Artwork for FTWeekend Comment - issue dated 25.01.20
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

The UK government’s mulish boycott of the BBC Today programme has improved my mornings no end. Opposition politicians still trot out platitudes, but I can brush my teeth during those bits. In place of robotic ministerial declarations we have had in-depth reports from Iran and Australia, exposés of the bureaucracy faced by EU nationals trying to stay in Britain, and a poignant conversation between Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. Informed, thought-provoking, and distinctive — which is what the BBC ought to be.

Usually adept at lobbying, the BBC now faces multiple challenges: a search for a new director-general after Tony Hall this week announced his intention to step down; a prime minister who once dubbed it the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”; a row over equal pay which has had the incidental effect of revealing to the public that it pays its (male) presenters gargantuan salaries; and a Downing Street operation which is pushing to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, or perhaps even replace it with a Netflix-style subscription.

The fundamental question is whether a monopoly licence fee can still be justified in an era when more young people now watch YouTube than all terrestrial broadcasters put together, and nearly half of all UK households subscribe to a streaming platform. In other words, why should you have to pay the BBC licence fee if all you want to watch is Sky Sports?

The licence fee was invented to underpin the BBC as a national service, offering something for everyone. Yet in a world of almost infinite choice, that gets harder. And the goal of universality bumps ever more painfully up against quality. To tick the demographic boxes, the BBC has created more and more channels — BBC3, 6 Music, and BBC News Online, which in its quest to reach youth has become a shameless mix of news and clickbait, of which John Reith, the first director-general, would have been ashamed.

Some argue that the BBC should stop trying to compete with Netflix and Amazon on drama, and concentrate on high quality programming that is genuinely distinctive from commercial channels: its natural history output, for example, or comedy, science and children’s programmes. And current affairs. It treats serious subjects with a depth and an intelligence that few others have the resources to do. Over many years, I have had the privilege to make programmes with BBC producers who are an outstandingly creative and rigorous tribe, working long shifts for a fraction of what the presenters are paid.

If we abolished the licence fee, I fear those are exactly the kind of people we might lose. The argument for subscriptions is that people will still pay for great content. But in reality, that model is more likely to turn the BBC into something like PBS in the US — dignified but with little reach. Depth, intelligence and serendipity may be hard to package up as persuasively as, say, Jeremy Clarkson on Amazon Prime.

Mr Clarkson’s Top Gear was in fact a classic BBC success: a distinctively British programme which educated my sons in everything from Shakespeare to practical science while they watched petrolheads crack jokes. It would probably never have been commissioned outside the Beeb. It can now hold its own on Amazon, as The Grand Tour. But it doesn’t mean that we should rush to turn the BBC into a subscription service — or give up on drama just yet. Netflix is debt-laden; Amazon builds customers by offering loss leaders; and it is not yet clear whether either will continue to invest in quality long-term.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate argument that exposure to market forces might force the BBC to shed some of its bureaucracy. Viewed from inside government, or from rival news organisations, New Broadcasting House can look like a complacent behemoth.

The BBC also has a maddening tendency to sprawl. It currently runs five orchestras, and two 24-hour news operations — surely one too many. In fact, I would question whether it makes sense for the BBC to do 24-hour news at all. It traps journalists in the studio, filling time before the next big event, when they could be out getting stories. It accentuates the cult of the presenter, when the BBC’s trump card is its global network of reporters.

In a world of fake news and global volatility, the BBC’s claim to independence and impartiality should make it unassailable. The fact that neither of the two main party leaders felt their views were getting a fair hearing during the recent general election, say BBC insiders, shows that they are doing their job properly. But that is not the whole story. In striving to achieve impartiality by reflecting mainstream views, the BBC has sometimes defined the mainstream too narrowly. It regarded Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and radical socialist views as fringe concerns, when in fact they were increasingly widespread.

That needs to change, in the two years before the midterm charter review in 2022. In that period, the BBC needs to demonstrate its unparalleled ability to aid public understanding of the world. It should recruit staff with a wider range of viewpoints, become leaner and ratchet down presenter salaries. It should strive to look less like a metropolitan organisation removed from reality, which is how it is portrayed in the satire W1A.

It is hard to imagine any tech giant parodying itself like that. Which is one of many reasons we would miss the BBC if we lost it.

Letter in response to this article:

The 6 Music station is consistently excellent/ From David Cartwright, Baldock, Herts, UK

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