Don’t carelessly jettison the European inheritance of the BBC in trying to modernise it (Part 1)

I’ve just been watching the BBC Newsnight broadcast of Monday 20 January 2020, which was mainly filled with debate about what the future of the BBC could or should be in this Netflix, social media platform world we live and work in today.

I’m deeply concerned that Britain, while thinking of how to adjust to the 21st century mass- and social media landscape (and post-Brexit geopolitics), risks ignoring the inheritance of prestige, respect and exemplary performance the BBC has grown to acquire with all inhabitants of the EU.

Now that Brexit is upon us, Britain risks losing the mobilising force in the EU of its BBC broadcasts and programmes. This is just at a time that the whole gamut of its institutional ties in the EU framework (with Euratom, Erasmus, Eurojust, EMA, EU Social Fund, etc, plus the Brussels diplomatic channels and Comitology) have been cut in one great, very foolhardy swoop, only partially and years later to be replaced with special bilateral arrangements between EU and UK.

These EU branches never were important issues in the Brexit debate in 2015-’19; the only time Downing Street discussed Euratom was around the moment of triggering Article 50, when they suddenly realised that mechanism would be jettisoned too. Erasmus and EMA are mentioned in passing.  See Tim Shipman, “Fall out: A Year of Political Mayhem”, Harper Collins, London, 2018, p24, 39, 116-7; look for the other terms in the indexes of this book and his “All Out War” on the Referendum: none!

Let me fill in some personal and Dutch facts so you can see where I am coming from in this debate.

I am a 63 year old Dutch academic working in parliamentary politics (D66, the Social Liberal equivalent of the LibDems). Dutch public broadcasting is by law tasked to give news and analysis, culture and some amusement; the fundamental difference with Dutch commercial media like SBS and RTL (operating since 1992) is that public broadcasting is supposed to give qualitative programs, including niche programs (eg for Jews, Buddhists; on the arts) that commercial broadcasters aren’t wont or supposed to be broadcasting. Along with NOS, varied broadcasting associations also broadcast programs on the public net. For news and sport, those  associations long ago have joined in a common organisation, NOS. See Wikipedia’s item on the NOS remit:

…the Dutch Media Act 2008 stipulates that the NOS produce regular and frequent … public service programming, including … a full and impartial news service and coverage of parliamentary procedures and debates, as well as reporting on sporting and other national events. The NOS also acts as technical co-ordinator for the Dutch public broadcasting system as a whole. In the event of emergencies and/or the breaking of a major news story, it can assume control of the public networks in order to provide co-ordinated coverage of events in co-operation with the other members of the systems.

Whereas Dutch broadcasting is relevant mostly for the Dutch speaking people in the Benelux, due to important historical developments the BBC has quite a different position in continental European broadcasting.

Firstly the BBC’s model of a single corporations encompassing all cultural, social (etc) strands of British society was and is important for EU governments thinking how to arrange their public broadcasting. Secondly its license fee system (and the fine on non-payment) is in a similar way an established option, among others, in such arrangements. The Dutch have in 2000 integrated the fee in general taxation. Income from advertising was added in 1967 as an extra source; see Wikipedia about the complicated Dutch system.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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  • The BBC has outlived its usefulness as far as I am concerned. Any lingering trust and respect for the institution evaporated after the Brexit referendum.

    I expect the BBC to report the news. They now report opinion as news and in fact try to make news by following their woke agenda.

    I don’t want to pay for it via my taxes. Let those who want to view its output pay its costs.

  • I usually have either radio four or sky news on in the background, bbc news is a bit too soft for my liking. Given the outrageous salaries that many who work for the Beeb get paid – and the difficulty new presenters face taking their jobs at a much lower wage – the licence fee has become a rip-off of the general public and should probably be gradually phased out, advertising allowed on non-news channels, perhaps or on second tier channels.

  • Bernard Aris 23rd Jan '20 - 12:45pm

    Having instituted our public broadcasting (NOS and associations) by law, we also have maximised the salaries of the people appearing on screen by law (the rest, technicians, office staff, etcetera, have salaries determined by collective bargaining (a very much more regular, calm “polder” procedure than the British and French confrontational style inviting Syndicalist extremism a la Scargill).

