Opinion: We must dismantle BBC to reform it

If the BBC has been feeling a little cursed of late it can at least feel blessed in having Rupert Murdoch as an enemy. For the truth is that the BBC and Murdoch need to each other to justify their own world view and block any threat to seriously reform either of their vast empires.

In much the same way as the Labour and Tory parties use each other’s existence to drown the genuinely radical voices out of British public life whilst they tinker at their edge of whichever of society’s problems the particular interest groups they represent care about, the BBC and the Murdoch empire avoid real change to their flawed structures by playing tribal games.

Already we are seeing BBC-friendly journalists trying to equate a desire to reform the BBC with a desire to pursue Murdoch’s agenda, while during the phone hacking scandal, the Murdoch press found time to attack the BBC for its familiar failings. The reality is that to see the best of British public service broadcasting, one must look at Channel 4, which produces a genuinely questioning, curious and radical evening news programme, radical documentaries and is home to more experimental comedy and drama than the BBC. That Channel 4 has to also produce the execrable Supersize vs Superskinny is due to it living in a commercial world from which the BBC is exempt.

That’s a BBC where Bruce Forsyth is still a feature of Saturday evening TV, and the comedians in the most high profile roles are the decidedly middle of the road Dara O’Briain and Michael McIntyre. This blandness is the consequence of the BBC entering the mass market and forgetting its raison d’etre: to produce quality without concern for market forces.

This can perhaps be first traced to the BBC, in a thorough illiberal way driving the innovative and original pirate music stations out of business, then proceeding to hire most of their presenters to ape the pirates’ style, in this way the BBC ceased to be about providing services without recourse to the market, and started to become a monopolistic market player, a Rupert Murdoch with a smiling face.

This pattern has continued apace, with the BBC having its own dedicated commercial arm actively competing with UK companies happy to provide the same service, and when cuts are needed, it’s the public service, not the commercial divisions which bear the brunt.

At its heart, Liberalism encourages a diversity of voices and viewpoints, and a variety of participants in commercial markets. Applying these principles to the BBC would make the great broadcaster stronger, and more able to deal with future crisis.

A key finding from the current crisis at the BBC is that there are indistinct lines of responsibility. Shrinking the organisation so that it focuses more on its core functions, would also aid the process of developing greater accountability for future Directors General.

BBC Radio 1 and 2 should be sold to the highest bidder. They are purely commercial entities who perform a function which already exists in the market, so cut them free to do that and let the BBC concentrate on those functions it was created to perform.

The BBC commercial arm should be sold or floated on the stock market with the corporation keeping a minority stake to protect its interests.

Such moves may be radical, but a slimmed down BBC with its core purpose restored and clearer lines of command, is a uniquely British treasure worth taking radical steps for.

* David Thorpe is a member of the Liberal Democrats in Newham, and works for an economics publication.

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39 Comments

  • Robert Allen 20th Nov '12 - 10:30am

    Articles like this make me furious. Arrogantly dimissing shows like Strictly come Dancing and attacking comedians like McIntyre for being popular. The BBC produce many excellent programmes every year and provide first rate news and sport coverage on many formats at a tiny cost to the consumer. Breaking up the BBC is the first step on the path to it being disbanded, which would a huge shame for the nation.

  • This is such a blancmange of a critique that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps you could start by outlining how the BBC drove the pirate radio stations out of business. I’d also be interested to know why Bruce Forsyth shouldn’t be on on Saturdays and what’s wrong with middle-of-the-road comedians. And why the best way to fix indistinct lines of responsibility is to shrink the BBC rather than, say, making lines of responsibility distinct.

  • Wow, some absolute corkers here – “…the BBC ceased to be about providing services without recourse to the market, and started to become a monopolistic market player, a Rupert Murdoch with a smiling face.” Sorry, this really is some astonishingly out-on-a-limb codswallop. Its a public service broadcaster, thats its remit – it has an obligation to provide platforms for public interests and voices, which it manages, however fitfully, not a function which you`ll commonly see across the channel packages of Sky.

    “BBC Radio 1 and 2 should be sold to the highest bidder. They are purely commercial entities who perform a function which already exists in the market.” Yes, because as we all know pop and rock are just trivial musical forms better left to the commodifiers and lucrative-demographic-output approach of corporate-owned commercial stations which has led to the MOR/blandification of commercial rock radio.

