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22 January 2020

To save itself, the BBC needs to radically change

In a networked world, the corporation can only survive by championing originality and authenticity. 

By Paul Mason

Do you see how it works now? The BBC’s flagship controversy show Question Time more or less created Nigel Farage, but now he’s achieved his objective there has to be a new right-wing poster boy. Step forward Laurence Fox. Or, rather, step forward the private production company that booked the British actor and enabled his clash with black academic and audience member Rachel Boyle. 

Thanks to the BBC our public debate about racism has moved on from “is Brexit racist?” to “is it racist for people of colour to call white racists racist?” There’s many ways you could describe this but none of them are public service journalism.

Which is sad, because thanks to the departure of director general Tony Hall, the BBC is suddenly in need of friends it does not have. The broadcaster faces a review of its current funding – a compulsory licence fee – in 2022 under a Conservative government that is profoundly hostile to it as an institution. But since Hall’s replacement will now be chosen by that government, the corporation’s entire future is in the hands of Boris Johnson.

The licence fee could be decriminalised – costing the BBC around the around £200m a year – or even replaced by a subscription model, reducing it to a stripped-down service, offering only basic news, some wildlife programming and repeats of its former hits. For the left, it would traditionally be a no-brainer simply to defend the BBC as it is, relegating our criticisms of its output to second-order issues. But it would be wrong. The BBC needs to change radically to survive.

All the current controversies – facilitating right-wing populism, the consistent news bias against Jeremy Corbyn, the appalling internal culture of discirmination – are not detached from the issue of its right to broadcast, and the imprisonment of those who can’t afford the compulsory licence fee (£154.50 a year). I worked for BBC News at a time when it was struggling to adapt to the digital era. But few anticipated how radically mobile communications, superfast broadband and social media would change things.

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In the 2000s, the obvious problem was that instead of relying on the audio-visual equivalent of the printing press – the TV station – people on a distributed network could make their own content and send it to each other. Instead of being “gatekeepers”, journalists and commissioners would have to become “umpires” in the debate over what should be shown.

But by the 2010s a new problem appeared: the content that people sent each other, gossiped about, mashed up and were mesmerised by was not only created by them: it was being created by new, well-funded and slick global entertainment businesses – just as similar to the printing press as the BBC only better. And being mainly US-based they were setting the English-language gold standard in film, drama, sport and music in a way the BBC was supposed to.

Finally, for the news department, the moment warned about by George Orwell arrived. In response to the social media-led revolts of 2011, governments across the world soon actively tried to flood the information sphere with noise, bullshit, fake news, false flags and irreconcilable anger. The idea of the BBC as a purveyor of truth was now challenged. Instead of demonstrating the obvious differences to state broadcasters and propaganda channels such as RT, BBC bosses made a series of decisions that demonstrated the similarities.

To understand what is going on you would need something that the BBC, with its top management tiers stuffed with group-thinkers from Oxbridge, just does not possess: a theory of networks and a theory of ideology.

The rise of digital networks has transformed where power lies in democracies. It now lies with networked groups of people, not states, corporations or media giants. Those who want to project power and influence have to be authentic. And they have to control what the Spanish sociologist and universities minister Manuel Castells calls “switches” – the important access points between nodes on the network. If they don’t, they don’t possess power.

The BBC should have understood it would have very limited power in a networked world, and what influence it had – what truth could be ascribed to its output – would have to be earned through originality and authenticity. And that’s where the theory of ideology comes in. It’s broadly accepted in social science that the dominant idea-set of a society usually reflects (a) the material interests of its ruling elite (b) some deep seated illusions necessary to mask the existence of oppression and exploitation and (c) that it is spread – both consciously and unconsciously – by the major institutions of power, including the media.

If the BBC’s bosses understood this, then, at every operational juncture – from a drama commission to a news bulletin – they would ask themselves: are we perpetuating an ideology here? And they would understand that the price of perceived ideology would be to lose networked power. But the very concept is banned from their lexicon.

That’s why, after the corporation’s dire performance during the 2019 election, we had numerous six-figure-earning journalists pleading “we were only doing our jobs”, and adding, “how could an endeavour involving thousands of individual people be biased?” If you don’t understand that “your job” is, by default, to convey truths favourable to an existing elite, and that you are part of it, and so are most people recruited into the institution, then in an age of networks you are going to have a problem. Because everyone else understands that. 

From Extinction Rebellion protesters through to English Defence League racists, from the Scottish independence movement through to Brexit Party voters in small-town England, there is a generalised assumption that all content produced by the liberal establishment must be telling lies, or transmitting an ideology. That’s a big change from the era when everyone watched and listened unquestionably. We are, in short, living in a society whose assumptions about information are the polar opposite of those of the society the BBC was designed to serve.

As a result, young people do not watch the BBC very much. They might accidentally listen to its pop music radio channels in the car, or use its website as a free news service, but their main news source is social media, their main entertainment is subscription music channels and video games, and their main sources of dramatic entertainment are services such as Netflix, HBO, Disney and Amazon. This won’t change as they get older. So the BBC faces an existential crisis over the next 20 years.

The establishment needs, of course, to protect the broadcaster. How would it deal with Megxit, and the coming crisis of the monarchy for example, without the BBC’s sycophantic royal correspondents and its state occasion rigmarole? So a clubbable old duffer at the BBC Trust will chat to a similar person in the civil service and some trustworthy media establisment figure will be recruited to slim down the corporation’s budgets and keep its content safely bourgeois. But given the corporation commands £4bn of public money, the left should aspire to radical change. 

The general principle should be the one the BBC experimented with during Performance Live in 2017, for which I was commissioned to write Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: stop trying to dictate artistic, news, or entertainment “values” via a commissioning bureaucracy. Instead just provide a competitive platform for the best of what the creative, comedy, factual and news industries can provide. (In my case, when this produced a play praising revolutionaries and criticising Donald Trump, it had to be buried in the late night schedules and never shown again.)

So I would do two things with the BBC. First, “top-slice” the entire BBC budget, handing maybe 20 per cent of it directly to producers of culture, news and sport to broadcast their own material – with a remit to restore trust, diversity and engagement in the broadcaster, and no censorship other than for taste and decency.

Second, I would place the management of the news department out to competitive tender. For the news and current affairs department my solution is more drastic. There are excellent executive teams producing good, less biased and less ideological news content at Sky and ITN, and above all at Channel 4. 

The hard-pressed camera crews and producers would keep their jobs, but the news executives could be replaced every five years by rival teams, from the hungrier, less ideological end of the broadcast news business. The Ofcom remit would remain the same, but Ofcom – as in the case of Channel 4 – would then have real leverage to enforce change and believability. 

If we’re really lucky, someone might ask: why has Question Time become the go-to platform for white supremacists, and shouldn’t someone do something about it?