BBC should not decide how society develops

By Janet Daley

What is the BBC for? You might think that there was a pretty straightforward answer to that question, or at least that the answer provided by Lord Reith (“to inform, educate and entertain”) could scarcely be bettered for simplicity and felicitousness. But, oh dear, no – this is a more complex world than the one into which the BBC was born.

So the great Sphinx-like question hangs over the corporation like a threat of death. In fact, that apparently philosophical inquiry, to which the BBC has devoted endless internal meditation and debate, is designed to address a logically intractable dilemma summed up in two rather more specific questions.

Quite apart from the extraordinary (when you think of it) capacity to have people imprisoned for refusing to pay to support their activities, why should the BBC have the crushing advantage over its competitors, not only in television and radio, but on the internet as well, that is provided by a huge public subsidy?

And, given that it has that £3.2 billion subsidy, why should it then seek to compete ruthlessly with commercial rivals, for all the world as if it were as dependent on advertising revenue to survive as they were?

Once uttered, those questions answer themselves – or rather, it becomes clear that they have no answer. There is no good reason why the BBC should have exclusive access to an ever-increasing subsidy when it behaves just like one more crassly competitive broadcasting company, especially as its public funding allows it to distort the markets in which it competes by, for example, offering humungous fees to celebrity presenters or running a news website whose vast resources no newspaper site could possibly match.

That, apparently, is the sound conclusion of the Conservative Party, which plans to endorse an idea that has been going the rounds for some time: that the money provided by the licence fee for public service broadcasting should cease to be monopolised by the BBC. A share of it should be available to any broadcasting outfit that proposes to make programmes deemed to be in the public interest. Not only would this be more just, but it would be a stimulus to all the channels to raise their game.

British television broadcasting is plunging downmarket in a desperate race for the “mass audience”. Serious documentaries and grown-up political discussion have been the biggest losers.

ITV has axed its last remaining political programme, Channel 4 clings desperately to the prestige of its single evening news broadcast, and BBC News 24 (which should have been the last redoubt of proper current affairs programming) is killing off Dateline London and Head to Head.

Ironically, in the supposedly cut-throat commercial environment of American television, no major network or cable news channel would dream of ditching the great flagship political discussion programmes – Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Late Edition, Fox on Sunday – which appeal to small, specialised audiences but are hugely influential.

Being able to bid for public funding to make serious, high-quality programmes, whether factual documentaries, political debates or original drama, would provide a counter-balancing influence for broadcasting organisations which now have to rely on crude market share to attract advertising revenue.

It would also put an end to the existential musings of the great BBC monolith (What are we for? Why are we here? Can we go on?) which, in the great tradition of metaphysical system building, have produced sinister, self-serving results. For, in fact, the BBC – with the help of some credulous parliamentarians – has answered its own question with a huge leap into the social policy business.

The new BBC Charter resolves the insoluble dilemma of why the corporation should be treated differently from all other broadcasting companies by elevating it on to another plane entirely. You may not have been aware of this (even though you pay for it) but the BBC – rather like M&S food in those memorable TV adverts – is not just a broadcaster. In the words of its new chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, it must be much more than a mere “commissioner, producer and transmitter of wonderful programmes”.

In order to justify its unique role (and its unique form of income) it should engage with licence payers as “citizens” as well as audiences. There is a new Charter commitment to “sustain citizenship and civil society”, which is elaborated as “reflecting and strengthening cultural identities”, as well as “promoting awareness of different cultures and alternative viewpoints”.

As Sir Michael put it in a speech last month, the BBC is being “challenged to play its part in reinforcing social cohesion in an increasingly diverse society”. He went on to give his personal commitment to that objective in these terms: “All of my previous work has convinced me that diversity both within and between local communities is a source of strength rather than weakness – and that the UK will become stronger the more it recognises and builds on that diversity. The BBC can and should help with this.”

Whether you agree with those sentiments is neither here nor there. Who precisely is Sir Michael, not to say all those hundreds of faceless programme producers, writers and editors, to decide that the UK will become stronger if it embraces diversity? Who elected them?

Sir Michael’s account of the BBC’s mission is explicitly, tendentiously and presumptuously political. Whether licence fee payers believe that their country will become stronger “the more it recognises and builds on” diversity is a matter between them and their mandated government. It is entirely inappropriate for the BBC to enforce a particular systematic view of how society should develop and how, as Sir Michael himself notes, its rapidly changing structure should be addressed.

Engaging in a clash of overtly political objectives is properly the business of political parties or opposing lobby groups, not a supposedly neutral, publicly subsidised broadcaster.

If there is a case for diversity, it must be among the viewpoints of broadcasters themselves. But I doubt that was what Sir Michael had in mind.