Emran Mian is the Director of Social Market Foundation and a former Director of Strategy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and director responsible for the Cabinet Office and Number 10 Business Partnerships team.
The debate about the BBC’s future is underway. There are many issues that run through it – how to pay for the BBC, how well it uses the money – though the most fundamental question is about its purpose.
As John Whittingdale puts it in the foreword to the Green Paper that started the Charter Review, ‘What should the BBC be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been before?’
The BBC Trust, in its initial response, suggests a ‘proposed set of public purposes’ for the BBC, headlined by ‘providing news and information to help people understand the world around them’. This is canny; if public service broadcasting has any irreducible core, then it must presumably be this. From Reith onwards, the BBC and others have consistently spoken about public service broadcasting in these terms.
These ‘public purposes’ that underpin the BBC’s position enjoy a high level of popular support. But, because the BBC dominates how those purposes have been fulfilled in our experience, we are unlikely to be effective judges of whether the BBC is good at living up to its mission of public service broadcasting. The BBC has a dominant market position and remains the exclusive recipient of licence fee funding. In other words, the game is rigged in its favour.
We’re exposed to more and other forms of quality and creativity in broadcasting than when the BBC was created - fair enough. Nevertheless, scratch the surface of what most of us mean by the highest editorial and creative standards and it’s likely that much of the time we’re thinking of something brought to us by the BBC. For instance, when we think of independence, we think of Jeremy Paxman’s interviews. Impartiality is the name of the style in which the BBC presents controversy.
We can’t judge whether the BBC manifests the values we’re talking about because it’s only through the BBC, in the largest part, that we know what manifesting these values looks like.
It’s like asking whether the Church of England is good at Anglicanism. The question isn’t incoherent, but it doesn’t exactly set an objective standard.
The BBC could argue that this argument is flawed because some of its content is already commissioned from the wider market, which provides alternative voices, versions and modes of public service broadcasting.
But this is inadequate for two reasons: external commissioning is limited – only 25 per cent of television hours are guaranteed to independent producers; and the BBC as commissioner remains the arbiter of whether the content created fulfils the purposes and duties of public service broadcasting. Acting in this way, the BBC pluralises production, but not the interpretation of the values of public service broadcasting.
As a consequence, it remains vulnerable to accusations – and perhaps the reality – of being slanted in one political direction or another; its content being particularly valuable to older and richer audiences rather than the full range of the people paying the licence fee; and in struggling to reach, as its own audience research suggests it does, those from minority ethnic or religious backgrounds. In fact, the latest work by the BBC Trust suggests that, among the main broadcasters, the BBC’s appeal to younger and minority audiences has fallen by the most.
The solution is to introduce greater pluralism into the BBC, breaking the hold of a single view of how to do public service broadcasting with funding provided by the licence fee.
Here are some ideas for how this could be achieved:
- Commission out BBC Two and BBC Radio 2. Not just a fixed number of hours of programming but entire channels. The same purposes and duties would apply as for the rest of the BBC; and the providers would be responsible to the regulator for performance against them. This would be a major reform to the market, diverting around £600 million of licence fee funding to other providers.
- Require the BBC to share future content development plans with the regulator privately – and give commercial providers the option of doing so. This would allow the regulator to take a view on where proposed new content from the BBC duplicates upcoming content from commercial providers; and it could instruct the BBC not to proceed with such content development. It is a step beyond the present arrangement between the BBC and the BBC Trust, where the latter can block the development of platforms or innovations already provided by the wider market.
- Open up the BBC News website and apps to allow users to pull in alongside BBC content the content produced by other providers who opt to abide by the public service purposes and duties set by the regulator. Every user’s BBC online and mobile experience will become pluralist, more like the experience of reading news and commentary in Feedly or Facebook, while still public in character.
While these proposals represent significant steps in increasing the pluralism of the BBC’s output, reason enough to consider them, they will also provide real-world alternatives to the BBC’s present version of public service broadcasting. By having access to those, we will be able to compare the different versions against each other – judge which is more innovative, lower cost, or simply the most popular.
At the moment, any radical change in the licence fee – whether upwards or downwards – or a fundamental review of the remit of public service broadcasting – whether to expand or to reduce it – would have to be done mainly in the dark. Those who do imagine radical change to the BBC do it largely on the basis of economic theory rather than solid evidence.
However, if we were to create a pluralist model for public service broadcasting, we would soon have much better information against which to consider future reform. which may in turn enable a more significant shift in policy by the time of the next charter review.