Steven Barnett delivers Shirley Williams lecture on the BBC’s centenary, its contribution to public life, and threats to its survival
On 2nd December, Professor Steven Barnett delivered the most recent Shirley Williams lecture, titled: “100 years of the BBC: Britain’s extraordinary gift to the world, but for how much longer?”. Named after one of the most recognisable and iconic figures in British politics, Baroness Shirley Williams of Crosby, the Shirley Williams Lectures offers a platform for some of the most progressive thinkers across the UK and beyond. The series provides an opportunity for members to listen and exchange ideas with specialists from a range of fields, including politics, business, sport, arts, and culture.
This is the full text of Prof Barnett’s lecture;
100 years of the BBC: Britain’s extraordinary gift to the world, but for how much longer?
Many thanks to Lord Storey and the organisers for this very special invitation which I was delighted to accept for two reasons. First, it gives me an opportunity in advance of the BBC’s centenary next year to celebrate its existence, but also to warn about potentially lethal threats to its future. And that will be the main thrust of this lecture.
But second, it gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to Shirley Williams herself who was one of my earliest political heroes. I met her once, in June 1978. It was my first visit to Parliament, for the 80th birthday of long-standing Labour MP David Weitzman, and I had just finished a two-year stint as a secondary school teacher at a former secondary modern school that had recently gone comprehensive. Shirley Williams, of course, was Secretary of State for Education and Science.
David introduced me to her, and I assumed that as a callow and not very interesting 25-year-old, we would exchange a few niceties before she moved on to someone more important. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did she want to hear a detailed account of the trials and tribulations of a rather green secondary school teacher – and there were plenty of trials and tribulations – but she was also keen to talk through educational theory and its translation into the classroom.
After 20 minutes of genuine engagement, she made her apologies and moved on. I was starstruck, and left with the abiding image not only of someone who was passionate about education, but also of a politician who stood for the kinds of values that most of us want to see in our elected representatives: fairness, respect, compassion, authenticity, integrity.
The BBC and public service
To segue to the theme of this lecture, the BBC, let me quote one passage from Shirley Williams’ autobiography: She said: “The words ‘public service’…. too often evoke nowadays cynicism or disbelief. Yet without it society fragments.” She goes on, with enormous prescience: “distortion of facts can be effective political weapons. But they destroy the foundations of democratic civic life. Extremist parties of both right and left are strengthened by them. Citizens yearn for integrity.”
Which brings me to the BBC. Celebrating its centenary is slightly premature since it was not formally registered in its first iteration as the British broadcasting Company until 15 December 1922. And although it was another four years before the Company became a Corporation, governed as it is now by a Royal Charter, its public service principle took root from the very beginning. As Asa Briggs writes in his official history, “so secure had the principle become… that the change of constitution and title entailed no sharp break in the life of the BBC.”
In the 99 years since then, that public service principle has evolved, been codified, quantified, reinterpreted and often questioned. The BBC’s survival as an institution has been threatened on more than one occasion; but throughout those 99 years, through the 1930s crash and depression, through the second world war, through Suez, through the social revolution of the 1960s, the political crises of the 1970s, the Falklands, Gulf and Iraq wars, through the financial meltdown of 2008, through Brexit and the Covid pandemic, the BBC has been an integral and vital part of our daily lives. That’s an astonishing achievement for an institution that was founded in an era when even cinema was in its infancy.
But I do think the threat today is real and the path to survival more treacherous than at any point in BBC history. I will explain why shortly, but first I want to explain why the BBC matters and why its progressive degradation – which is happening now – will leave us as a society not only more impoverished but far more vulnerable to powerful anti-democratic forces.
Why the BBC still matters
11 years ago, just after the 2010 general election, my colleague Jean Seaton and I wrote an article for Political Quarterly, a memo to the new Parliament which was distributed to all MPs. We wanted to persuade our elected representatives that the BBC made an unparalleled contribution to every aspect of our lives– cultural, economic and democratic. In every single one of those areas, I believe the need is greater today than in 2010.
We highlighted the BBC’s investment in children’s programmes, which today is even more vital in providing our kids with original British content and British cultural references that ensure they don’t grow up with more knowledge of Los Angeles than London, or thinking our emergency number is 911.
We outlined the BBC’s contribution to music, through its orchestras, through the Proms, through innovations like Young Musician of the Year and BBC Introducing which continue to bring through new and successful artists like Florence and the Machine. Through Radios 1, 2 and 3, and through its support for over 1,000 live events in popular music and 500 classical concerts and studio sessions each year, the BBC is still instrumental in promoting British musical talent.
