Editorial - Breaking the news: The future of public service broadcasting in the UK
Not all of life’s unforgettable moments happen to us directly. Many of the most important events that shape our lives and our collective futures, either positively or negatively, reach us through some form of broadcast. From witnessing the start of a war or hearing about a natural disaster, learning the results of pivotal elections or major sporting events, or simply experiencing a powerful drama that changes the way you think and act. We most likely saw it, heard it, or experienced it on the TV or radio.
Whether witnessing the prime minister announce a national lockdown in response to Covid-19, David Dimbleby revealing the result of the Brexit referendum, or even watching the UK’s greatest ever Eurovision comeback – we’ve all experienced these moments. Even as the role of the internet looms ever larger in our everyday lives these pivotal moments, if you live in the UK, will still most likely have reached us via the BBC or another public service broadcaster. Now, as these institutions come under increasing pressure from competitors and hostile government policy, it’s more important than ever to consider the role these broadcasters play in shaping our national life, now and in the future.
“the public service broadcasting remit and the resulting media and news services have shaped how we understand ourselves, politics, and culture”
This year we mark 100 years of the BBC and the institution of public service broadcasting in the UK. The concept of broadcasting for public benefit rather than commercial interest has since been adopted in the foundation of Channel 4 and its tenets are upheld by the obligations placed on ITV and Channel 5. The BBC has established impartial news as the norm and influenced how other news programming is presented, setting the UK’s mostly calm and objective broadcast news apart from more opinion-oriented international outlets, such as CNN and Fox News in the USA.
Public service broadcasting was there at the dawn of the TV and radio era in Britain and it has undeniably shaped our collective culture and media environment ever since. As a number of authors note in this journal edition, the public service broadcasting remit and the resulting media and news services have shaped how we understand ourselves, politics, and culture over time. It has generated shared moments or national joy and pain and has given many people with disparate life experiences a shared sense of belonging and commonality. However, at the same time, these institutions can also be charged with helping to embed existing power structures such as wealth, class, and race.
“We are now witnessing a dramatic disruption to the media sector as audiences flock to commercial streaming services”
In 1922, when the first official television signals began transmitting from the newly formed British Broadcasting Corporation tower on the Strand, the world could not have looked more different from the one the organisation finds itself in today. Not only has the country’s culture and place in the world undergone a seismic shift, but so has the technology and economics that governs the way we interact with media and news content. We are now witnessing a dramatic disruption to the media sector as audiences flock to commercial streaming services and news media is increasingly diversified, with outlets and social media echo chambers for every political persuasion.
In this context, some are questioning whether there is still a place for the century-old institution of public service broadcasting in the UK. While some see these challenges as reason to end public service broadcasting for good, others see it as an opportunity for adaption and reform.
In our increasingly privatised and neoliberal age, the BBC and (for the time being) Channel 4, stand out as public bodies to have survived in public hands, while almost all other state institutions, from BT to the Post Office, have been privatised around them. This puts them firmly in the crosshairs of their commercial rivals and right wing opponents who see no place for the state in any aspect of public life.
On the contrary, defenders of public service broadcasting argue that in an age of ever shifting certainties, growing distrust in democracy and subversive international actors seeking to unpick societies, public service broadcasting has never been so important. As a number of authors discuss in this issue, public service broadcasters have more than shown their value in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, and recent courageous coverage of the invasion of Ukraine.
Considering the integral role these broadcasters play in our society, it is clear that the substantial changes proposed by the government should not be enacted without first conducting a thorough and evidence-based assessment of what they will mean for the future of the media industry, our culture, and the country’s place in the world.
“progressives seeking to defend public service broadcasting must show how the institution benefits society in ways the right and broader public can also appreciate”
Despite sometimes feeling uneasy by news coverage that appears biased or frames issues in unhelpful ways,1 it is often left to progressives to defend the institution of public service broadcasting. However, making public service broadcasting a left versus right issue will only play into the ‘culture war’ narrative and further erode trust in the institution. As with campaigns to improve another embattled public institution, the NHS, progressives seeking to defend public service broadcasting must show how the institution benefits society in ways the right and broader public can also appreciate. Indeed, at last year’s IPPR Oxford Media Convention, Fraser Nelson,2 the editor of the right wing Spectator magazine argued that privatising Channel 4 may not in fact increase competition in the media market. Just as public service broadcasters must reform to better serve the public as a whole, their defenders must also seek ways to unite everyone behind a positive vision for the future of broadcasting in the UK.
