Is the BBC living up to its founding principles?

Thursday 5th January 2017




Dr Paul Monaghan, Scottish National Party MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

It is a little over 90 years now since John Logie Baird invented the mechanical television and demonstrated the first working televisual system. He went on, of course, to demonstrate colour television and the first purely electronic colour television picture tube, too. Baird was a remarkable man and a shining example of Scottish ingenuity. His invention’s impact on civilisation has been immense.

Had Baird not invented the television, another Scot, John Reith, would have been relieved of much of the responsibility that accompanied him becoming the first General Manager of the British Broadcasting Society on its formation 94 years ago this October, in London. We know this society today as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Back in 1922, and faced with the challenge of building something out of nothing, Reith looked west to the United States for inspiration and towards America’s unregulated, commercial radio stations. Unimpressed, he then looked east to the embryonic Soviet Union’s state-controlled system of broadcasting but remained unpersuaded. Instead, he decided to build an independent broadcaster to “educate, inform and entertain” in an environment which would be free from political interference and commercial pressures.

The significant innovation of the Post Office licence fee, half of which went directly to the BBC, immediately ensured the new operation was neither financially dependent on government nor beholden to advertisers.

Indeed, by 1923, the emerging BBC was broadcasting “plays, concerts of popular and classical music, talks and variety programmes” with news broadcast “only after 7:00pm to avoid impacting on the sale of newspapers”. Reith defined the BBC’s role as being “to bring the best of everything to the greatest number of homes.”

Today, “the best of everything” is defined in six Public Purposes that outline the values of the BBC. We should be particularly interested in two of those principles, both, of which, require operating in the public interest to deliver impartial, high-quality and distinctive output: sustaining citizenship and civil society; and representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities.

Considering the latter, the BBC has been widely criticised for partiality in recent years, largely through acts of omission. In fact, the BBC has been called “hideously white” and “one of the most racist institutions in England”. Meanwhile, Jeremy Paxman found reason to argue that the BBC’s coverage of the important issue of climate change “abandoned the pretence of impartiality long ago.”

Strong words but it might be that “omission” is best considered through analysis of the BBC’s performance in respect of the ever-growing catalogue of crimes committed by Jimmy Saville, and possibly others. Following ITV’s “Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile”, the BBC was heavily criticised for failing to protect vulnerable people from serious sexual assaults. The evidence was damning but even as late as 2012 the BBC doggedly continued to maintain there was no evidence of actual misconduct by Savile, and continued to deny that there had been a cover-up of his activities.

The BBC has also been criticised for being “too London-centric, paying less attention to news stories outside of the capital”, while the National Union of Journalists criticised the BBC for its poor coverage of the Scottish independence referendum, which the University of the West of Scotland found “biased towards the pro-Unionist No campaign”. Even the BBC Trust, in its report “Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century”, advised that the BBC needed to take more care in being impartial.

Turning to the sustainment of citizenship and civil society, the BBC’s accounts suggest the nations, regions and communities are not doing too well, either. It is a fact, for example, that the BBC raises £300 million in Scotland from licence fees yet allocated BBC Scotland a budget of just £86 million for 2016/17. A further £21 million generously allocated to BBC Scotland’s accounts for “buying BBC channels” meant £193 million raised in Scotland was spent elsewhere. The BBC’s own figures show that 86.8 per cent of the organisation’s annual spend is in England.

For all its very many notable successes, the BBC remains challenged by some fundamental questions. Are Reith’s founding principles being maintained? Which civil society is the BBC sustaining? Is the BBC representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities? Is the BBC fit for purpose?

Here Ken MacQuarrie, Director of BBC Scotland, provides insight, “We can always do more and we can always do better”.

More and better. Good. But when?

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