In Defence of the BBC

Henry Mendoza discusses the BBC. 

I’m going to say something that won’t win me a lot of friends on the Left.

I love the BBC.

Why should that be a controversial statement? In principle, the BBC - a broadcaster owned by and for the public, not run for profit - is a leftist dream.

But the BBC’s had a difficult time recently. There are examples, particularly from the election, suggesting bias towards the Conservatives, or, more broadly, towards the right and against the left.

Some of this will no doubt be due to, as the NS's Sarah Manavis says, incompetence over malice. Laura Kuenssberg's tendency to treat her twitter feed as a personal notepad, rather than a further outlet for BBC politics coverage, is a case in point.

But we should remember; there are institutional reasons why the BBC may, if not feel incentivised to disseminate a pro-government line, perhaps give the government an easier ride than the Opposition.

Note my choice of words here. Not an easy ride for The Conservative Party. An easy ride for the government.

The government (whoever they may be) has tremendous power over the BBC. David Cameron allegedly threatened to close it down. Director Generals under Conservative and Labour governments have been pressured to resign, because of perceived bias against their governments.

The BBC has already endured dangerous cuts to its funds, in the form of the frozen licence fee from 2010-2016, and picking up the tab for government policies like free TV licences for the over-75s. Charter Renewal, too, is a stick any government can beat the BBC with, moving the BBC to a funding model threatening its very existence - at least in its current form.

The BBC's ability, therefore, to inform, educate and entertain, can be severely compromised by government whims. Why wouldn't BBC journalists internalise a mantra to tread carefully when it comes to robustly holding the government to account?

For all his supporters' antagonism towards the BBC for its perceived bias against him, at heart, even Jeremy Corbyn (not the BBC's biggest cheerleader by any stretch) understood this. Even when relations between the BBC and his Labour Party were at their most strained, he never once gave credence to non-payment of the licence fee. Instead, Corbyn proposed many sensible reforms to the BBC's structure, including divorcing the government from BBC funding decisions entirely - safeguarding BBC institutional, and editorial, independence. Though this wasn’t explicitly included in Labour's subsequent manifesto, the idea hopefully hasn’t been abandoned under Keir Starmer.

In the meantime though, the Left would do well to remember this: although the BBC's political coverage can be frustrating - through intentional, institutional or inadvertent bias - it does not represent the be-all and end-all of the BBC.

The BBC is a cultural institution. So many programmes, from Killing Eve, to Luther, to Fleabag, wouldn’t exist without it - at least, not as we know them.

The BBC can afford to take risks on series that may not be made elsewhere, because they are unconcerned with the profit motive, and programmes don’t necessarily have to be smash hits in viewing figures. The BBC also forms such an integral part of people's lives, often without them realising. Even non-licence payers likely consume BBC content via Netflix, YouTube or radio - none of these require a TV licence, but all exist, in part or whole, thanks to the licence fee.

During the pandemic, the BBC’s gone to great lengths fulfilling its mission; entertaining by returning classic BBC series to iPlayer, informing and educating, by having stars like Jodie Whittaker front public information films about coronavirus, alongside content for BBC Bitesize, so children could continue learning at home.

No other broadcaster fulfills as comprehensive and vital a role in public life, especially in a crisis, as the BBC. This is reflected in even my own generation; though more likely to favour streaming services, we have a newfound appreciation for public service broadcasting since lockdown.

When the Left joins calls to 'Defund the BBC' or abolish the licence fee, it puts this precious cultural institution at risk.

No large organisation is perfect. The BBC certainly isn't. But it’s part of our cultural furniture; we would miss it terribly if it disappeared. For all its criticisms, the Left must never forget that, and never cease defending the BBC, and the ideas it represents.

Henry Mendoza is a writer and performer, and is passionate about culture and Drama more widely. He Co-chairs the Young Fabians BAME Advocacy Group.

He tweets at @VortiGan_

Do you like this post?