Don’t ‘eviscerate’ the BBC, cry BAFTA winners

Hands off: Have I Got News For You star Ian Hislop defended the BBC at the BAFTA awards. © PA

The BBC had a triumphant awards ceremony this weekend. Speaker after speaker passionately defended the ‘greatest broadcaster in the world’. Yet the government seems to want big changes. Why?

The director of the best drama called it ‘the envy of the world’. ‘Long may it live,’ said the best actor. A veteran comedian thanked it for allowing him to be rude about ‘governments of all persuasions’ — and itself.

At Sunday night’s BAFTA TV awards, a series of winners showered praise on the BBC. They were greeted with rapturous applause. Even employees of rival broadcasters took up the theme. One audience member described the mood as ‘astonishing’.

Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky said viewers should ‘stand up and fight for it, not let it go by default’. Planned change, he added, could make it similar to the media in ‘those bastions of democracy, Russia and North Korea’.

The BBC has been broadcasting since 1922 and now reaches over 300m people globally. Each week, almost four in five British people watch its TV channels; over three in five listen to BBC radio.

But this week, a government paper could radically alter its future. The corporation may be asked to share its revenue with other broadcasters. Popular shows could come under pressure from extra regulation and audits. High-profile staff could see their earnings made public. A supporter said plans for greater oversight and a new board would constitute ‘an attack on independence through the back door’.

Speculation that a major change is afoot was heightened last week when John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, joked that it was ‘occasionally tempting’ to abolish the organisation.

The BBC is a public service broadcaster which aims to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ people. It is answerable to a public trust, not shareholders, and has a duty to remain politically impartial.

It now collects around £3.7 billion from licence fee payments annually. But TV ownership is falling, channels are proliferating and more people now watch TV online. Last year George Osborne, the chancellor, said the BBC was ‘becoming a bit more imperial in its ambitions’. Some would like the UK to follow the Netherlands, which abolished its licence fee in 2000.

So does the BBC need significant change?

Best of British?

No, say its defenders. In Germany and Italy, similar broadcasters often find themselves compared unfavourably with the BBC. It is the only public service broadcaster in the UK, motivated by high-minded principles in a sea of profit-chasing media outlets. It should be allowed to evolve gradually.

It needs a fundamental adjustment, respond critics. No institution is politically impartial, and big public broadcasters are naturally left-wing. The BBC has grown complacent and anti-competitive. In a time of rapid technological and societal change, the BBC must not assume it can offer the same service it always has.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with the BAFTA winners’ praise of the BBC?
  2. Should the BBC be changed fundamentally?

Activities

  1. Work in fours with people who have varied personal interests. Create a BBC One schedule for a week’s worth of evenings (from 6pm to 12pm). Consider how to mix quality with variety and when each show should be on.
  2. Research three planned changes to the BBC. For each, write a paragraph explaining the case in favour and a paragraph explaining the case against. Then explain whether you agree with it.

Some People Say...

“The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

James Murdoch, Sky

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t use the BBC. Does it matter what happens to it?
Even if you do not use it, lots of other people do, so it helps to shape society. If the BBC make a successful show, others may copy the format, and commercial broadcasters may change their decisions to compete with it. And if you are British, the BBC is well known around the world, meaning it helps to shape foreigners’ perception of your country.
But I just watch TV. I don’t care about the political discussions.
The decisions made by politicians in the next few months will have a direct impact on the TV you watch, as well as on the BBC’s radio channels and website. If the BBC has less money, for example, quality in these areas may drop. But if it is allowed to raise more, the licence fee will cost you more in the future.

Word Watch

Best actor
Mark Rylance, star of Wolf Hall.
Each week
According to the BBC’s audience information for April — June 2015.
Paper
The white paper will outline priorities for a charter review later this year. BBC charter reviews take place each decade.
Share
Other broadcasters could bid for money to make children’s TV shows. But reports suggest ministers are likely to reach a compromise on this issue.
Regulation
Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, may be asked to stop the BBC from scheduling some of its popular shows — such as Strictly Come Dancing — in primetime, in order to give commercial broadcasters more chance to gain an audience.
Back door
The BBC’s defenders fear this could compromise programmes which hold the powerful to account, such as Panorama and Newsnight.
Whittingdale
The BBC’s supporters were unnerved by his appointment last year, as he had previously criticised the licence fee.
Licence fee
This is currently £145.50 per year. Anyone who owns a TV, or watches BBC shows live online, must pay it; there are plans to extend this to those watching the iPlayer catch-up service.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.