    “The BBC commercial arm should be sold or floated on the stock market with the corporation keeping a minority stake to protect its interests.” – that’s right, ditch the profit-making arm, that’ll help when its time to commission some new programmes.

    And lastly, “At its heart, Liberalism encourages a diversity of voices and viewpoints..” but not if you’re a social democrat/social liberal. Just had to get that one in.

  • I sort of agree with the spirit of David Thorpe’s article, but If we roll back the years a little, the BBC started life as a kind of ‘Civil Service with cameras’. It’s had to come face to face with the commercial world since then.
    I also detest some of the bland programming, but unfortunately, the folks that like ‘bland’, are forced to pay the licence fee. And again sadly, there are a lot more fee payers that prefer bland to polar bears.
    Perhaps the legislation for the TV licence fee (which is another name for a tax), should be re-visited.

  • Very poorly argued and poorly informed. The BBC is pilloried for providing popular entertainment and Channel 4 excused when it departs from it’s lofty intellectual crusade and churns out some old garbage. The BBC is exempt from the commercial world?? The licence fee doesn’t cover what they do by any means and they are as subject to the market and viewing figures as much as any other media organisation. Without their successful commercial arm they would be struggling to function. Does the management need change, it does indeed, but hopefully by someone who understands and has proper knowledge of the organisation, it’s pressures and it’s remit. Which, by the way, was to inform and entertain.

  • “Already we are seeing BBC-friendly journalists trying to equate a desire to reform the BBC with a desire to pursue Murdoch’s agenda”

    What’s to argue with there, exactly? Since Murdoch would be the main winner of any dismantling of the BBC and is one of its chief advocates, I see precious little difference.

    That’s not to say the BBC doesn’t have its faults, but it’s one of the best public broadcasting organisations in the world and we meddle with it at our peril.

    Seared into my mind is the negative example of what a public broadcasting organisation can be – Italy’s RAI – which is one of the reasons why Italy is in such a political mess.

    I’m not saying BBC would turn into RAI, but at the present moment I think we should definitely stick with Auntie (for all her faults) for fear of finding something much, much worse.

  • Eurgh. I would comment further, but others have done so better than I could.

  • Never mind the quality, eh? You guys simply can’t stand the fact that the BBC produces a far better service than the private sector and at a fraction of the price.

    Remember, the private sector is always good and must be obeyed.

  • Old Codger Chris 20th Nov '12 - 1:08pm

    I’m unsure whether the licence fee system can survive but I hope it does as it enables non-commercial broadcasting to exist without direct government interference or recourse to public appeals for money. And there can be no licence fee without a big chunk of popular programming.

    Incidentally even this old codger can see that Radio 1 is very different and much more diverse than its – mostly rubbish, and mostly owned by a few big groups – commercial rivals.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Nov '12 - 1:34pm

    Tom Papworth

    I defy anybody to explain what is in the public interest about Cash In The Attic and Homes Under The Hammer.

    I don’t watch television, but these are programmes about selling antiques or selling your house, yes?

    If so, it would seem to me there is a great deal of public interest in such programmes being made by people who don’t have a financial interest in talking up the prices of antiques or houses.

  • Is this meant to be serious or just provocative?
    Diversity of viewpoints as long they can be funded by expensive advertising or by very rich sponsorship?
    The BBC shouldn’t make programs that are watched by the millions of people who pay for the them?
    Better to have a single channel in a downward spiral of narrower audiences, justifying lower budgets, leading to poorer quality? Is it is the creative space provided by BBC3 and BBC4 that stifles creativity?
    A good example of commercialising a public service remit is Channel Four’s move from where it started to the freak show television that it now seems to rely on.
    The BBC is not perfect but is fundamental to the rich creative culture of this country and to its democratic processes. It is bad enough that it is being so badly damaged by the actions of our government.

  • “It is bad enough that it is being so badly damaged by the actions of our government.”

    Nonsense, the BBC are damaged because they covered up for a paedophile.

    Markets where possible, state where necessary – I don’t see why anything the BBC does justifies it being public, let alone excusing the authoritarian ‘licence fee’ television tax, as Tom Papworth says.

  • “Nonsense, the BBC are damaged because they covered up for a paedophile. ”

    I hope you’ve got a good lawyer, Z.

    Do you actually know what a paedophile is? Try looking it up ina dictionary. When you’ve done that, can you please provide me with evidence that the BBC deliberately covered up the actions of someone they knew to be abusing pre-pubescent children.

