It’s a question that may appear alarmist, but it’s surely a valid one to ask given recent developments affecting the future of Britain’s national broadcaster. Fresh from imposing a new licence fee settlement (with no public debate or consultation) on the corporation requiring it to shoulder the substantial cost of free television licences for over-75’s, the UK government has now launched a major review of the BBC’s entire operations.
New Culture secretary John Whittingdale has appointed an advisory panel of grandees to examine the BBC’s purpose, services and content, funding, governance and regulation. Quite a list. Cue a worried response from the corporation’s supporters and (finally, after that rather-too-accommodating acceptance of the new licence fee deal) an outspoken response from the corporation itself. The BBC can’t always be relied upon to stand up for itself, however, as evidenced by its tendency to lapse into self-recrimination and cravenly apologetic tone whenever it becomes subject to another bout of criticism from whatever quarter.
Others have been quick to jump to the corporation’s defence, suspecting that the motives of the newly elected majority Conservative government lie less in ensuring that the BBC is fit-for-purpose in the twenty-first century broadcasting landscape and more in cutting down to size what they view as an old-style, publicly run corporation which impedes the free market and embodies the outdated nanny state. Steven Moffat has joined other well-known names from the worlds of film and television to sign a letter to the Prime Minister defending the BBC and ‘place on record… our concern that nothing should be done to diminish the BBC or turn it into a narrowly focused market-failure broadcaster’. The letter, also signed by former Doctor Who alumni Brian Cox and Richard Curtis, goes on to argue that ‘a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain’.
Broadcasting union BECTU have added their voice to the debate, launching a ‘Love it or lose it’ petition calling on the government scrap the new funding deal, arguing it will mean cuts in services, programmes being dropped and many job losses.
Steven Moffat makes his living from the BBC, of course, as do many members of BECTU but it would surely be a mistake to dismiss all of this as simply a case of vested interests speaking out when they see the prospect of their livelihoods being threatened. The BBC, for all its faults, still enjoys widespread public support and the fact that some of those who have spoken out to voice concern about the review hail from Conservative-leaning backgrounds demonstrates that this isn’t just a partisan issue. This is way too important for that.
So what is to be done? Letters and petitions are tried and tested campaign methods but is it time for something a bit more innovative, more public, more modern? There has been no shortage of campaigns in recent years which have used new technology to get their message across – maybe there are some lessons for the BBC’s champions to learn? There has to be a political dimension to this, naturally, and UK opposition parties, still bruised and wounded by the general election defeat, will want to seize the opportunity presented by an issue which puts them in tune with public opinion against the government.
But the BBC belongs to the public, not to the politicians or the government or the people who work for it. It surely has to be the public who decide what they want from the BBC. So what do you think? What should those who are worried by recent events concerning the BBC be doing about it? How do we save the BBC?