The BBC has recently announced plans to scrap quotas for in-house production. John McVay, the Chief Executive of the independent producers’ trade body described it as an “historic moment” and said that the BBC had “jumped before it was pushed”. BBC insiders have commented (off the record) that it is “a short hop, skip and jump to the BBC becoming a publisher broadcaster.”
To assess the significance of this move, we need to ask ourselves what exactly the BBC is for. When founded, the first Director General, Lord Reith, considered that it was there to inform, educate and entertain. As the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ row between the government and the BBC demonstrated, frequent reviews of the Charter, the power to appoint the BBC Board and Director General and the dependence on the license fee give the government of the day tremendous influence when it comes how it ‘informs’. In a recent survey for the BBC by Ipsos MORI in February, the BBC scored an average 6.5 out of 10 in response to the question of how impartial it was. To give this scale some meaning, that great fabricator of misleading information, the Daily Mail, scored 4.1! The BBC’s pitiful ‘balanced’ reporting of the Israeli attacks on Gaza can only have further depressed the BBC’s impartiality rating. The contempt with which the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time, is now held by a significant proportion of its potential audience (just look at the tweets than accompany this pitiful programme) is tangible and demonstrates how our confidence in the BBC has slipped.
On education, the BBC continues to play a useful but minor role. Its nature programmes are generally good and its coverage of science is sound if uninspiring. But surveys show that even on information and education, it is now treated with less confidence than Wikipedia.
On entertainment, the role played by the BBC is essentially to set a minimum quality standard that commercial stations have to take into account. In this it has been quite successful, prompting both ITV and even Sky to raise their games in drama and comedy and not to rely exclusively in cheap imports from the USA. Whether this leadership can be retained when the BBC is no longer constrained by an in-house quota is problematical. The BBC could indeed be on its way to becoming a “publisher broadcaster” and, from there, oblivion.
What is the way forward for the BBC? Obviously, it should not be handed over to Murdoch or Sky as many on the right would like to see. Its modest independence from the government of the day needs to defended and strengthened. The license fee needs to be retained, but an element of progressivity included. While it is not realistic to think that a public broadcaster can be truly independent of the capitalist interests that control everything else in our society, we should continue to press for a fair hearing for the left and progressive causes. A good place to start would be for the BBC to respond at last to Early Day Motions in parliament calling on it to include the Morning Star in its coverage of the UK press.