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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

The future of the BBC by Tom Mills

We are fast moving into a post-broadcasting age in which a small number of enormously powerful, unaccountable multinationals will control how we communicate, share knowledge and create culture.  There is an urgent need, therefore, to build a regulatory system that will ensure the democratic accountability of new digital platforms and the ‘legacy media’ they are displacing.  It is equally important also to develop a proactive vision and policy agenda for public media in the 21st century.

In the UK we have the advantage of a publicly owned broadcaster that is still dominant in news and current affairs programming, has a significant online presence, and is a major player in international markets.  This gives us a head start.  But the reforms we need are unlikely to come from the BBC itself, which suffers from a certain institutional inertia after decades of attacks from the right, and are unlikely to emanate from the private sector.  So it falls to civil society and the left – which has long assumed a defensive posture on media policy – to develop an ambitious reform agenda for the BBC.  This article explores what this agenda might look like in the hope that it will stimulate further discussion.

A digital licence fee

If the BBC is to maintain and build its reputation as a leading programme maker and media platform, it will need funding that is sufficient to compete with the likes of Amazon and Netflix, and to support long term strategic planning.

The BBC’s income currently comes from a combination of TV licence revenue and commercial income – which make up just over three quarters and just under a quarter of its total income respectively – as well as a relatively small grant which is now, once again, provided by the government to the World Service.

The licence fee has been guaranteed for the current charter period, with increases in line with inflation.  It originally covered just radios, with licences covering both television and radio introduced in 1946, and the radio-only licence later abolished in 1971.  With television now fast being displaced by online programming, reform is again needed.  The recent stipulation that a TV licence is required to watch BBC programmes online, or via catch up TV services, acknowledges as much.  With television a declining medium, it makes sense to move the licence fee over from the ‘airwaves’ to the digital space.  What we need, in other words, is a digital licence fee.

The most obvious way to modernise the licence fee in this context would be for revenue to be collected from users of online services instead of those in possession of television receiving equipment.  This, however, has the disadvantage that the licence fee would remain a regressive tax, falling disproportionately on lower income groups.  The more progressive alternative would be to collect the fee from private companies currently profiting from our digital space. Alternatively, revenue could come out of general taxation.

In any event, it is important that revenue streams are stable and that the whole process is independent of political control (champions of the licence fee have often claimed that it is a guarantor of the BBC’s independence, but on the contrary it has often served as an instrument of governmental influence). 

An independent and secure BBC would require in turn an independent regulator to set the rate of the licence fee. This regulator would act purely in the public interest – a quite different form of regulation than that undertaken by Ofcom, which remains constitutionally committed to non-intervention in the market, and even the promotion of competition.  Adequate regulation cannot proceed on the assumption that market competition will necessarily deliver plurality; that what is good for ‘the market’ and what is good for the public are necessarily the same thing; or that the only proper role for public providers is to offer what ‘the market’ cannot.

With the shift to a digital licence fee, we also need to start thinking about the licence fee mechanism differently.  The closing of the ‘iPlayer loophole’ was something of a fudge that reinforces a tendency to see the licence fee as a mandatory subscription fee.  In fact, the existing licence fee is not a payment for accessing BBC programmes.  Rather it is a licence that affords its holders the right to watch or record any live television programme from any provider on any platform.  As Tony Ageh has argued, the licence fee is best understood not as a subscription fee, but as a funding and regulatory mechanism that affords certain universal access rights to the public as a whole.  The new digital licence fee will need to be understood as part and parcel of a broader public and democratic claim on society’s digital space; something which should be an open resource of culture and knowledge, but is in fact increasingly privatised and commodified.

Decentralised and democratised governance

The BBC was one of the first public corporations, and rather like the nationalised industries of the post-war period it has been run in a highly centralised, top-down fashion, with a relatively small number of highly paid executives, producers and editors making decisions on the basis of what they judge to be the public interest.  In the 1970s, media reformers were critical of this elitist, patrician model and campaigned for the decentralisation and democratisation of the broadcasting system. 

But from the Thatcher era onwards the BBC was remodelled along neoliberal lines.  In a radical organisational restructuring – which is being revived under the current Director General Tony Hall – an internal market system was introduced at the BBC, along with a stipulation that a quarter of its programming would have to come from the private sector.  This was sold as an effort to bring greater economic efficiency, and to empower programme makers through decentralised financial control.  In practice, marketisation eroded creativity and innovation in entertainment programmes, whilst a parallel centralisation of editorial authority in news and current affairs curtailed journalistic freedom.

Centralised managerial and editorial authority has been particularly problematic because the decision makers at the top of the BBC operate in a highly politicised environment.  Governments not only set the level of the licence fee, but periodically renew the BBC’s charter and appoint senior executives to the BBC’s board.  These arrangements have been justified as a form of democratic accountability, but the problems they present for the BBC’s independence and impartiality are obvious and well documented.  Moreover, with regulation of the BBC’s journalism having now passed to Ofcom, the politicised governance structure no longer seems justified on that basis.

The straightforward solution therefore would be for governmental influence over the BBC to be abolished altogether and replaced with more direct forms of democratic accountability.  Assuming the current board structure were maintained, the chair of the BBC board and the four national non-executive directors (representing England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) would need to be directly elected by the BBC’s audiences, whilst the other non-executive directors would need to be elected either by audiences, or by BBC staff, or a combination of the two (rather than via by a remote and unaccountable Nominations Committee as under present arrangements).