We emphasised the global reach of the BBC’s soft power, an ambassador for Britain that is even more crucial in a post-Brexit world where other indicators of soft power are in decline: Britain’s aid and development spending has been cut by over £4 billion. The British Council, nearly as old as the BBC, is having to close 20 offices worldwide. The global reputation of our universities, second only to the United States, has been hit by a Brexit-enforced withdrawal from the EU’s Erasmus programme, while diplomatic rows now prejudice our participation in the £80 billion pound Horizon research programme.
But the global reach of the BBC continues to grow and should hit a weekly figure of half a billion people in its centenary year.
We underlined the vital importance of the BBC’s investment in British talent and British originality: new bands, new voices, new comedians, new scriptwriters, new ideas, new music, new on-screen and oﬀ-screen talent. That investment is now even more important as a bulwark against the tide of American or mid Atlantic material featured on US-based streaming services. Today, the BBC’s contribution to the UK creative economy is estimated at nearly £5b, supporting well over 50,000 jobs both directly and indirectly, and ensuring that British stories are still told to British audiences.
In all of these areas – children’s programmes, World Service, music, drama, comedy, the arts and the creative economy – the need for a well resourced public broadcaster operating across the piece is more important, not less important than it was 11 years ago.
Democracy and the BBC
This is particularly true in one area I haven’t mentioned: the BBC’s contribution to our democratic welfare, not just in the UK but around the world.
Last week, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, based in Stockholm, released its 2021 report on “The Global State of Democracy.” It begins: “Democracy is at risk,” and continues: “The world is becoming more authoritarian as nondemocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression and many democratic governments suffer from backsliding by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law.”
The report identifies the United States as one of the democracies that is “backsliding”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just the attempted insurrection on 6 January to overthrow a legitimately elected government. It’s also the blanket of lies and disinformation explicitly designed to deceive ordinary citizens which has resulted in an astonishing 70 per cent of Republicans believing that Joe Biden did not legitimately win last November’s election.
We know that the tech platforms are a major source of the problem: those YouTube videos that send someone mildly interested in conservative causes down a rabbit hole of increasingly nationalistic content until they end up mired in white supremacist propaganda and conspiracy theories about Muslims or Jews plotting world domination.
And those Facebook algorithms which, as the whistle-blower Frances Hagan told MPs in her shocking evidence last month, knowingly facilitate the spread of misinformation and hate speech, and in her own words “amplify division, extremism and polarization” – not just in the US and the west, but throughout the world.
But it’s not just about big tech, Twitter trolls, and crazed conspiracy theorists. In America, Fox News – owned by Rupert Murdoch and run by his son Lachlan – provides a willing platform for deliberate disinformation being spread by anti vaxxers, climate deniers and Trumpist Republicans. On the same day that the Stockholm report came out, two long-standing Fox contributors walked out over a Tucker Carlson series, saying they could no longer work at Fox News because “a cavalier and even contemptuous attitude toward facts, truth-seeking, and truth-telling, lies at the heart of so much that plagues our country.”
In countries like Hungary, Turkey, India and Brazil – supposedly democracies, but increasingly run by authoritarian leaders who put slavish supporters in charge of the mainstream media – misinformation thrives as those leaders suppress the truth and invent their own realities.
Never before has there been a more profound need for an institution rooted in values of accuracy, truth, fairness and impartiality – an institution whose international reputation for trustworthiness has been carefully honed over 99 years and stands as a beacon of light for the rest of the world.
The technology “revolution”
And yet time and again we hear the same question from ministers, from the press, and from long-standing BBC critics: how can we justify funding a public institution to the tune of nearly £4 billion when we’re surrounded by a plethora of original content from Netflix, Disney, Amazon, and the myriad sources of news and content available online? Surely, this burden on taxpayers has been superseded by a digital revolution that makes it superfluous?
The revolution narrative is almost as old as the BBC itself. There was the commercial television revolution in the 1950s, the cable revolution in the 1980s, the satellite revolution in the 1990s, and the internet revolution in the noughties, and each time we heard the same refrain in virtually every government White Paper on the future of broadcasting and BBC Charter renewal. And so, in the 2010s, we hear again that Netflix and co destroy the case for any public funding.
