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Summary:

There have been calls for a restructuring of the British public broadcaster in the wake of scandals involving sexual-abuse charges against prominent British citizens. But does the BBC just need to be shaken up, or does its entire mandate for public journalism need to be reviewed?

The BBC is embroiled in what its own government overseer has called — with typical British reserve — a “ghastly mess” as a result of two sex-related scandals: one involving a long-time presenter who has been accused of child abuse, and the other sparked by a news story that accused a former British MP politician of similar offences and turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Everyone from the chairman of the BBC Trust to independent media-industry observers are calling for the broadcaster to be re-organized or somehow reformed, but no one (so far) is attacking the larger question: Is there a purpose for state-funded news outlets like the BBC any more, and if so what is it — and is the BBC capable of fulfilling that purpose?

To put things in perspective, the British Broadcasting Corp. isn’t just a government-financed news outlet. It also happens to be one of the largest broadcasters and news agencies in the world, with almost 25,000 employees, and an annual budget — financed primarily by the “TV tax” that the British government levies on every television set owning household in the country — of more than $5 billion. Do we really need that kind of state-financed news entity in an age when journalism is everywhere? Couldn’t that amount of money be used in better ways, either to fund independent news entities or for some other purpose?

Does the BBC need to be restructured or dismantled?

The first bombshell to hit what Brits call “The Beeb” came when Jimmy Savile, host of a long-running entertainment show, was accused of having engaged in sexual abuse of children over a span of several decades. The state broadcaster’s show Newsnight had a piece prepared that detailed these allegations, but someone at the organization spiked the story. The director-general of the agency, Mark Thompson — who just became the new CEO of the New York Times Co. — has said he had no knowledge of the incident, but the decision has sparked a loss of confidence in the BBC’s ability to monitor itself.

Just weeks after this crisis, the broadcaster aired a Newsnight documentary about a separate case of sexual-abuse allegations, and identified a prominent MP Conservative, Lord McAlpine, as the perpetrator. Unfortunately for the BBC and everyone involved in the program, the victim later said that his attacker was not Lord McAlpine — and it turned out that the broadcaster had not actually confirmed that McAlpine was involved, nor had it approached the MP about the allegations. The BBC’s new director-general has stepped down after just 2 months in the job, and the agency’s director of news and the deputy director for news have also stepped aside. (Update: As a number of readers have pointed out, the program didn’t name Lord McAlpine but referred to a senior Conservative from the Thatcher era. At least one of the journalists who worked on the documentary identified the subject as McAlpine, however, and that information then spread through Twitter).

Much of the response to these events has focused on how the BBC needs to be restructured in some way: how the head of the news or editorial division should be separate from the head of the business side or the director-general’s office, etc. Former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell, now at Columbia University running the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, does a good job of retracing the steps that may have led to the BBC’s recent journalistic failures. And almost everyone notes that the Beeb is still trusted and in some cases even revered by the British people — but there are those who suggest otherwise:

Do we need a single state-funded source of journalism?

But while the BBC’s decisions in both of these cases deserve all the investigation they are getting both from within the agency and from outside it, it’s worth asking whether the British government — and by extension the British populace — need to be financing a $5-billion organization to produce journalism. And if they do, what should that entity’s purpose be? A similar question could be asked in Australia and Canada, both of which have their own national versions of the BBC (the U.S. also helps subsidize National Public Radio and other public entities, although the majority of their revenue comes from donations).

As even a former chairman of the British broadcaster has pointed out, one of the biggest criticisms that can be made of a state-funded news outlet like the BBC is that it is being paid to compete with private broadcasters and news companies, many of which can barely afford to continue doing business at all, let alone match the vast revenue and resources of the Beeb. Along with its counterparts in Australia and Canada, the BBC has become a powerful force in online news, ranking just below outlets like the New York Times and CNN when it comes to overall audience.

Supporters argue that there is a place for an (allegedly) impartial source of journalism, one that will undertake the kinds of investigative projects that other outlets do not — and that would be a great rationale for the existence of a state-funded news entity, if that’s all the BBC and its counterparts did. But the reality is that they also produce a vast quantity of regular news and entertainment as well. Is that really something that residents of Britain need to subsidize with their taxes?

If governments want to fund the creation of news and journalism, maybe they would be better off finding some way to do that by financing independent entities, the way the Knight Foundation and other non-profit trusts do, instead of propping up anachronistic players like the BBC.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users zawtowers and R/DV/RS

  1. To keep the media landscape balanced, we will always need entities that have a mandate other than profitability. PBS in the U.S. is a great example. No private broadcaster would create a series like Nova, or Sesame Street. Not when the lure of reality TV beckons with its dirt-cheap production costs and sky-high ad spots. Restructure the Beeb, but don’t kill it. That would be too high a price for these unfortunate events.

