behind the news

Letter from a Londoner

The BBC is in crisis. Should you care?
November 15, 2012

This week, the BBC celebrates its 90th birthday. As birthdays go, it’s a rather unhappy one. In the last month, reports of scandal wracking the BBC have appeared in publications across the globe, each struggling to distill the absurdities of a historical culture of pedophilia and abuse that infiltrated Britain’s treasured public broadcaster. (Emily Bell has one of the best explainers, here.) The context is complicated, but the blunders are not: Of two separate sex abuse investigations by a current affairs program called Newsnight, one, into what appears to have been a real pedophile, was shelved, and the other, falsely implicating a senior politician in a pedophile ring, ran on TV. In the furor that followed both missteps, the BBC lost its director general just 54 days after he started the job (his payoff, which amounted to twice as much as his contract stated, has been widely criticized). Several other senior staff members have already “stepped aside,” and more are likely to go as the corporation identifies those editorially responsible. This much, you may know. But should American audiences care?

The peculiar, convoluted nature of the incidents makes it easy to focus instead on scandals closer to home. But part of the BBC’s “public purposes,” or the foundation of its position as a publicly funded broadcaster as set out by its constitutional mandate, is to “bring the UK to the world and the world to the UK.”

According to a June post on The Editors blog, the global weekly audience of the BBC across all platforms (TV, radio, online) has gone up 14 million to 239 million in 2012, an increase of 6 percent over last year. The BBC credits the increase to a demand for “impartial” news and information during the Arab Spring (the corporation’s political impartiality is another requirement of its constitutional charter). International diplomacy has long figured in the role of the BBC: In the Second World War, the BBC Overseas Service (now the World Service), delivered news bulletins to occupied territories and offered a crucial opposing voice to Nazi propaganda. Indeed, it was BBC Arabic Television, which broadcast for two years from Qatar, that laid the foundations for a new, controversial, and rigorously independent Arab news service named Al Jazeera in 1996.

Far from being anachronistic, as some critics have claimed, the BBC has maintained some of the largest international bureaus in the world. It employs over 21,000 staff, 2000 of whom are journalists around the world, which is comparable to Reuters, the Associated Press, and Al Jazeera, that each employ some 3000 journalists.

In the US, its influence is largely online and through BBC America and the BBC World News, its commercial television channels. BBC World News is currently available in about six million American homes and should be available in 15 million more by the end of 2012. BBC Online ranks as the 51st most popular websites in the world, ahead of CNN Interactive (61) and The New York Times (94).

But in a shrinking world, the BBC has far more competitors for its share of the audience than it did when it was the only global news service in the Second World War. Now that information is available everywhere, its currency is trust. “The BBC is all about trust,” acting director-general Tim Davie said in a BBC News interview on November 12. “The BBC needs to be trusted. If we don’t have that, we have nothing.”

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The nature of the latest scandal (and it is the latest in a long history of controversies that have threatened to bring Auntie to her knees) is contained to a program that few outside the UK will watch (Newsnight) and alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by a former TV personality who is peculiar even to Britons (Jimmy Savile). But the corporation has reach beyond British shores—it’s a digital leader thanks to its outgoing director-general Mark Thompson, who has since been poached by the Times to pull off a similar trick there, and its audience share is healthy. What’s more, its governing charter is not up for renewal until 2016, so it has time to sort itself out before any major restructuring of the funding model takes place.

The legacy of this “ghastly mess,” in the words of the BBC chairman, is a warning. “The crisis is already well passed,” Claire Enders, a media analyst in the UK, said. “But it showed that the very mightiest institution can be laid low by its own internal weaknesses. This is a salutary lesson to all organizations involved in this game that falling asleep on the job is not an option.”

Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.