Ovid (publius_ovidius) wrote,

What is the BBC?

I'm a BBC employee, but these thoughts are my own and are not the official position of the BBC.

The BBC is world's largest broadcaster. We provide a wide variety of programming in a variety of areas. For historical reasons, we collect a license fee from the public. If you watch TV live in the UK, you currently have to pay £139.50 per year. The UK Conservative and Unionist Party, more commonly known as the Conservatives, or Tory party, wants to force the BBC to give up part of its license fee to for-profit corporations which, unlike the BBC, can advertise to earn revenue.

Well, so what? What's so special about the BBC that we should have a right to public money? Well, we have no intrinsic right to this money in the same way that, say, the police and fire departments don't have an intrinsic right to public money. However, like any public good, society cooperates to share certain resources for public gain. The fee is mandatory if you watch TV live and that's because voluntary cooperation leads to the free rider problem with public goods. In other words, when you have a shared resource that everyone can enjoy regardless of whether or not they pay for it, then some (sometimes many) will refuse to pay for, particularly in times of economic hardship. That's why you pay taxes for police, even in a recession. The presence of police will benefit you whether you're paying taxes or not. So the real question is, do we get what we're paying for from the BBC?

Just as a quick reminder, here are a few accomplishments of the BBC:

  • We were the world's first national TV
  • We were doing radio relay from the US in 1924
  • In 1936 we launched the world's first TV service, proving it was viable
  • 1937, we developed the first efficient speech microphone
  • 1945, "Woman's Hour" was the first woman's radio programme (we already had the world's first female radio announcer over a decade before)
  • 1952, we developed a video tape recorder
  • In 1962, we were doing satellite broadcasting
  • 1967, we launched colour TV in the UK
  • 1974, we developed CEEFAX and gave subtitles to our programming.
  • 1982, we introduced the BBC Micro in an effort to bring computer literacy to schoolchildren
  • 1995 Digital audio broadcasting
  • 2007 iPlayer launched

People seem to forget that many of the communication initiatives in the UK came first from the BBC because we were able to take risks that a profit-driven organisation is less likely to take, or will take later after waiting to see if others become successful. Many internal initiatives that we're currently taking are fantastic things I want to see made public, but I can imagine that if I were to go to another media organisation, they'd be less likely to take those risks due to the cost.

Of course, most people don't think about that. They just care about watching telly or listening to the radio. And what do we do there? Let John Cleese whinge about it.

So why do the Tories want to force us to give up part of our license fee? I don't know. Gosh, why would any politician want an organisation they have limited influence over to transfer power to profit-driven organisations whose corporate owners might hand that politician or their party lots of money or positive publicity? (Why would Republicans favour Fox over PBS?).

One thing the Tories would like you to forget is that we're already required to spend 25% of our income on external suppliers and we exceed that amount. So they want to force us to give up part of our license fee on top of our legal obligation to have a 25% external spend. I didn't hear that in the Tory speech I linked to above.

Inside the UK, we get beat up a lot by various media groups who are, to be fair, further right than we are. (In fact, the Daily Mail is only a short step away from being the mouthpiece of the racist British Nationalist Party). What people inside the UK often don't seem to realise is the worldwide admiration for the BBC. Many people outside the UK rely on the BBC to provide them "unfiltered" news they can't get elsewhere. You're simply not going to find profit-driven corporations forgetting what is needed to maintain that profit. There are plenty of times you can read about major stories being toned down or eliminated due to concerns about advertisers pulling out.

Many people in the US are unaware of the history of PBS, a station which could have been the US counterpart to the BBC. So what happened to them? In short, Richard Nixon. Nixon was unhappy with the independent spirit of public broadcasting. He felt they were too liberal and able to advocate for national causes that he didn't approve of. As a result, in 1972, he refused to sign H.R. 13918, a bill which would have provided full funding for PBS. That's why many shows on PBS are "brought to you by the MAJOR CORPORATE INTEREST OF THE DAY". Specifically, he wrote:

There are many fundamental disagreements concerning the directions which public broadcasting has taken and should pursue in the future. Perhaps the most important one is the serious and widespread concern--expressed in Congress and within public broadcasting itself---that an organization, originally intended only to serve the local stations, is becoming instead the center of power and the focal point of control for the entire public broadcasting system.

In short, public broadcasting should be about local interests, regardless of whether or not national issues fall within the scope of "public interest". PBS could have been so much more, but because it's funded by taxes and major corporations and the periodic public begging for donations, it's highly constrained in its ability to be independent. Republicans are still trying to cut its funding further. Right-wing news sources like Newsmax have pages describing why public funding for PBS should be eliminated. PBS periodically refuses to show public interest content which might offend corporate interests who fund PBS.

In short, remaining independent is critical to ensure that the BBC is able to present innovative programmes and independent news and public interest stories. The Tories want this independence to end. Right-wing media in the UK would love to see us eliminated. Yes, we present content that some people will find uncomfortable or unpleasant, but is the purpose of the BBC to present bland programming which does not provoke thought or debate? Is the role of the BBC constrained to not offending anyone? That's an impossible goal. As public and political attitudes shift, the BBC would have to constantly race to adjust all programming to be a bland morass of "feel good" shows which do little to make people think and does everything to avoid challenging their beliefs. Many people argue that we already have 1984 in Britain. Do we want Brave New World, too?

For more background on how the media works, I highly recommend the book Unreliable Sources - A Guide to Detecting Bias in the Media. Rather than have pundits tell you what is and is not biased. Learn to recognise bias for yourself. The BBC is not perfect, and perhaps our public funding does mean that we don't present news which makes a white, heterosexual Christian world happy, but that's what's great about the BBC. You may not always like it, but it's going to make you think and it's going to prompt debate.

Tags: bbc
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