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    1. How do we know a private broadcaster or some other entity wouldn’t create something like Nova or Sesame Street? They haven’t because a publicly-funded entity already did it, but that’s not to say someone wouldn’t have if that entity didn’t exist.

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      1. Hmm, not really buying that line of reasoning. By that argument, Samsung and other should never have created their own iPhone competitors because Apple got there first. Which of course, is silly. Competition happens when organizations perceive opportunity. I can only assume that the reason no private broadcaster hasn’t created their own Nova is that they don’t see a compelling reason to. Because it’s not a big enough prize to chase. Which is not to say that the privates do nothing in this space – Discovery channel has some great stuff in this vein. But generally speaking, they go after the big audiences. As they should. That’s why we need both.

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      2. Yes, it’s possible that some private broadcaster might have created Sesame Street, but that’s like saying some private company could have put us on the moon in 1969. The fact remains that market forces don’t naturally support either, so a government role may be justified in broadcasting to support educational and cultural programming that benefits society as a whole. I would have agreed with you more if Discovery, the History Channel, A&E, etc., were still producing the quality of shows they did 10 or more years ago, but not now, with the unadulterated reality junk these “educational” channels now major in.

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    2. I guess you don’t remember the Jacques Cousteau specials back in the 60s or the National Geographic Specials that aired on network television back in the 70s in the US. Those shows were created for and aired on commercial television.

      I grant you US television is mostly a “vast wasteland” but there are exceptions and there is no reason to believe for-profit TV can’t create shows every bit as good as Sesame Street or Nova.

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  2. Agree completely with the first photo of a tweet you’ve posted. I’ve watched American television and it’s bloody awful.

    The BBC does A LOT more than just journalism and it does it to a very high standard. That, in turn, forces independent broadcasters to be better. It really is the gold standard of broadcasting, and you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

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  3. I agree with the middle tweet – it has more to do with the state of entitled bureaucracy than quality journalism.

    I am a big fan of Canada’s CBC… yes it is expensive, but isnt it wonderful what sort of quality programming can be created when an organization is not afraid to raise the bar instead of catering to the lowest common denominator?

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    1. Thanks, Buzz — but part of the point is that the CBC and BBC are competing with private media companies on an unfair playing field, particularly in the case of the BBC. Does that seem fair?

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      1. Then who would you have produce media which is not profitable? Media that caters to small audiences that would not be catered to if not for a national broadcaster? As far as the news is concerned, embedding journalists in foreign countries for long periods is not a profitable venture, yet it allows the BBC to provide insight far beyond what could be achieved by jetting someone in when a major story breaks. An organisation like the BBC can do these things through a combination of selling quality programming abroad and through the licence fee. Do you honestly believe that private media could or would step up to these challenges? Would CNN lay on community radio stations which cater to small ethnic minorities? Would Fox pay a journalist to live in Syria for years at a time to provide an emic/etic mix of reporting on the occasion that something happens?

        Before you consider what is fair to the other media producers, consider what is fair to the consumer – you know, the way we all do when it seems that private enterprise is being favored over citizens by government regulation .

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      2. Nicholas Lovell Monday, November 12, 2012

        You haven’t made any argument about why “fair” matters. Your post asks if we “need” the BBC. Your response suggests that you believe that is unfair and distorts the market, even though that isn’t the argument that you made in the post.

        Is that the crux of your argument: that the BBC distorts market competition, and hence should not exist, or is it something else?

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      3. That is part of the argument that I made in the post — that it distorts the market unfairly because of its size and funding. And I am not arguing that it needs to be abolished, just that it might not need to be quite so massive.

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      4. It’s only “unfair” when they pull ad revenue out of the equation AND take subsidies – at least that’s what the private broadcasters would have you believe.

        I value the CBC/BBC as an entity that does what private broadcasters are unwilling to do: put efforts in to creating quality programming to attract the widest audience. When you don’t have to “worry” about the bottom line, it’s amazing what you can create.

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  4. As an American, I am glad the BBC exists. The quality of BBC shows is much higher than the crap we see on US Cable TV.

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  5. To view the BBC as producing nothing but news and entertainment is to underestimate it drastically. It provides education, can offset the costs of minority and niche broadcasting (where there would otherwise be none,or none of sufficient quality to be worth ,mentioning) by producing and selling abroad popular content (Top Gear,Sherlock) etc. It is worth keeping for journalism alone, and despite recent issues there is still no outlet I trust more,but it goes far beyond that.