With the BBC now having instituted a sign-in requirement for digital users, this sort of basic democratisation would be straightforward and uncostly, and would allow for public accountability without state control.

Regionalisation and representation

Such an approach, though, would still retain a top-down form of corporate governance.  To ensure adequate creative and editorial freedom and innovation, as well as effective forms of accountability, it would also be necessary to cut back the centralised bureaucracy at the BBC, restricting top-down decision making to organisation-wide strategic planning rather than oversight of programme making, whilst developing more radical forms of public participation, such as localised democratic control over commissioning and budget allocations.  These reforms could be pursued in tandem with efforts to localise the BBC’s programme making operations.  The decision to move parts of the BBC’s national operations to Salford Quays in Greater Manchester was in this respect a step in the right direction.  But if the BBC is to adequately represent its audiences then the decentralisation agenda needs to be pushed much further.  This will also address the need for ‘local democracy’ reporters, which under the current Charter is being met via partnerships with – and effectively a public subsidy for – privately owned local newspapers.

It will be necessary for recruitment practices to be rigorously monitored and revised to ensure adequate representation of the BBC’s audience.  Here the BBC’s diversity and inclusion strategy is certainly a major and welcome step, but more can be done to ensure diversity within the private sector through the BBC’s commissioning system (discussed further below) and particular attention will need to be paid to representation at the senior level, as well as to neglected questions of geography and class.

Algorithmic accountability and universal access

Efforts to bring the BBC closer to its audiences will be made easier by the user data collected via the BBC’s digital services.  Private companies currently use such data to monetise their platforms, essentially engaging in user surveillance for profit, and developing the algorithms that govern our digital space accordingly.  But the BBC would be able to harness all the advantages of digital media without having to restrict access to certain audiences, or to regulate content according to commercial imperatives.  A key issue here is algorithmic transparency and accountability.  The BBC’s audiences would need to be able to understand and control the algorithms the BBC’s online platforms use, with the option to opt out from all but the most minimal of user monitoring if they so wish.  Any data collected and stored, moreover, would need to be accessible not only to the BBC itself, but also to other users in a clear and accessible format, meaning that the BBC could facilitate our public knowledge about ourselves and each other, rather than simply collating audience data so as to deliver a better service.  In this way the citizens of the UK, rather than a handful of corporations, would take the lead in shaping how the online space develops.

A further and related area for reform is intellectual property.  It has been suggested here that the BBC’s major funding mechanism needs to be reimaged as a digital licence affording universal access rights.  This draws on the notion of a ‘digital public space’ developed by figures working in BBC Archive Development, principally Tony Ageh and Bill Thompson.  The idea here is that everyone should be given unrestricted access to an open resource of culture and knowledge.  To be adequately instituted at the BBC, this would require intellectual property regimes to be revised so that all BBC programmes are available in perpetuity.  There would also have to be continued efforts to open up the BBC’s archival material, and other forms of culture and public knowledge.

External commissioning

Another area in need of urgent reform is the BBC’s commissioning system.  The ‘independent production quotas’ currently mandate that at least 25% of BBC TV programming is produced by private companies (minus some exempt areas), whilst under the new Charter all BBC output is now being opened up to competition, with the exception of news and news-related current affairs, where in-house guarantees are being retained.  The Charter also created a new commercial subsidiary, BBC Studios, incorporating the majority of BBC programme making, which will compete with private companies for BBC commissioning and will also seek to provide content for other platforms.  Whilst children’s programmes, sport and non-news related current affairs are not part of BBC Studios, under current plans the in-house guarantees in these areas are being reduced, whilst the independent quotas are being increased. 

These are all extremely regressive steps that will intensify the marketisation of the BBC, eroding creativity and expertise, and increasing precarity in the broader industry.  The whole marketisation agenda pushed through by Tony Hall and the Tories will have to be reversed, with in-house guarantees restored.  The external commissioning process, meanwhile, should be radically repurposed so as to further open up the BBC to the public it serves.  As with government commissioning, there is scope here to introduce stipulations into contracts that will ensure sufficient diversity within workforces, more equal pay, and better working conditions.  But there is also the possibility of stipulating that a particular proportion of programming comes from non-commercial organisations, such as community groups and media cooperatives.  In combination with an ambitious digitalisation, democratisation and decentralisation agenda, such an initiative would have the potential to open up the BBC to a vast pool of untapped talent, and to create new horizontal networks that will allow audiences to create and discover new ideas and new forms of culture on a scale impossible in the pre-digital age.

A public and democratic claim on our digital future

There is an urgent need for public media to meet the challenge of the digital age.  Meaningful participation in society now depends on access to an online space which has been quite quickly monopolised by a relatively small number of unaccountable multinational corporations.  A public licencing system based upon this infrastructure and these technologies, and a 21st century BBC reimagined as a democratic media platform and publicly owned and orientated hub of technology, expertise and culture, would be a small step towards redressing the serious democratic deficit that is emerging as a result of private ownership and control of the online space.

I am grateful to Dan Hind for many conversations on media reform that have helped develop the ideas in this article.

Tom Mills tweets @ta_mills. He is the author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service