC producer since the advent of competition, satellite TV and Netflix would dare such confidence.

Indifference gave way to regulatory enthusiasm once politicians realised the possible consequences of having a speaker, and a voice, in every house; they still retain the power to seize the airwaves at times of national crisis. Part of their concern was simply the Burkean fear that new media might be like Jacobin newspapers, the ‘grand instrument of the subversion of order, of morals, of religion, and of human society itself’, encouraging the governed to interfere in the delicate business of government. Broadcasting, it was thought, might be a uniquely persuasive tool, since it enabled the human voice to be heard in a private domestic setting. Adorno later echoed this concern, gloomily contrasting the Nazi use of radio – with its one-to-many broadcasting of fascist demagoguery, which allowed neither response nor dissent – with the more democratic medium of telephony, which was at least predicated on dialogue and conversation. Adorno’s sometime collaborator Paul Lazarsfeld had the opposite worry: broadcasts may cause their listeners to feel informed about the world, and the listeners may mistake their new understanding for political action.

Debates​ over the BBC’s formation, now a hundred years old, are not of merely antiquarian interest. Wireless broadcasting became viable just after the First World War, at the same time as Britain moved towards universal suffrage: doubts about how the newly enfranchised public might be properly informed and enabled to make choices founded on accurate information, weren’t confined to those opposed to the widening of the franchise. Newspapers had carried naked propaganda throughout the war; afterwards they were no more trusted than governments. President Hoover moaned about the anarchic and uncontrolled operation of early commercial radio in the US: ‘The ether will be filled with frantic chaos.’ British politicians worried that popular opinion might be bought over the airwaves by commercial interests; their fears were exacerbated by rumours of the Bolsheviks’ use of broadcast propaganda. Powerful new technologies, fear of propaganda, anxiety over misled and distrustful voters, alarm over the disappearance of truth from public life: these are all contemporary concerns. What is strikingly different, however, is the faith that was placed in two now unfashionable ideas: the existence and importance of the public sphere, and the capacity of radio programming – not only explicitly political programming – to improve or degrade the listener. Public service broadcasting, and mass communications in general, are not historical adjuncts to universal suffrage, but contemporary with and inseparable from it.

Reith’s diaries reveal his admiration for Mussolini and Hitler, and his defence of the BBC’s impartiality and independence was always contingent, motivated at least in part by the failure of crude wartime propagandism. But he grasped broadcasting’s universal potential, which distinguished it from the printed press. It ran, he wrote, ‘as a reversal of the natural law that the more one takes, the less there is left for others’. However many thousands may be listening, ‘there is no limit to the amount which may be drawn off.’

Hilda Matheson, one of the many remarkable women who worked at the BBC in the early years, warned that it was easy to write ‘sentimentally and superficially’ about broadcasting’s universal reach. She captures better than Reith the mentality of the early corporation:

It is not necessarily an advantage that the humble crofter in his lone shieling may hear sounds generated in Paris, Vienna or New York if these sounds are silly, or vulgar, or false. The ripples started by silly noises spread further and pollute more widely – that is all. Broadcasting may spread the worst features of our age as effectively as the best; it is only stimulating, constructive and valuable in so far as it can stiffen individuality and inoculate those who listen with a capacity to think, feel and understand.

Matheson, a left-leaning lesbian (stereotypes about BBC staff had much early material), became the first director of talks at the BBC in 1927, the year before the prohibition on the corporation doing its own reporting was lifted. She recruited many of the most prominent members of the intelligentsia to deliver talks – Keynes, Shaw, Woolf, H.G. Wells – and was responsible for much of the characteristic tone and content of British radio. Matheson and Reith had a difficult relationship. In 1931, he refused her permission to put Harold Nicolson on air to discuss Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but offered a prototypical BBC fudge: Nicolson would instead be allowed to tell listeners about the decision. Matheson resigned from the corporation.

Her book Broadcasting, written shortly afterwards, displays the fascinated speculation that only a technology in its infancy can engender. She wonders how governments – or modern-day privateers – might use broadcasts to sway a foreign nation; she asks whether the slide to war might have been avoided had the 1914 Sarajevo assassination taken place in the wireless era and the public heard it discussed by experts; she discusses how a citizen might hear and compare the propaganda of multiple countries should war break out. We worry today about people being numbed by information overload, but Matheson saw that possibility too, complaining of a ‘surfeit of new experiences, facts, machines, noises, producing a feeling of helplessness, almost of despair’.