    But still: with us, too, star presenters try to wriggle out of the legal salary caps by building all kinds of structures around their work; but the excesses remain limited compared to some of your sport and show presenters raking in millions.

  • I , like many on the ‘left’ have been a staunch supporter of the BBC in the current format; however, it’s government bias is getting more and more apparent (the last election being a ‘cincher’ for me). Those it has pandered to are those who despise it’s current format and the fact that Hall’s replacement is seen as an opportunity for a ‘government appointee’ confirms to me that the BBC have scored a massive ‘own goal’.

    The ‘doctoring’ of Corbyn’s interview and the Panorama e-mails together with the political editor’s postal vote ‘leak’ and the twitter lie about Hancock’s assault means that I no longer trust the BBC as an impartial source. The ‘new’ crieria for ‘Any Question’ audiences ensures that, no matter what the ‘local political view’ there will always be a Conservative audience majority; making a mockery of visiting different locations.

    Having lived and worked in the USA I know the affect of vested interests in news reporting; the BBC is still miles ahead of ‘Fox, etc, but I now use C4/5 as my preferred ‘independent’ source.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd Jan '20 - 1:27pm

    The fundamental objection to the BBC license fee and the criminalisation of those who fail to pay it, is that we no longer live in a country where there is only one TV channel. Why should people who do not watch BBC be forced to pay for it?

    Women are disproportionally imprisoned for non-payment of license fees:

    It is time to move from a license fee system to a subscription system for the BBC. There is no reason why BBC programmes could not be transmitted encoded just like other subscription services, with users having the choice of ‘all you can eat’ and ‘pay as you go’ options amongst others. It works for mobile phones. We might well find that certain BBC programmes are much less popular when people realise that they have to pay for them.

    The BBC made a start when it chose to stop broadcasting BBC3 and made it online-only. Perhaps it needs to do the same for other channels and end the tyrrany of 24-hour television. If you can watch any programme online whenever you want to, what is the point of filling radio-frequency bandwidth with repeats.

  • Innocent Bystander 23rd Jan '20 - 2:42pm

    The Netherlands appears to be cutting back its own PBS as rapidly as decency permits. It can not be ‘ liberal’ in any sense that individuals are compelled to pay for entertainment they never watch or listen to.
    It would be better to have an adult discussion on how to break it up properly than just let its enemies multiply and its friends dwindle until it becomes a bigger pariah than it already is.
    BTW if the people of Europe regards it so highly then they can pay for it.

  • Jack Graham 24th Jan '20 - 9:40am

    “Whereas Dutch broadcasting is relevant mostly for the Dutch speaking people in the Benelux, due to important historical developments the BBC has quite a different position in continental European broadcasting.”

    I was under the impression that once we leave the British will become irrelevant to the European demos, is that not true, how surprising.

    The BBC is the arbiter of its own downfall, in recent years its left/liberal management, with it’s left/liberal programme commissioning department, and its left/liberal cohort of journalists have lost sight of the concept of impartiality. Its once highly valued news and current events output has now been polluted with personal political agendas, and is now a national joke, a joke that increasing numbers of people no longer want the dubious honour of paying for under threat of jail time. If it is to lose its licence fee, they will have nobody to blame but themselves.

    On the entertainment level the BBC has been a second string producer of second rate programmes for years, of course not forgetting the constant repeats for much of its output. If the BBC thinks its partisan output is what the British people want then presumably the public will be happy to pay for it by subscription, if not, then perhaps they might consider producing programmes that people want to watch.

    Since Europeans seem to have such fond regard for the BBC, and from an EU perspective, the BBC is probably the most pro EU body in the UK apart from the LibDems and Andrew Adonis, an idea might be for the EU to adopt the BBC. It could be called the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation(BBC), it shouldn’t be too hard as most people in the UK think it already is, you could then raise an EU wide television licence to pay for it and Bob’s your uncle.

    Please take if you love it, because in this country it is about a loved as Marmite.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jan '20 - 9:42am

    Just what is the “European Inheritance”?