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    1. Yes, that selling popular content abroad is part of the problem — since it is taxpayer-subsidized. Only the BBC has the wherewithal to do that.

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  6. Because of negligence you call to shut down state sponsored media outlets? You are an idiot sir!! The only thing that needs to be restructure is their HR and hiring practices so they don’t hire negligent and untalented moron.

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  7. Daniel Bentley Monday, November 12, 2012

    TLC was founded by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and NASA. It was privatized in 1980 and now shows Honey Boo Boo.

    Case closed :)

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  8. It isn’t a case of “do we need?” it’s a matter of “can we cope with losing?”.

    Shifting the balance of media in the UK in such a drastic manner as abolishing the BBC would have long reaching effects that journalism in the UK would struggle to recover from. There are too many agendas pulling in different directions for the sort of idealism eluded to by Martin Hughes-games to flourish independently. Lets be honest with ourselves, if that pure idealism was still present and capable of doing the job it would be regardless of the BBC’s existence. Everyone’s Gutenberg now remember.

    In the numbers game of journalism there are simply too few who have the strongest attachment to universal truth as an ideology. The way to get noticed and have an audience delivered to you in the UK has become about cause journalism. Pick a lens to see the world through that speaks to predilections of a readership, an audience. To many idealistic journalists see things in terms of their truth rather than the truth. The market rewards that unfortunate fact of life.

    I would also add that the quoted Martin Highes-Games may have found the BBC became that labyrinth when the word no became more prevalent. The envy filled so called scrutiny from other media organisations ceded quickly to the budget and license fee as a proxy.

    Anachronistic! Only if truth and reporting it as intellectually honestly as possible is now also an anachronism. I speak only to journalism and news here but you must remember the BBC is far more than a news organisation. How quick it is forgotten that the BBC have played a leading role in defining the way media organisations do the web. iPlayer was an answer to one of the BBC’s charter obligations. Perhaps it’s funding is anachronistic but it is a very progressive organisation… And who’s to say the modern model of funding is the best one, maybe… just maybe an anachronistic and unique way of funding is a good one.

    I am in no way connected with the BBC or any other media organisation. My views are as a license fee payer. Someone who thinks the 45p ($0.72) per day that the entire output of the BBC costs is a price well worth paying.

    In closing I would like to point to the media machinations that have brought the BBC to everyone’s attention. Savile, a story that has been sitting on news editors’ desks for decades like a live hand grenade. Keep it on the desk too long and it may go stale or may go off all by itself. Or, as in this case, it has been tossed to make a big noisy mess “over there” to distract attention from yet another news paper group being sued for criminal behaviour.

    There is huge pressure on Lord Leveson, ironically some from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, to push him to come to commercially helpful conclusions in his report. Print media is scared they may be properly regulated for once. TBIJ asked for a levy, a tax to fund their activity with the license fee very much in their sights.

    So be sure the BBC while far from perfect and evidently dogged by the problems of large organisations is generally a sound institution and it’s funding source is sensible and very effective. Equally this furore has more to do with the manoeuvring and political influence of other media interests than any fundamental flaws in the BBC.

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  9. Of course we need BBC, PBS, CBC, etc. Because not everything should be about money-money-money-ratings all the time.

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  10. Matthew,

    One factor here is a “path dependence” for lack of a better term. IMO, there are plenty of existence proofs that we don’t “need” government sponsored TV. PBS actually seems like sort of a bad example. Leaving aside the widespread misunderstanding about how PBS funding works, I strongly suspect that the PBS examples everyone likes to hold up (such as Sesame Street) would have little trouble finding distribution if PBS were to disappear overnight.

    The issue with the BBC specifically is that we have a system that has grown up around a publicly-funded BBC. And to yank that, especially in the current journalistic environment, would take something that’s mostly good away with no real mechanism for anything to replace it.

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    1. That’s a fair point, Gordon — and I am not necessarily arguing that the BBC needs to be obliterated, just wondering whether we need everything that it does as much as we used to.

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      1. Mathew, generously assuming that you’re not just trolling, let’s try to answer your specific question about journalism – do we need the BBC when everyone’s a journalist? I’d say the top-tory-twitter firestorm rather neatly proves the point that actual professional journalism is sometimes better than the great unwashed rumor-mongering. The regrettable lapse at the BBC on this occasion is what we’re complaining about, after all. If we’re criticizing its absence we must, by implication value its presence.

        With regard to your flailing comment “the CBC and BBC are competing with private media companies on an unfair playing field” maybe it would help to see the BBC as a mutual society. Yes, membership is compulsory but license payers all still bear the benefits. Apart from the framing bias in your use of “unfair”, please explain how this is a bad thing.

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