It is crashingly obvious that much has changed: the end of the BBC’s broadcast monopoly and the rise of competition, the introduction of what amounts to an internal market to the BBC, the gradual ascendancy of on-demand television – all these have unsettled the corporation’s sense of its purpose. Our tastes have changed too: a more egalitarian age flinches at Matheson or Reith’s easy dismissal of the ‘vulgar’, cavils at their patrician assurance, and baulks at the idea that the Bloomsbury Group are the only intellectual guides one could need. If there is some solace in finding that the fears of our age are not original, it is undercut by the knowledge that we cannot rely on a single broadcaster disseminating knowledge to the masses. We now have a digital free-for-all: social media transforms its users into micro-broadcasters, the costs of producing slick and meretricious content are minimal, and shared public spheres like Twitter have shattered into mutually recriminatory shards. If public interest broadcasting is merely a pleasing side effect of, or a time-limited opportunity presented by, the combination of the mass ownership of TV receivers and limited space on the airwaves, it will collapse. It needs to be defended as a democratic necessity on its own terms. A touch of Reithian optimism about its infinite potential reach and universalist opportunities might be necessary.

Digital transformation or pluralism are not the enemies in any case. Despite the anarchy and crudeness of social media, in its best moments it allows voices to be heard from far outside broadcasters’ reach. If one were to seek a silver lining to the storm clouds of abuse that all journalists sometimes face online, it is that people still exist who think reporting and comment matter, and that they are capable of shaping society. Even the apparently unending proliferation of podcasts should be understood in these terms: some, of course, are made by established institutions with money behind them, but many of the most interesting are made for a pittance, on themes otherwise undiscussed. Most share the tone set by Matheson when she experimented in the new medium just less than a century ago; some are trying out new kinds of storytelling. The BBC should see these as spurs to action.

The BBC’s PR team uses public interest programming and the trifecta of Reithian values as a shield. Questions of editorial control and judgment are silenced by the assertion that the BBC’s purpose is to ‘reflect, represent and serve’ the whole of the UK. But the actually existing BBC has obvious problems. Its management is bloated and increasingly timid; the commissioning process is byzantine; salary inequities are infamous. Its news and current affairs teams are thinner and ever more centralised (BBC Scotland and The Nine are perhaps an exception), and have to tend to an increasingly vast website and appetite for 24-hour news (as well as policing their most eminent correspondents’ apparent compulsion to live-tweet every story, not always accurately). Meanwhile, the coverage on BBC news programmes is increasingly standardised. Panorama still (occasionally) packs a punch; Newsnight reaches more and more often for gimmickry and three-minute punditry; Victoria Derbyshire’s daytime current affairs show, one of few to think seriously about its audience or to cover stories underserved by the flagship shows, has been cancelled. Question Time, meanwhile, has a studio audience composed of bigots whom the production team pander to in the hope of stirring up controversy on social media, so useful for its all-important ratings. Its new host, Fiona Bruce, recently expressed surprise at the ‘level of toxicity’ on the show, but hitting that mark now seems to be its primary aim.

At least the BBC has finally dropped the Andrew Neil vehicle This Week. That show delighted in its treatment of politics as a kind of bargain basement celebrity talkshow, in which serious differences of position and principle were muffled in rounds of sofa-bound backslapping. Perhaps, a viewer might conclude, those differences were never really serious in the first place? Neil’s reputation as a master interviewer, which rests on little more than his being prepared to read background research and pursue a line of questioning, is justified only occasionally: it is now the mainstay of his weekly early evening show. The inquisitorial style, which seeks above all the ‘gotcha’ moment in which a politician can be caught out in an instance of hypocrisy or an effort at misdirection, has weighty BBC pedigree in Robin Day. But in the hands of its modern practitioners it is a tool blunted by frequent use, unlikely to coax from its subject much in the way of truth but more in the way of evasion, or fireworks at best. It perhaps reinforces the unstated message of much contemporary political journalism: it’s all a con. As a viewer it is hard, sometimes, to avoid the conclusion that the BBC has lost faith in itself, its journalists and above all its consumers – we are certainly not thought of as the audience, let alone the public, any longer.