  • A lot of reheated old tropes being poured out here.

    Questions do need to be asked about the level of public service provided by the BBC – I’ll state here that I think the role of the BBC must evolve in response to and as the media environment proliferates. Personally I’m quite happy for middle-of-the-road personalities to do their thing on mainstream channels, but this should not be to the detriment of greater specialism elsewhere. For example I love BBC Parliament and hate BBC News24.

    Questions do also need to be asked about the quality (and, in light of Newsnight’s recent problems, quality control) of programming – I’ll state here that it is incorrect to say ‘the BBC produces a far better service than the private sector and at a fraction of the price’. The overall income of the BBC is not comparable to private competitors because of the way it is allocated via commissioning, nor is the cost to consumers comparable because it is not discretionary and backed up by law.

    Frankly speaking, the basic problem in British media is that cost of producing media is far too high in this country, and this is underpinned and reinforced by the strictures placed on the national broadcaster.

    Has anyone ever noticed how cossetted the established media industry is? Well-educated, well-paid, well-connected… wouldn’t industry and commerce benefit from greater input from this ‘liberal elite’?

    The BBC must continue to exist, but to do so it must create a service platform packaged in response to public needs, not just the needs of the consumer-class chatterati who enjoy the ubiquitous staid studio-based panel shows. Get thee to thy coal-face, sir!

    Whatever happened to Tomorrow’s World? Where is coverage of European news? Where is coverage of local government? Where is court coverage? Where is coverage which doesn’t follow AP and Reuters?

    The BBC is in the public sector, and this distinction is both vital and real. The private sector does not provide a minimum standard of public information and scrutiny because it does not exist for the public good. The BBC does, and this means engaging in a dialogue with the private sector to expand the range and choice of programming to ensure the depth and breadth of quality is continually enhanced.

    I think it is bonkers that the institution funded by license-fee payers can restrict the services it makes available to us – BBC World, BBC America etc must be unlocked for British audiences – immediately. Add to this a new range of channels such as BBC Britain, BBC Africa, BBC Europe, BBC Science, BBC Sport etc and we might just about have a claim to be making a start to the task of dismantling the self-serving remit of the media classes.

  • @Z
    Sorry, didn’t mean to confuse, I was referring to the 25% funding cut and it’s treatment as an arm of government in that action.
    (And I don’t think it
    covered up a pedophile, a news editor got too scarred to run a story, unless you are referring to somebody else?)

  • david thorpe 20th Nov '12 - 2:57pm

    Middle of the road comedians-usless tv news programmes etc are the aim of a station embracing mass market forces-exactly what the BBC was created not to do.
    You may like those comedians etc-and thats fine-but its aginst the tradtions of the BBC-I want a retunr to a traditonal BBC-not what we have now-a state subsidised monolpistic player-and liberals have never agreed with state subsidised market monolpolies-its the opposite of our ideology and more Tory than anything else

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Nov '12 - 3:03pm

    If the BBC produces populist middle-of-the-road programmes, we are told it should be abolished because it is only doing what the market is doing anyway. If it doesn’t produce such programmes, we are told it should be abolished because it is patronising by trying to impose on people what they don’t want, and unfair in making them pay for it.

  • Romaticising pirate radio stations, either in the past or present, is to express ignorance of what they were and are.

    They where dubbed ‘pirate’ stations for good reason, because they had the morals of pirates.

    Pirate broadcasters often use unsafe, unhealthy and dangerous facilities, with corrupt business practices, violent habits and criminal methods all combining into a toxic mix.

    Whether it was the off-shore ships and platforms of the 60s, or the towerblocks in the 80s, the reality didn’t match up with most of the propaganda.

    So they exploited the failings of the establishment, they were not a viable alternative.

  • Why not sell Radio 1?

  • Old Codger Chris 20th Nov '12 - 3:55pm

    Alistair – “Why not sell Radio 1?” Because it’s different from most commercial pop stations and (I’m led to believe by those who understand these things) better. It certainly couldn’t be worse than many of today’s commercial pop stations – they have mostly discarded the genuinely local service many of them originally provided, having been bought up by big groups.

    The licence fee can’t be justified by Radios 3 and 4, BBC Parliament etc alone. A chunk of it must be spent on mass market programmes, many of which are sold around the globe.

