There is no room for doubt: the battle is underway for the survival of the BBC as we know it. But whoever was behind a Downing Street briefing on the government’s view of the corporation, the proposals splashed across the front page of the Sunday Times do not amount to any kind of realistic plan. The BBC’s enemies – and it’s hard to see the anonymous source as anything other than that – relish the idea of the broadcaster becoming a subscription service. But it can’t be said enough times that this simply doesn’t work in the case of free-to-air television systems such as Freeview, nor in that of radio. A full subscription model would rely on everyone receiving their media only through broadband, and that is a very distant prospect.
The other ideas are no more practicable. If the idea is to avoid consumers paying for what they don’t use, it makes no sense to confiscate Radio 2 – listened to by 14 million people each week – from the BBC, while preserving Radio 3 and its weekly audience of two million weekly. It may be a crowd-pleasing piece of rhetoric to threaten BBC stars who have second jobs, but many of them are freelance and it would be ridiculous to ban them from other employment simply because the BBC gives them a few weeks’ work each year.
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What this was designed to do, of course, was to please the press barons who’ve always hated the BBC; to enthuse the Beeb-bashers within the Conservative Party; and also to warn the corporation that change is coming. What it has also unexpectedly done, though, is to galvanise the Tories who still believe in the BBC. The former cabinet minister Damian Green was quick to tweet that “destroying the BBC wasn’t in our manifesto and would be cultural vandalism”, while Conservative MP Huw Merriman observed: “I’m not sure this vendetta against the BBC is going to end well.” More widely, online petitions have been started and there is a rallying of support from members of the public who value the BBC as a service akin to the NHS: uniquely British and available to all.
It would be understandable if this warm support was of comfort to BBC bosses, who have otherwise been bunkered down in New Broadcasting House waiting for the government tanks to arrive in W1A. But they will have no doubt that these are dangerous times for the corporation – not least because some of the briefings against the BBC do have a kernel of truth in them. It is true that a “television licence” feels outdated in the age of the internet. It is also extremely hard these days to be a broadcaster committed to universality. Younger audiences have declined sharply, as the attraction of Netflix and YouTube have increased, and yet the licence fee is still demanded from everybody at £154.50 a year. There is a traditional argument for the quality of what the BBC does and the extent to which this justifies the organisation as a public good, but this has also been shakier of late – not least because of its uncertain and trivia-fixated coverage of the recent general election campaign.
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This is compounded by a corporate strategy which can infuriate competitors. As an example, the BBC decided that heritage radio services were under threat so it moved into the blossoming podcast market; and more recently it has been discussing whether it should further expand its number of linear radio stations, too, in an inevitable challenge to the commercial sector.
There is no doubt that the new director general will need to be radical. He or she cannot rely on the age-old BBC position that the storm will pass over, and life will continue as before. The corporation has so far avoided tough decisions about its shape and size. It periodically sends out its chairman and DG to say how marvellous things are, but it has not seriously engaged in a debate about what public service means in the digital age. This is particularly acute in news, where the retort about the BBC being well-placed because the attacks emanate from left and right is wearing thin.
For all that, the evidence is that most people in this country believe that a reformed BBC is worth fighting for. The vision of the corporation outlined in the Sunday Times would leave the media landscape poorer as it is deprived of those moments when the nation still comes together for BBC sport, drama, comedy, and events. It is a fight that the government cannot win without a lot of unnecessary pain from its BBC-consuming heartlands.
Yet for the corporation it is essential to have a masterplan that reflects the way the nation and audiences have changed. We don’t need more imperial ambition from the BBC but rather for it to come to terms with the Britain of the 2020s and set out how a more sharply defined public service can still thrive. That is the best hope of beating back the briefers of Downing Street.