As progressives, we should be alert to forces that have the potential to shape society and the role that can ultimately play in our politics. Questions about future funding models for these broadcasters have puttheir role in our society and public life in the spotlight like never before. In a world where fears about media freedom and disinformation are rising, are the UK’s public service broadcasters more needed than ever? Can they survive as they currently are, or do they need to change to a new funding model? What would a progressive ownership model look like? And what should it mean to be a public service broadcaster in the 21st century?
“securing the future of public service broadcasting is vital for protecting our democratic values”
In this issue of Progressive Review, Prof Jean Seaton, the official historian of the BBC, looks at how the corporation and its values have been shaped by war and the battle for truth and independence throughout its history. This has been key to ensuring its longevity up until now where it now faces the new threat of the culture war. Cat Hobbs from campaign group We Own It makes the case for Channel 4 remaining in public ownership.
Prof Richard Sambrook reflects on how 21st century conflicts – from the Cold War to 9/11 – have shaped and reinvented the broadcaster. Looking in particular at the role of the World Service and coverage of the war in Ukraine, he argues that securing the future of public service broadcasting is vital for protecting our democratic values. Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody and Dr Rhys Crilley highlight how valuable this has been in the war in Ukraine contrasting the trust in public service broadcasting with the limited success of Russia’s disinformation war.
The BBC plays a key role in defining how people understand their place in the country. Sunder Katwala sets out a case for what the BBC can do for citizenship and shared identity in polarised times. Christopher Day also explores this topic, laying out a case for why the UK’s public service broadcasters are the “people’s broadcasters”, creating and reinforcing bonds between our citizens.
Public service broadcasters also have a responsibility to represent and reflect the society they seek to serve. Simone Pennant explores diversity and representation with public service broadcasting, making a case for rethinking how we conceptualise “representation”. Meanwhile, Marcus Ryder emphasises the importance of considering issues of diversity and inclusion in public service broadcasting at a community-based level.
While many progressives seek to maintain the BBC’s current license fee arrangement to push back against government plans, Dr Debs Grayson makes the case for more radically reforming the ownership model for the corporation. Drawing on extensive participatory research, they outline a manifesto for change that would see the BBC and Channel 4 democratised, and its future placed in the hands of people and communities across the UK.
Finally, TV critic and broadcaster Scott Bryan looks at the competition between public service broadcasters and streaming giants for viewers and quality, exploring how oversaturation of streaming services and the rising cost of living is impacting consumer behaviour.
“Instead of tearing public service broadcasting down, we should be focussed on imaging ways it can positively impact the country”
As the articles in this edition demonstrate, the role, purpose and programming of the BBC and other public service broadcasters has constantly shifted and been challenged throughout their existence. Over the course of the next parliament, as new legislation rubs up against decades old institutions, these debates will rage on.
It’s right for any institution with the power and reach of the BBC and Channel 4 to be interrogated and reformed to evolve over time, but any changes should not be enacted out of culture war opportunism or destructive ideological dogma. These institutions still play a fundamental part in shaping our understanding of the world and our place in it. Instead of tearing public service broadcasting down, we should be focussed on imaging ways it can positively impact the country the broadcasters say they seek to serve and continue to present important and unforgettable moments to the public for years to come.
Robin Harvey, Anita Bhadani, Rachel Statham, Joshua Emden, Lucy Mort and Chris Thomas
- Roberts C et al (2019) ‘Economists urge BBC to reconsider inappropriate reporting of UK economy’ IPPR, online letter. https://www.ippr.org/blog/economists-urge-bbc-rethink-inappropriate-reporting-uk-economy
- IPPR (2021) ‘The Great British Sell Off?’, YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c511VdS3FYY