  • david thorpe 20th Nov '12 - 3:57pm

    liberalism is about diversity the bbc have had the same guy presenting their main staurday eveing programme for decades and their two most high profile comics are similar in demagraphic appeal.

  • david thorpe 20th Nov '12 - 3:58pm

    @ orangejepan

    the bbc employed all the same djs as the pirates so presumably have the same morals?

  • david thorpe 20th Nov '12 - 4:00pm

    @ mathew
    the bcb should produce a mix-but it currebtkly doesnt-its main networks produce only bland populaism-its main eveing news is terrible-one of the jewels in its crown-Newsnight-has been shown to have lower journlaism standards theat the tiny local newspapers I started out on

    also Im not making a point that the BBC is not value for money-it is-but it could be so much better

  • Old Codger Chris 20th Nov '12 - 6:11pm

    David – I don’t say the BBC shouldn’t be required to improve, that’s a no-brainer in the light of recent events.

    But if, like me, you want the licence fee system to continue, you must answer the charge that it’s a regressive tax levied on almost everyone, including people who almost never watch BBC TV. As long as the BBC offers a range of programmes from Snog Marry Avoid to Late Review and everything in between, the system is defendable. A cheaper fee funding only highbrow stuff would not be defensible – why should someone who never watches subsidise those who do, especially since, to a considerable extent, it would be a subsidy from the poor to the wealthy?

    Your slimmer BBC could only be funded by direct government grant with all that implies – or by some kind of public subscription or appeals for cash.

  • @ Steve

    “I hope you’ve got a good lawyer, Z.

    Do you actually know what a paedophile is? Try looking it up ina dictionary. When you’ve done that, can you please provide me with evidence that the BBC deliberately covered up the actions of someone they knew to be abusing pre-pubescent children.”

    Well if you think the BBC are going to sue Z then I think you are living in La La land. I imagine Z is basing his claims on infmation from BBC output (TV and Web). If you think there is public apetite, after the BBC’s behavior in that has been recently exposed, to tolerate their taking legal action against their critics I sugest you speak to a normal people in every day life outside your personal clique.

    If the BBC were to sue someone for criticising them over their behavior you would see that alreqady deverstated c40% number of people who trust the BBC drop to c1%. Nothing gives conspiracy theories more life than over reactions by large institutions.

  • From the BBC charter

    The BBC’s main activities should be the promotion of its Public Purposes through the provision of output which consists of information, education and entertainment, supplied by means of—(a)television, radio and online services;(b)similar or related services which make output generally available and which may be in forms o r by means of technologies which either have not previously been used bythe BBC or which have yet to be developed

    Considering the cost of the BBC licence fee and the range of services it provides, together with innovative ways of presenting TV, radio and online services (those of you who argue it shouldnt be doing x, y or z really ought to read what the BBC is meant to do by its charter) it’s remarkably good value for money.

    And Oranjepan your comment “For example I love BBC Parliament and hate BBC News24.” seems to me wonderfully ironic set against the rest of your argument – to me thats exactly what the BBC should be about.

  • Watching Dara O’Briain now – brilliant.

  • @Psi ”
    I imagine Z is basing his claims on infmation from BBC output (TV and Web).”

    Really? The BBC have admitted covering the track of a paedophile, have they? It’s news to me.

    Your argument is thus: the lynch-mob won’t let the BBC defend itself against libellous allegations so they shouldn’t stand up to people making unsubstantiated claims. Wow. Simply wow.

  • Fiona White 21st Nov '12 - 7:53am

    I want to continue to have an option of watching/listening to a broadcaster which is not drive by the commercial necessity to appease the advertisers. Because of the licence fee funding, the BBC is able to produce some of the most brilliant programmes as well as some of the most entertaining. If you only have a public broadcaster which provides very worthy material which is of interest only to a minority, you are effectively strangling it. If you mix the “thinking” material which what is pure entertainment, audiences are more likely to stay with the mix. I am very happy to pay my licence fee and would be totally opposed to selling off all or part of the BBC to the market. We have quite enough commercial alternatives for those who want them.

  • @Z, Psi

    “Nonsense, the BBC are damaged because they covered up for a paedophile.”

    That statement directly implies that the BBC (a) knew Jimmy Savile was a ‘paedophile’ whilst he was alive and (b) acted on his behalf to prevent the truth becoming known. It is a highly litigious comment and one that the BBC has every right to sue Z and LDV for publishing. I’d be very happy if the BBC did sue, as would many people who are sickened by this appalling witch hunt.

