It has been a bad weekend for the BBC. The fall-out from Lord Dyson’s report on Martin Bashir and his infamous interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, has exposed not just individual wrongdoing by a rogue journalist but an institutional desire—and ability—to look the other way and excuse appalling behaviour because it delivered a scoop watched by 23 million people.
Many have been burned by this inferno. Bashir himself retired as the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent earlier this month, citing poor health. Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the former director-general of the BBC, conducted an internal review into Bashir in 1996 and found that Bashir was “an honest and honourable man”. And all eyes are on Tim Davie, the current DG, to see how he and the organisation he leads respond to Dyson’s damning findings. He should have little doubt that Bashir will be used as a stick to beat him and the BBC.
This would be a volatile enough situation for the state-funded broadcaster, but it comes at a time when the BBC’s future and model are under intense scrutiny. The government has appointed an expert panel to advise on the future of public service broadcasting, and the BBC’s charter, the agreement under which it operates, is due for renewal in 2027. Expect a war over its direction and funding in the run-up to that date.
The first battle has already begun. Next October, the BBC will celebrate its centenary, and the occasion will be a crossroads to ask searching questions about the next few years as well as the previous hundred. The corporation has become a totem in the “culture wars” between Left and Right, traditionalist and woke, liberal and conservative. Many on the Right see it as an unrepresentative tribune of metropolitan values, though equally some on the further reaches of the Left see it as a government stooge.
It is widely believed to have been culturally opposed to Brexit and following the 2019 election, Downing Street staged a boycott of the broadcast flagship news programme, Radio 4 Today, after branding it biased against the “Workington man”.
A hundred years is just a number, but it is as good a time as any to talk about how, if at all, we should fund our national broadcaster and what we should expect in return. For some, the very idea of a state-sanctioned TV and radio network is anathema: the licence fee is akin to taxation and the BBC has a distortedly privileged position in the market. For libertarian purists, this is an internally consistent argument. The BBC captures, on average, around one-third of the UK audience, yet anyone owning a television is obliged to contribute to it. Why should it not operate a subscription service, like Netflix or any other provider?
Free market ideals have long been painted in contrast with the BBC. It is possible for the two principles to coexist. There is, however, also a place for the provision of art and culture at public expense, which is why the government subsidises opera, theatre, and the visual arts. Whether we like it or not, television and radio are included within this remit. These are recognised as being in some way a public good, something which a civilised society should support and which benefit us all.
But it is right to insist that the BBC is very clear about its mission and its purpose. Lord Reith’s original mission was “to inform, educate and entertain”, and that remains a useful shorthand. The BBC’s activities must be informed by its privileges in the broadcasting space: if it comes to use its publicly funded weight to engage in a fully commercial enterprise, there is, surely, something amiss.
The BBC is also an important part of “Global Britain’s” soft-power armoury. BBC World News is a hugely respected and influential source of information and analysis worldwide, and its authority and impartiality are all the more important amid the rising tide of fake news. One of the five public purposes of the BBC, as set out in its charter, is “to reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world”.
Impartiality, therefore, is an important part of the BBC’s brand: it should, as we tend to say these days, be in its DNA. However, the BBC is not just a broadcaster, nor is it merely a commercial exporter of content. It is, to a degree, a cultural embassy for the United Kingdom, and, as such, we have to accept that the government is entitled to a certain level of input into its activities.
Perhaps those five purposes need to be slimmed down or brought into sharper focus, but they must include high-quality, impartial journalism; excellence in artistic content; and a confident and coherent promotion of British values. Striking a balance between these will not be easy, and will require flexibility and compromise on all sides: but embracing that attitude is simply essential if we are, as a nation, to preserve what is best about the BBC, reflecting in turn what is best about us.