So let me just repeat. The case for a vigorous, well resourced BBC today is in my view stronger than it has ever been – to ensure a guaranteed supply of original UK content made for UK viewers that reflects the nations and regions of this country; as a bulwark against the rising tide of disinformation and conspiracy theories that are fuelling autocratic regimes around the world; as a vital conduit of soft power and a hugely respected ambassador for Britain in a post-Brexit world; and as a trusted, easily accessible public space available to every single individual in the country for just 43p a day.
Securing a strong BBC
Two questions. How do we ensure that the BBC continues to fulfil that role? And what are the biggest threats to its survival?
For the BBC to survive as a credible cultural force requires four essential criteria. First, it must have scale. It must be large enough to ensure that it’s not reduced to a marginalised presence in people’s lives, like PBS in America or ABC in Australia. Crucially, it must operate across all platforms.
Second, it must have scope. It needs to invest in UK talent and content across the board. So Casualty, Strictly, Would I Lie To You, Radio 1, Match of the Day are as integral to the BBC’s existence and its place in our lives as Radio 3, experimental drama, David Attenborough and BBC4 documentaries.
Third is reach. Universality of access is a fundamental principle that has underpinned the BBC since transmitters were built to reach a few outlying homes in the Highlands of Scotland. It is more important than ever in an age of information silos and subscription-based walled gardens that the BBC is available to every single one of us.
Finally, resources. The BBC needs proper funding to continue making original, high quality content across the board. That means guaranteed revenue that keeps pace with inflation, and no repeat of the 30% cut that has been inflicted since 2010.
Scale, scope, reach and resources are vital to a thriving BBC that works for all of us. If any one of those criteria fails, the institution fails.
Threats to the BBC’s future
But each of them are under threat, from four different sources. The first two of those threats are uncomfortable but survivable; the second two are potentially lethal.
The first is the BBC’s competitors, in particular the newspaper publishers who regularly launch ferocious assaults on the BBC through their news stories and columns. Chief amongst them is Rupert Murdoch, and it was fascinating to read the reported comments of the Prime Minister’s sister, Rachel Johnson, in a speech to RadioCentre 3 weeks ago. According to the Daily Mail, she told the conference that one of the threats to the BBC came from “… people like Rupert Murdoch going to Chequers and saying to my brother, as he dandles Wilf on his knee, ‘Boris you’ve got to get rid of the BBC, it’s eating my lunch’”.
Now I’m not usually inclined to take a Mail story at face value, and within hours Ms Johnson tweeted her denial saying “It never happened. Joke taken out of context.” But here’s the strange thing. Her speech is available on YouTube, so ostensibly we could judge the context for ourselves. But we can’t, because that bit of her speech has been cut. Did word go out from Downing Street? Or from News UK? Or maybe from both? It’s a mystery.
Even if it was a joke – and frankly I’m dubious – Murdoch has a long history of using his newspapers to batter the BBC; and now he can add his radio stations too – with savage, partisan attacks on his TalkRadio station where the likes of Dan Wooton drive a coach and horses through any semblance of impartiality when they talk about the BBC.
This visceral hostility is of course little more than naked commercial self-interest, given that highly trusted, well-resourced and freely available BBC journalism will obviously impinge on the profitability of commercial publishers – just as the NHS impacts the private practice of Harley Street specialists.
But that does not prevent wealthy corporate publishers regularly demanding that the BBC is scaled back; and those publishers are taken very seriously indeed in Downing Street.
The second potential threat is Ofcom. As the BBC’s scrutineer, Ofcom has a crucial job in holding it to account for fulfilling its Charter obligations. But there have been worrying signs of a regulatory body that is adopting a less flexible and more interventionist approach than is either necessary or desirable.
I wrote earlier this year, for example, about how Ofcom chose to report viewer responses to its questions on impartiality. Last year’s annual report on the BBC had the incendiary headline: “Audiences continue to rate the BBC lower on impartiality”, a conclusion which predictably featured prominently in negative coverage by our anti-BBC press and is repeated gleefully by hostile politicians. But the figures are tendentious because they’re calculated only on the basis of “regular users” of each service. So Al Jazeera scores higher than the BBC, which is effectively penalised for having by far the largest number of regular users. Ofcom finally acknowledged the problem in this year’s annual report but persist with their highly dubious conclusion.