    There is a fundamental and enormous difference between an organisation knowing about abuse by an employee and an organisation hearing rumours about abuse by an employee. The vast majority of emotional, psychological and sexual abuse, whether targeted at children or adults, goes either unreported or is not properly investigated when reported. The reason is simple – in the majority of cases there is no hard evidence and the accusations amount to one person’s word against another person. Organisations are notoriously bad at investigating abuse for that reason.

    If you charge is that the BBC covered up the behaviour of a ‘paedophile’ after their death, then it isn’t anywhere near as serious as covering up the behaviour of a known sexual offender whilst they are alive. It’s certainly not a criminal matter. Remember that the original Newsnight investigation report was largely based on a police investigation into Savile that was dropped because the police believed there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution. That is how difficult it is to take action, in the form of prosecution by the authorities or disciplinary action by an employer, on allegations of abuse where there is no hard evidence. Even now there is no hard evidence against Savile, just the weight of number of as yet un-proved allegations. Given the weight of number it is highly likely that Savile was a serial sex offender. The BBC appear not to have been aware of the number of alleged incidents involving Savile whilst he was alive. The police might have known if the different forces that investigated Savile had communicated with each other. That is the most serious problem with the system highlighted by the Savile allegations and one that is being studiously ignored by the tabloids (and their ignorant, sex-obsessed readers) who are more concerned with getting their pound of flesh from the BBC.

    As for this article and some of the comments. WT..? How did we get from the organisational and journalistic failings relating to an alleged serial sex-offender to breaking up the BBC, scrapping Radio 1, discussing particular presenters an individual has a personal dislike for, etc?

  • Jonathan Webber 21st Nov '12 - 8:12am

    I have had the good fortune to have worked all over the world for the past 30 years.

    It is impossible to describe the love and respect shown to the BBC especially in poorer, developing countries where quite often the only impartial local language source of information was the BBC – and the ultimate clincher in any argument on almost any subject was and continues to be …’I heard it on the BBC’.

    Equally, unless you have lived overseas you can have no idea of how consistently good BBC content is. I’m not referring to any individual programme but to an overall ethos and you understand this not from a swift holiday visit where local content can be amusing but from being posted for three months plus…

    We are priveleged to have the BBC – warts, mistakes and all. The license fee is the best value offering in the country. It would be a desperate act of folly to privatise it.

  • peebee,
    there’s nothing ironic or contradictory about my line at all.

    The fact is BBC Parliament (like Democracy Live online) is a completely distinct public service, whereas BBC News24 was set up to replicate the commercial channel formats, and thereby damages the presentations of the facts which it is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the public with by packaging them in exactly the same way, according to the management demands of the scheduler rather than the demands of the viewing audience.

    Every second of BBC Parliament adds to the plurality of the broadcasting environment, News24 adds very little.

    The relative cost of original content provided by the licence fee compared to subscription channels has experienced a massive and remarkable shift in the past few years. The BBC is falling behind.

    If we take a populist defence of the BBC that it provides better value for money, then the quality and quantity of content available to license payers must increase substantially, or the cost must reduce.

    If we take a public service defence of the Beeb that the institution itself is a defender of national civic values, then the internal structures at the organisation are failing to be sufficiently open or accountable and this is weakening its reputational ability to do the job we want it to do.

    I combine the two defences – I want a better BBC, and I don’t feel it is right or acceptable that license-fee payers like myself should be restricted from the services which I fund, nor do I feel the internal war in the BBC between production and direction is conducive to accurate, successful or helpful public information, education and entertainment.

    I want more BBC channels, which complement commercial content, rather than replicate it.

  • Old Codger Chris 23rd Nov '12 - 11:35am

    Jonathan Webber’s comment is a reminder to us all of just how valuable the BBC is to our country. And how short sighted it was to compel UK licence payers to fund the World Service, resulting in cuts to output.

    I don’t understand Oranjepan’s comment about the relative cost of the licence and subscription channels -Sky and Virgin look very expensive to me compared to the licence.

    I have said before that Patten should go for the sake of the BBC. Now that Entwistle’s greed is public knowledge I think the whole BBC Trust should be sacked. The Corporation’s worst enemies aren’t the right wing press, but rather the enemy within.

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