Worries over the seriousness of the programmes provided by public service broadcasting are perennial. The Pilkington committee on broadcasting, set up in 1960, castigated the ‘vapid and puerile’ programming of the new commercial channel, ITV, and recommended that a third channel be introduced, to be run by the BBC (BBC2 was launched in 1964). Current BBC executives bristle at suggestions of trivialisation: gimmicks and sensationalism are justified as part of an effort to reach new audiences, and to survive in a world of cut-throat competition – something lofty-minded critics can happily ignore. One poll found that 74 per cent of the public think the BBC is ‘effective at informing people’, a statistic carefully blazoned near the top of its Annual Report. But given the BBC’s hegemony in the market, what standard would one use to judge its effectiveness? Is the BBC informing people well enough? How would we know if it wasn’t?

There are also criticisms of the BBC’s news output that do not rely on subjective measures of seriousness or triviality. One might be that, although the Today programme still dictates much of the daily political cycle, its own agenda is too often set by newspapers’ morning headlines. The BBC is far from alone among broadcasters in this, but it is in a unique position to break its own stories – and its refusal to do so is a conscious decision. Its journalists’ closeness to politicians is a subtler but more pervasive problem (which it shares with lobby journalists for the press), and it has an effect on the way the BBC reports on politics. It’s not so much that it leads to undue softness – though Andrew Marr has suggested that the ‘same perspective that gives you insight, also blunts your hostility’ – as that it leads correspondents to adopt an insiders’ perspective when covering Westminster, to lay the same weight on internecine struggles and daily gossip that many politicians do. Policy often recedes from view, or is treated as a pretext for the drama of power struggle, or is shunted into the recesses of specialist programming (where the journalist will apologise for being ‘geeky’ enough to bother with detail).

These problems are not all of the BBC’s making. In an address to the Royal Television Society in 2018, the current director-general, Tony Hall, made clear that he viewed the ‘big shift’ to online and on-demand consumption as the corporation’s most significant challenge, and the one on which it would be judged. He also discussed two other problems: the need for more money to sustain the BBC’s output, and the difficulty of providing ‘something for everyone’. In the days when everyone watched TV as it was broadcast, schedulers tried to ‘hammock’ programmes on serious issues between lighter entertainment, hoping the audience would stay the course; such tricks are harder to pull off in the digital era, and the question of who’s watching can end up occluding the question of what they’re being offered. But if the BBC comes to see itself as just one more competitor in the algorithmic feed, it will find itself diminished. Its dominant position, and its mandate to supply what cannot be supplied by the market, gives it the opportunity to push back: not by walling itself off from new media, but by using it to give its audience something more substantial and expansive.

The BBC does some things well: dramas, documentaries and history programming. Current affairs programming could be bolstered by drawing on some of the storytelling innovations in those areas to produce series on housing, or migration, or the history of the Union; or on how the country might look, or how we might live our lives, after climate change. One of the BBC’s most valuable resources is its archive, recently part-monetised through the BritBox subscription scheme. But it’s also a source for new ideas: it provides a record of how the corporation responded in the past to the challenges posed by new technology, new competitors, new political pressures.

Defenders of the BBC often cite as a doomsday scenario the bleached teeth, melodramatic behaviour and detachment from reality of Fox News anchors, or even the less repulsive but undeniably smug Beltway smarm of MSNBC. You might object that at least these journalists wear their political affiliations openly and that Piers Morgan is already importing the model of culture war masquerading as news to his morning show on ITV. The US adopted cable TV earlier and more widely than the UK: it became the first post-broadcast nation. Markus Prior’s study of that shift, Post-Broadcast Democracy (2007), suggests that the drift towards increasingly partisan civic life had less to do with the rise of partisan channels – though they have no doubt bolstered the divisions – than the sudden arrival of the possibility for people to avoid the news completely. Americans once had little option but to watch some news if they wanted to watch TV in the evening, but cable cleared the way for an all-entertainment diet. Prior’s study was written before the rise of social media and the streaming giants, but it isn’t hard to imagine how near infinite choice and minimal quality control might further diminish any shared culture.

The blame for a fractious politics can’t be laid entirely at the feet of the media. It would also be too easy to accede to the pessimist’s hasty embrace of inevitability, to agree that an atomised public sphere is the only possible outcome of technological change. A post-broadcast era need not be a post-democratic one; an increasingly plural public sphere could be a resource as much as a threat. The BBC’s hegemony in Britain affords it opportunities to defend its own role and the role of public service broadcasting generally. It is a commonplace that it has many admirers but few friends. Now it is under naked attack by the government, it may find it has more than it thought. But change still remains necessary. As Matheson put it in 1933, ‘few of us are altogether proof against the lure of new prospects; few of us are without regrets when this means – as it usually does – parting with much to which we cling.’

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