And then two weeks ago we had Ofcom’s Chief Executive Melanie Dawes telling the Times that the BBC must become less “London-centric” if it wants to achieve impartiality. Nothing wrong with encouraging the BBC to deploy greater resources to the nations and regions, but I fail to see any link with impartiality – except that it resonates with a government agenda that I shall come back to in a minute.
Ofcom has a statutory duty “to further the interests of citizens” laid down by the 2003 Communications Act. I worry that, with its increasing tendency to accommodate both commercial competitors to the BBC and an overbearing government, Ofcom is forgetting to apply that duty to its oversight of the BBC.
The third, longer term but potentially lethal threat is to the fundamental principle of universality: the proposal that, within a few years, the rollout of superfast gigabit broadband will allow us to do away with broadcasting altogether and rely entirely on broadband distribution – thereby enabling the BBC at a stroke to become a subscription service. This has been floated by the former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, and predictably commands support from BBC critics.
Let’s be clear what this would mean. A BBC delivered through broadband would at a stroke destroy the whole notion of a freely accessible, universal public space, available for the cost of a pint of beer a week. Even if the BBC were not transformed into a subscription service, it would mean, for the first time, relying on monthly subscriptions to internet service providers for access. The BBC as a force for democracy and cultural glue would be gone.
Threat from the Johnson government
Finally, the most lethal threat of all: government. And specifically this government. There have been threats from government before, most notably during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the 1980s. But for all her conviction that the BBC was a nest of commie vipers, Thatcher was a pragmatist and listened to moderating voices from within her party.
Today’s moderate Conservative voices have long been banished to the backbenches or political obscurity. Instead we have a populist prime minister and a Cabinet seemingly determined to remake our long-standing institutions and democratic structures in their own image.
In his October lecture, David Puttnam outlined some of the proposed Bills coming to Parliament which are, in his words, setting out to undermine much of what defines an active liberal democracy: proposals that will emasculate the independence of our ‘Electoral Commission’; or will reduce the role of the Judiciary through reform of Judicial Review; or will significantly weaken the right to legal protest; or will extend the scope of the Official Secrets Act without any public interest defence.
And this, said David, is why a free and fearless media is essential to democracy. At the heart of our free media are two institutions, Ofcom and the BBC, that hold the ring against an overweening government. And the government made it abundantly clear who they wanted in charge of Ofcom: Paul Dacre, a man who for 26 years as editor of the Daily Mail had launched a succession of virulent right wing campaigns, and who famously branded judges Enemies of the People for upholding the law and Remain voting Conservative MPs Traitors for following their conscience.
And what did Paul Dacre have to say about the BBC, whose oversight would be in his hands? Here are a few quotes from his newspaper career: a “monolith [that distorts] Britain’s media market, crushing journalistic pluralism.” “Cultural Marxism”, “starts from the premise of leftwing ideology”, “a closed thought system operating a kind of Orwellian Newspeak.”
So desperate was the government to leverage their candidate into the job that they tried to rerun the appointments process when the first panel decided he was unappointable. It should be a matter of great relief to us all that Dacre himself decided to abandon the project.
But it tells us something very sinister about the way in which this government is seeking to “take back control” of an institution that belongs to the nation, with the same sense of entitlement and arrogance that led them to believe they could breach long-standing parliamentary standards with impunity to save the Prime Minister’s friend Owen Paterson.
And if this commentary on our government seeking to impose their own worldview sounds too much like a partisan political rant, don’t take my word for it. Listen to former Conservative Prime Minister John Major who told the Today programme: “There’s a general whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ about their behaviour… Whenever they run up against difficulties with anybody, whether it is the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission, the BBC, they react…. in rather a hostile fashion”.
Or there was the Bagehot column in the Economist 2 weeks ago, hardly a bastion of rampant progressivism. Talking about a hard core “clique of ageing Brexiteers”, Bagehot wrote: “The clique’s victory in the Brexit vote of 2016 has injected a toxic mix of triumphalism and paranoia into the heart of Conservatism. Its members see themselves as possessing a unique connection with the British people…. But they regard themselves as beset by a hostile establishment that seeks to frustrate their will.”
There is a similarly chilling trend in the US. Writing just yesterday in the Atlantic, the commentator David Brooks reflected on his experience this week of the very influential National Conservatism Conference: He wrote: “The national conservatives… describe a world in which the corporate elite, the media elite, the political elite, and the academic elite have all coagulated into one axis of evil, dominating every institution and controlling the channels of thought.” This group of Republican rightwingers, like our government, is intent on reshaping America’s cultural institutions in its own image.
