State of the Arts

The BBC is bloated, bureaucratic and consistently shoots itself in the foot – but we will miss it when it’s gone

While it may be popular to call for the end of the licence fee, we’d be smart to appreciate the continued brilliance and cultural significance of the BBC, writes our arts columnist Fiona Sturges

Friday 14 February 2020 07:19
The envy of the world: BBC stalwarts Peaky Blinders, Fleabag, Gavin & Stacey and David Attenborough
The envy of the world: BBC stalwarts Peaky Blinders, Fleabag, Gavin & Stacey and David Attenborough

A word association game for you. What comes into your head when you think of the BBC? Your answers will naturally depend on your age. In my case, it’s Blue Peter, Woman’s Hour, Moira Stewart reading the news, John Simpson in a burqa, Top of the Pops, the Mitchell brothers, chat shows, game shows, Crimewatch (“Don’t have nightmares”), Dickens adaptations, Blackadder, Attenborough. Oh man, Attenborough.

For millions of Britons, the BBC is entwined in the narrative of our lives. Our viewing habits may have changed – we don’t gather around the TV like we used to – but the BBC remains part of the furniture, so embedded in our daily routine that we rarely stop to appreciate it. It wakes us up in the morning. It acts as a weathervane and temperature gauge. It enables us to traverse countries and continents without setting foot outdoors, and expands our knowledge without expecting us to visit a classroom. It connects us with the stories of people we will never meet, and allows us to time-travel or blast off into space. The BBC gives us all superpowers.

Still, the discussion around the abolition of the licence fee rumbles on, with the government taking the view that our public service broadcaster should look elsewhere for funding (the BBC chairman has warned that the introduction of a subscription service would lead to substantial cuts and a reduced output, with children’s programming likely first for the chop).

Last week, the culture secretary Nicky Morgan questioned the relevance of the BBC, remarking that, in the age of Netflix, it is in danger of becoming the next Blockbuster. (She appeared not to have noticed that Netflix’s last reported debts were just over $12bn.) This week also brought news that Elisabeth Murdoch had a hat in the ring for the job of director general when Tony Hall leaves, which, given the Murdoch family’s stranglehold over much of the British media, fairly makes the blood run cold ­­(Murdoch has since denied the rumours).

None of this is to say that the BBC isn’t flawed. It’s bloated, bureaucratic, and too often on the defensive. In its desire to please everyone, it often ends up pleasing no one. It has struggled to adapt to changing viewing habits and risks losing younger audiences for good. It is also highly skilled at shooting itself in the foot, recent examples being the unedifying doubling down over the gender pay gap, the Naga Munchetty row and the axing of The Victoria Derbyshire Show, a programme that is as close to the embodiment of public service broadcasting as it’s possible to get.

Public service: the Bafta-winning journalist Victoria Derbyshire, whose programme was just axed by the BBC (Jeff Spicer/Getty)

It is, of course, possible to cherish an institution and wish for its continued existence while disliking the decisions it makes. The BBC frequently sends my blood pressure through the roof, but I remain in awe of what it achieves day in, day out. Seventeen million people sat down to watch the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special, which is no mean feat in the age of on-demand entertainment. And who would have predicted that a modest show called Fleabag would still be picking up awards four years after its debut? Not for nothing is the BBC’s comedy and drama output the envy of the world.

Meanwhile, those looking to calculate returns on the licence fee would do well to cast an eye on the BBC’s less-publicised corners and the unheralded teams creating extraordinary content. Turn on the BBC World Service this week, for instance, and you’ll find documentaries on, variously, gender equality in Poland, the Brazilian writer Carolina Maria de Jesus who documented life in a Sao Paulo slum, and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. And for evidence of the BBC fulfilling ye olde mandate handed down from Lord Reith to “inform, educate and entertain”, let me guide you to Radio 4’s Archive on 4, a weekly strand that is consistently, bogglingly brilliant.

News has become a target for dissatisfaction with the BBC, which, given the state of the world, is understandable, if often unfair (there is no excuse for the daily abuse directed at its presenters and editors). But while the discourse on a handful of political discussion programmes leaves much to be desired, the BBC’s reporting remains second to none. Audience trust remains high. Given the threats to democracy posed by social media platforms and partisan networks, this shouldn’t be taken for granted.

There are those who will claim that they could manage without the BBC as they don’t watch live TV, cheerfully forgetting that they use the BBC app to check the news, pop on the BBC’s The Missing Cryptoqueen podcast on in the car, scroll through the BBC’s gigantic archive of recipes for dinner inspiration, or gorge on Peaky Blinders, a BBC production, on Netflix. For all its faults, the BBC is brilliant and must be protected. We’ll miss it when it’s gone.

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