Op-ed: Politics, waning public attention are existential threats to the BBC

The BBC is the world’s most well-known and widely used public-service media organization, reaching more than 400 million people globally every week, and by far the most widely used source of news in the United Kingdom, but it currently faces two existential threats. The first threat, which is urgent and political, concerns how public-service media such as the BBC are funded. The second threat is less overt but more fundamental; it concerns the role of public-service media in a digital environment where people have more choices than ever.

As set out in its Royal Charter, the BBC’s mission is to act in the public interest in ways that serve all audiences. Its independence is enshrined in the charter as well as its governance; the BBC Board is tasked with upholding and protecting the independence of the BBC, and is expressly prohibited from seeking or taking government instructions.

The BBC is funded primarily through a licence fee of £154.50 (about $200) a year that every household in the UK is required to pay in order to watch live TV or programs on catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer. In the fiscal year that ended in March 2019, this licence fee provided a total of £3.6 billion (more than $4.5 billion).

The urgent threat is to the licence-fee model of funding. Like all other public-service media, the BBC is fundamentally a political creation, and its existence depends on continued broad-based political support. While it is widely used, trusted, and liked by the public, it is not clear that the BBC has broad political support in the UK today.

The 2019 general election gave Prime Minister Boris Johnson a solid majority. While our research shows Conservatives find the BBC to be one of the most trustworthy news-media outlets in the UK, some Conservative politicians and political operatives regard it with considerable skepticism. At best, they see it as an inefficient and outdated statist intervention in the marketplace; at worst, as politically biased.

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What might they do? Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief advisor, allegedly wants to “whack” the BBC, and unnamed sources from the Prime Minister’s office have suggested scrapping the license fee and forcing the BBC to adopt a subscription model akin to Sky and Netflix. Such a move would greatly reduce the resources available for public-service coverage, force the BBC to focus on serving paying subscribers rather than all audiences, and put it in direct competition with domestic and international commercial competitors. (A less controversial step to weaken the BBC would be to de-criminalize non-payment of the licence fee or just reduce funding.) It would fundamentally transform public-service media, essentially replacing the current model with something narrower, and more elite- and niche-oriented.

At first, the idea to ditch the license fee met with resistance even from within the Conservative Party, with MP Huw Merriman calling it an “unedifying vendetta against this much-admired corporation.” Other sources suggest the Prime Minister’s own approach to the BBC is more likely to be reform than revolution. But even if the drastic option of moving to a subscription model seems off the table, it illustrates the existential political threat to the BBC as we know it. 

Such a threat is not without precedent. In New Zealand, the public broadcasting fee was abolished in 1999, leaving public service media dependent on funding from general taxation, and subject to frequent changes in government priorities. In Denmark, the public service provider DR, as widely used and broadly trusted as the BBC, saw a right-wing government push through a 20-percent reduction in its funding in 2019, which has led DR to close several channels with a combined viewership of more than a million in a country of just over 5.5 million.

Neutralizing this political threat will require more than just creative elites with liberal and leftist sympathies expressing their love for the BBC. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have their own grievances against the BBC, but they are far from power. Fundamentally, the political legitimacy of public-service media requires that a broad majority of elected officials feels that the BBC is not politically biased, and agrees that it delivers public value for public money. Given who is in power and where the most pointed political attacks on the BBC are coming from right now, retaining that majority requires showcasing the specifically conservative case for public-service media.

Offline, the BBC remains the biggest UK broadcaster in terms of audience engagement. Online, it is bigger than its domestic commercial competitors, but far smaller than some of its international commercial competitors.

Such a case might stress that the BBC is one of the few institutions in British society that brings together the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It could point out that the BBC might help counter the growing disconnection between metropolitan London and the rest of the country. It could stress that the BBC can help define, represent, and share British values for citizens old and new in a world where much of the media we consume is international, rather than locally and nationally rooted. It could point out that the Conservative Party, in its election manifesto, pledged to work with the BBC to expand British influence and project British values as the UK seeks a new geopolitical role in the wake of Brexit.

Will conservatives who care about community and cohesion really want to dismantle one of the few institutions that bring the British together? The new Conservative Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden does not seem to think so. In his first speech on the BBC, he said, “We would be crazy to throw it away, but it must reflect all of our nation, and all perspectives.”

This leads us to the second threat, the erosion of the attention and trust that connects the public and the BBC. While it remains the most widely used and most broadly trusted media organization in the UK, both trust in the BBC and attention to its output seems to be eroding. During the 2019 campaign, a plurality of 43 percent said they thought the BBC did a good job covering the election, but a large minority of 14 percent said it did a bad job, and especially the far left and the far right are sceptical of its work. Attention too is in decline, especially among younger people. Though its Royal Charter still presents the BBC as a broadcaster, we increasingly live in a digital-, mobile-, and platform-dominated media environment where radio and television are niche media for older people. In early 2019, according to our research, the BBC still accounted for 63 percent of all radio listening in the UK, and 31 percent of all linear scheduled television viewing, but just 1.5 percent of all time spent with digital media. By comparison, Google’s various products and services made up 22 percent of all time spent with digital media, and Facebook’s 14 percent.

Offline, the BBC remains the biggest UK broadcaster in terms of audience engagement. Online, it is bigger than its domestic commercial competitors, but far smaller than some of its international commercial competitors. Such dynamics will only become more pronounced. Every time someone passes away in the UK, it is someone who has spent most of his or her life listening to and watching hours and hours of BBC output via television and radio. Every time someone comes of age, it is someone who primarily relies on their smartphone and often has only a few brief encounters with the BBC on a weekly basis, compared to hours spent with American platforms like Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, and maybe Chinese platforms like TikTok. The BBC’s 2019 Annual Plan committed 69 percent of UK public-service spending to television, 21 percent to radio, and 10 percent to online services. For comparison, on average, adults in the UK spend 23 percent of their time with media watching television, 15 percent listening to radio, and 55 percent online, across smartphones, tablets, and personal computers in 2019, according to eMarketer, a media research agency. 

Even if the BBC finds a way through the urgent political challenges, the more fundamental question of whether it can retain and renew its connection with the public in a changing media environment remains. How can the BBC fulfill its mission to inform, educate, and entertain all audiences in the UK and deliver public value if younger people spend just minutes with it via their phones, and not the hours older people lavish on its broadcasts? Given growing disparities in use, will the public continue to accept the licence-fee model, in which everyone pays the same flat fee no matter how much they use the BBC, or what they earn, as legitimate? To ensure its future, the BBC needs to demonstrate what truly impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services look like in a digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment not just to politicians, but also to the public.

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Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. (Full disclosure: the Reuters Institute works with more than thirty different funders, including the BBC.)