Review: The War against the BBC

Review of the Bromley Humanist Group’s May meeting by Tony Brewer

Following its temporary shutdown during the Covid period, this event was billed as Bromley’s relaunch meeting and it attracted a substantial audience. The speakers should have been Professor Patrick Barwise and Peter York, the authors of The War Against the BBC (2020). Unfortunately Barwise was sick with Covid but York gave a spirited description of their book’s contents, of the individuals and groups that are hostile to the BBC, and of the reasons why this matters to us all.

York opened by saying that, across the world, there is a progressive loss of individual freedoms, what he called the Orbanisation of life. These freedoms include speech, due to the privatisation of independent media; space, due to the privatisation of previously public areas especially in city centres; justice, due to the imposition of political controls over lawyers and the courts; movement, due to the creation of border controls; and privacy, due to the installation of tracking and face recognition technology. He said that the measure of personal freedom, country by country, published by The Economist showed the UK progressively falling down the ranking (I think he is referring here to the Freedom Index, compiled annually by the Cato Institute & referred to by The Economist). He asserted that, given the antipathy of the present UK government, in general, to the BBC and Channel 4, and of Nadine Dorries, the Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in particular, there is what amounts to a war against many of the UK’s cultural institutions, particularly the BBC.

He explained that the BBC is a public service broadcaster with the mission to inform, educate and entertain. As such, it provides impartial and truthful news, it supports education and personal learning, it reflects the nation’s diverse communities, it underpins the creative economy, and it demonstrates the highest possible quality in its programming.

 It is not funded from government taxes but from the annual licence fee paid by individuals, plus whatever profit it makes from the sale of BBC programming to other media operators around the world. However, the government controls the level of the licence fee. This has been frozen for the next two years; after that it will rise in line with inflation until 2027 when it will be abolished & replaced with a different funding model. As a result, between 2010 and 2020 BBC income has fallen by about 30 per cent in real terms. In addition, as well as the general inflation that is affecting all businesses, there is particular inflation in the media sector which makes TV & film programmes due to the entry of wealthy streaming outfits like Apple, Amazon & Netflix. The BBC has been forced to cut its commissioning of new programmes and may even have to close some channels and services. This will accelerate the slide into mediocrity. 

There has been recent controversy about the discontinuation of free licenses for the over 75s. This has been presented by right-wing media as a BBC action taken in response to government cuts. In fact it had nothing to do with the BBC – the government had provided a special grant of £750 million to enable the BBC to provide this benefit. In 2015 this concession was cut by the Cameron government following pressure from Rupert Murdoch.

The BBC is the most trusted news media outlet in the world. Although its selection of content might be criticised, it is generally believed that what it does broadcast is the truth – in stark contrast with the propaganda broadcast by many other state controlled media. As such, it is a huge source of soft power and a priceless defence against the conspiracy theories and fake news that flood other media outlets, and thus is a crucial defence of democracy.

York then identified some of the BBC’s enemies. First, there is radical conservatism that believes that all services, obviously including the health service and broadcasting, should be provided by the market rather than by the state. Next, there are the owners, mostly foreign, of the commercial media companies that see massive profit opportunities in owning some or all of the BBC. They are supported by a variety of right-wing individuals and think tanks, themselves often funded by private operators. Third are governments from both left and right that resent the criticism that they often receive from independent sources, especially when it is valid. York pointed out that this attack is not a particularly British phenomenon – the foreign owners launch it against all the independent operations that they aspire to control and, in addition, it is promoted internationally by such shady characters as Donald Trump’s strategy advisor Steve Bannon.

It is often suggested that, given changing recreational habits, especially of the younger generation, the BBC should become an on-demand streaming service, more like Netflix. York countered by pointing out that the BBC bears few similarities with Netflix, which offers internationally tradeable content with a long ‘shelf life’ and virtually no news or anything local.

In summarising his argument, York said that the BBC, as a source of honest news reporting, of wide-ranging educational material, and of quality entertainment is a British institution that deserves to be supported whether, as individuals, we use it or not. He accepted that it is difficult to fight back against such an onslaught from the Beeb’s right-wing enemies but we can all add our names to petitions of support and we should also write to our MPs.

Link to the book here