BBC’s future in question after Commons report

Off with your headquarters: Angry viewers protest at BBC HQ in London © PA

Ninety-six percent of us use the BBC, but a new report from MPs calls for change in the way it is funded and governed. Is a great and revered national institution at risk?

When Sir John Reith was appointed general manager of the rudimentary BBC in 1922, he said, ‘I was confronted with problems of which I had no experience’. If only he knew the issues facing the broadcaster a century later, as a new report questions how long one of our greatest national institutions can continue as it is.

The BBC needs to rein in its size and scope, abolish its governing body, the BBC Trust, and change its funding, say the MPs in the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

The trust is too close to the BBC, says the report, and has mishandled recent crises concerning the broadcaster. An organisation of the size and cost of the BBC, it advises, needs more rigorous and autonomous scrutiny.

It says that the license fee, an annual payment of £145.50 by every household owning a television, does not fit in with how we consume media in the digital age. Instead, the MPs suggest a universal tax.

The report also says it should stop trying to offer ‘something for everyone’ by covering the same ground as other broadcasters. Instead, it should take more risks and ‘be distinctive’.

The BBC is one of the UK’s most admired institutions, respected for its objectivity and integrity. It is advertisement-free and politically neutral, thanks to public funding. But it has also faced a lot of criticism in recent years.

In what one BBC journalist described as its ‘biggest crisis for over 50 years’, the recent Jimmy Savile child-abuse scandal called the broadcaster’s reputation into question over some of its staff’s alleged complicity.

It has also been criticised for excessive spending. After costs of its new London headquarters were released, the National Audit Office said the BBC needed to make better use of its space to achieve value for money.

The Commons committee’s chairman, however, says that while the BBC has been involved in such disasters, it remains ‘a widely admired and trusted institution’, and is vital to the UK and abroad. Much of the public agrees: a 2013 poll found it to be the most trusted news source.

BBC gone

The BBC may not be perfect, fans of the BBC say, but perfection is impossible for such an enormous establishment. It investigates its own mistakes and listens to reports such as this one. While it may need to adapt to changing times, its fair reporting provides an essential pillar to democracy that we could not live without.

Others argue that the sheer scale and size of the BBC means it will never be able to rid itself of bureaucracy and crises. There are other broadcasters that provide quality content, and plenty of accurate and impartial news sources that come without the problems which the BBC will never be able to avoid.

You Decide

  1. Does the BBC’s content and news justify the licence fee we pay?
  2. Is fair and accurate reporting vital to a democracy? Why?

Activities

  1. The BBC promises to inform, educate and entertain. If you set up a corporation like the BBC, what three words would sum up your mission statement? Make bullet points explaining how you would adhere to them.
  2. Imagine someone tells you they use the BBC’s services but don’t pay the license fee. Write a letter to them explaining why the BBC needs funding, and why it’s worth paying.

Some People Say...

“The BBC is almost certainly the best news organisation in the world”

Alan Rusbridger

What do you think?

Q & A

It’s all well and good telling the BBC what it needs to do, but who says it’s going to listen?
The BBC is historically very adept at listening to criticism and being self-aware. In the past it has launched investigations into its own behaviour, and has even produced a TV series parodying its own headquarters and the people working in it.
Do all countries have an independent broadcasting institution like the BBC?
No. In fact, some have very biased reporting. This is one of the reasons why the BBC is important to so many people. Take Russia, for instance, where media is dominated by channels run by the state or owned by companies with close ties to the Kremlin. Russian journalists investigating issues such as corruption run the risk of attack — indeed 26 are reported killed since 2000.

Word Watch

BBC Trust
The BBC Trust was established in 2007 as the corporation’s independent regulator.
Universal tax
The report’s most talked about conclusion is that the BBC should be paid for by a universal tax. How this tax will be collected is up for debate, but there are questions about the 4% of people that never use the BBC. The current TV license disregards how many of us consume media these days: on our phones, tablets and laptops.
Same ground
The BBC has a steady income, thanks to TV licence-payers. Critics say this means it should take more risks with its programmes, and not rely on formats viewers can find on other channels.
Excessive spending
The BBC’s London £1bn headquarters costs an alleged £89m a year to run. The BBC defends the costs by explaining that the office makes around half of all of the BBC’s output and broadcasts globally 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Abroad
The BBC World Service is broadcast internationally, delivering a multimedia service in over 30 languages. It attracts an audience of hundreds of millions every week.

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