    Yes we know that the UK is, always was, and always will be, a part of Europe. I don’t think that is what you mean though. Your phrase “with all inhabitants of the EU” indicates that you really mean “EU Inheritance”.

    The BBC is always short of money, so if there’s an unclaimed inheritance, perhaps you’d like to tell us about it?

  • David Garlick 24th Jan '20 - 10:13am

    The BBC is the most open and transparent news reporter we have and the most able to be held to account. Lose it at your PERIL!
    Hand it over to the Daily Wail perhaps UGH!

  • The Brexiteers and Remainers have both complained about BBC bias. The Labour Party complain that they are treated unfairly and the Tories think the BBC is full of left wing liberals. The Lib Dems and Nationalists Parties all claim that they should be given more air time. In a divided country that’s what you normally get when you try and give fair and balanced coverage. From a personal point of view I remember enjoying the world service when I was in the RAF serving overseas, no other country had anything like it. For all it’s faults it’s still the best and fairest broadcaster by a country mile.

  • Jack Graham 24th Jan ’20 – 9:40am:
    It could be called the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)…

    Already widely used, most notably in the title of a Civitas research paper…

    ‘The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation?’:

    Executive summary

    For at least the past two decades, opinion polls have shown that a large minority if not a majority of voters have wanted the UK to leave the European Union. When the question was finally put in the June 2016 referendum, they voted to do just that by a margin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Yet the clear preference of a large section of the population for withdrawal, and the reasons for so many people taking this stance, have been continually under-represented in the news coverage of the BBC. As this paper illustrates, pro- Brexit voices have been marginalised in the BBC’s coverage of EU issues for most of the past 20 years.

    That this is the case is borne out by detailed analysis of BBC news output dating back to 1999. For instance, of 4,275 guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This is linked to a longstanding reluctance to even probe the question of whether Britain should leave the EU.

    The overview provided here is a shocking indictment of the BBC’s failure to achieve impartiality, and in particular to incorporate the views of those who desired to leave the EU into its news output. Despite the referendum vote, this bias continues to the present day. Latest News-watch research, covering a month’s editions of Today in October/November 2017, has found that of 97 interviews on EU topics, only nine – less than 10 per cent – were with firm long-term supporters of Brexit.

    The BBC response’s to this data demonstrates that its formal complaints procedure and its attitude towards legitimate criticism is designed to protect the Corporation rather than to achieve impartiality in this vital area of public debate. A massive overhaul is urgently required.

  • richard underhill 24th Jan '20 - 3:49pm

    Former MP Ed Balls has a series “Travels in Euroland”, which, so far, has not been about the single currency. His wife is a Labour MP and could/should? have been a leadership candidate.
    He goes out with North Sea fishermen (Paddy Ashdown did that, down a coal mine, …)
    but Ed Balls is wondering why people vote the way they do. Bull fighting in parts of Spain. He is interested in populists, starting in The Netherlands and Spain.

  • “The Brexiteers and Remainers have both complained about BBC bias. The Labour Party complain that they are treated unfairly and the Tories think the BBC is full of left wing liberals. The Lib Dems and Nationalists Parties all claim that they should be given more air time. In a divided country that’s what you normally get when you try and give fair and balanced coverage.”

    This is also called “The Centrist Fallacy”. If one person says that vaccination causes autism, and another person says is doesn’t, then the believer in the centrist fallacy advocates giving just a half dose of the vaccine. It’s not a fallacy for nothing. The BBC is socially liberal, yet economically Conservative in the Thatcherite sense of the word. In short it appeals to the well off metropolitan types who are atypical of the populace as a whole. I fails to give the Lib Dems – or any of the other smaller parties for that matter – airtime, simply because they are neither the governing party, nor the opposition.

    I too have a special feeling for the World Service – it was a great comfort to me at one time; I have however never laboured under the misapprehension that it was anything other than soft-power projection.

    As for as I’m concerned the BBC really is an area where classical liberalism best applies – get that subscription service up and running, them as wants it’ll pay for it.

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