“Defund the BBC!” We’ve all heard this cry. The movement to defund or abolish the BBC only grows with each dissatisfied partisan who dislikes the BBC’s political coverage or choice of cultural programmes. But the idea is short-sighted, one look at the state of media in the United States should tell you this much. Without a public news service, funded by public money, free from the influence of corporations and safe from the need to gather ‘clicks’, the news media’s decline would only accelerate.
If the BBC was forced to fund itself then it would have to run adverts. The companies paying for the adverts would then have a disproportionate influence on the BBC’s broadcasting, as they would control the purse-strings. The BBC would also have to compete for ratings, meaning a jump to populist media. When the Telegraph or the Guardian publishes some vacuous nonsense about a cat that can play the banjo, or oversimplifies a scientific discovery and misrepresents the implications, the dangers of having no public news service would become clear. If a media outlet becomes reliant on clickbait to generate revenue then they start to publish what their viewers want to hear, rather than what they need to hear.
Left wing media will drift further left; right wing media will drift further right. The country will become divided along partisan lines even more than it already is. Public discourse would become littered with ‘alternative facts’. The news would become nothing more than party propaganda, providing talking points to every Tom, Dick and Harry so that they don’t have to consider a different view. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t still be people with the presence of mind to read both sides, but that percentage of the electorate would shrink considerably, as we all have to get our news from somewhere, and if every media outlet has an ideological agenda, then the full story will always remain partially obscured, no matter how much you read.
Imperfect as it may be, the BBC is still a shining example of non-party based political coverage. Shows such as Question Time may be theatre, but they provide a single platform where both sides have equal opportunity to present their views and where politicians must actually compete for the crowd’s support. Hard hitting journalists are hard to come by, ones without any political allegiance are virtually unheard of; but on the BBC, principled journalists from both sides of the aisle can challenge their own political allies without fear of retribution. For example, Andrew Neil, despite his Conservative allegiances, is a top-notch interviewer. His show will be missed, but hopefully he will become a regular on another show. The BBC’s value was truly shown in a stark contrast to the state of American media when Andrew Neil interviewed Ben Shapiro. A partisan hack, who could dismiss any opposition he faced on TV in America as liberally biased and politically motivated, was gratifyingly dismantled by someone who probably agreed with him on the majority of issues. When Shapiro tried to discredit Neil by accusing him of being left-wing, every British viewer laughed and Ben was revealed as the ideologue, who simply presented his feelings as facts.
The BBC has its issues. No-one could deny that. But its biggest bias is simply towards the establishment. It favours moderates over radicals, but radicalism is always a hard sell. Each of us should remember, when we see political coverage on the BBC that we disagree with or that we think is ‘biased’, there is someone on the other side of the aisle watching a different piece of coverage that annoys them equally. This institution will inevitably get it wrong at times, but its coverage is largely of a better quality then you will find elsewhere. As with any news source, sensationalism and a ‘bias towards balance’ plagues the BBC’s coverage, but unlike many other sources, the BBC tells us what we need to know, whether or not we want to hear it. It is the vegetables of news.
The effect of defunding this platform has already been demonstrated. Andrew Neil’s show was cancelled due to budget cuts after all. Less public money will mean lower quality programming. Those useless pieces that the BBC puts out are intended to appeal to younger viewers, as they will need to encourage a wider audience to tune in should they lose their public funding. The solution to the BBC’s problems is not defunding or abolition, but reform.
The BBC’s masters should be replaced with people who are more in touch but still mature and principled enough to carry on the spirit of broadcasting what the public needs to know. Currently, the Board which appoints the Director General is appointed by the Privy Council, which, while occupied by politicians from both sides, is not impartial. For one, the government still effectively has the final say over the decisions taken by the Council and for two, almost all the members are establishment figures at their core. A possible improvement could be to make the appointments a cross party matter, managed by a select committee of backbench MPs and peers, rather than cabinet ministers. This would encourage the BBC to constantly try harder while not bowing to the pressure of any one side of the aisle.
In conclusion, despite the many criticisms of the BBC, we need it. You may not use it, but it’s important that you can use it. The fact that you need to pay a licence fee to the BBC to use any TV services even if you never watch the BBC may be infuriating, but it seems less absurd when you think of the fee like a tax. Everyone pays into it, so that anyone can benefit from it. Sound familiar?
David Lam is 21 and from Carrickfergus. He is studying Law at Dundee University and wants to get involved in local community activism after he graduates.