The BBC and bias
While the government’s indirect route to controlling the BBC via Paul Dacre may have run into the sand, there is still the direct route: persistent accusations of bias, attempts to influence key news appointments like Jess Brammar, and a Secretary of State who thinks it’s appropriate to try to browbeat the BBC’s political editor on Twitter (a tweet which was swiftly deleted) and then wonders aloud whether the BBC will still be around in 10 years time.
Perhaps most insidious is the constant drumbeat of complaint from the right of the Conservative Party that the BBC is in the grip of some kind of leftist conspiracy. The rhetoric will be familiar to everyone from Paul Dacre’s journalistic anthology: the liberal metropolitan elite; BBC groupthink; a BBC worldview; a “woke” BBC; the need for more “diversity of thought” – by which they really mean, more of their thought.
There is no evidence whatsoever for any of these allegations. For a comprehensive review of all the evidence on BBC bias, I would refer anyone to a superb chapter in “The War Against the BBC” published last year by Paddy Barwise and Peter York which debunks the populist propaganda about a BBC news operation fuelled by committed lefties and anti Brexiteers.
And although this isn’t actually proof of anything, as a small aside, here’s a personal anecdote. On the day before the Brexit referendum I sent an email to a colleague with my prediction: Leave would win, I said, by around 52 to 48. Unfortunately I didn’t pop down to the betting shop. But the basis for that prediction wasn’t some uncanny empathy with the contemporary British psyche, it was because I was an avid listener to BBC Radio 5 Live. And it was clear for weeks from the calls and questions coming in – calls remember that are screened and selected by BBC producers and presenters – that there was a groundswell of disenchantment and growing sympathy for the “take back control” mantra.
The problem is that this drip drip barrage of wholly unfounded and unevidenced allegations from the hard right constantly forces the BBC onto the defensive. The most recent manifestation of this was the Review headed by Nicholas Serota into “BBC editorial processes, governance, and culture”. This Review was itself commissioned by the BBC Board in response to their own Dyson Report which investigated the shocking revelations of Martin Bashir’s journalistic deceptions 25 years ago.
Now, of course the BBC should always be seeking to improve internal practices, especially when such gross breaches of editorial standards have been belatedly uncovered. But after reading Serota’s analysis and the BBC’s announcement of a 10 point plan and what it called “sweeping changes” in response, there is an abiding sense of defensiveness and deference to the government’s bias narrative. Writing in the New Statesman 2 weeks ago, Philip Collins commented: “The mystery about the latest BBC review… is which question it was designed to answer” because it “does not contain a single example of the lack of impartiality it was ostensibly set up to address”.
As an academic I look for empirical evidence. And all the empirical evidence tells us categorically that the BBC does not have a problem with impartiality. But it does, in my view, have a different, far more dangerous problem: a concerted and oft-repeated government assertion that the BBC has a problem with impartiality. Which is precisely what the new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said twice to the Culture Select Committee last week, quoting the BBC’s 10 point plan as evidence.
Just to quote Philip Collins again: “the BBC needs a strong defence of its place in our national life, not a craven confession by its management that Dorries might just have a point.”
A plea to government
I would love to end on a positive note, and talk about how this country created an institution, almost by chance, that is internationally admired; provides a collective benefit to citizens at national and local level; shores up our democracy at a time when disinformation is rife; invests in, showcases and exports British talent; helps to educate our kids through a pandemic; and brings the country together at moments of celebration and mourning. But at this very moment, when we should be taking enormous pride in a uniquely British institution, its future is in the hands of a powerful, single-minded and apparently vengeful government intent on putting one fixated wing of its party before the country and public service.
So I will end with a plea to this Prime Minister and this Culture Secretary, and I will do it with a final quote. Not from Shirley Williams but from a more recent political hero of mine in the same political mould, one whom I knew a little and admired just as much: the late Tessa Jowell. She was, I believe, the very first woman to have ultimate Cabinet responsibility for the BBC. And this is how she introduced her review of the BBC’s previous Royal Charter exactly 18 years ago:
“The BBC…. is unique in the role it plays in public life. Unique in the way it is funded. Unique in the place it holds in the public’s affections. Like the NHS, it is a quintessentially British institution. It is part of what defines us as a nation, both at home and abroad. The BBC is recognised throughout the world, where it is seen as a benchmark of quality, integrity and diversity…..”
So please, Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries, when next year’s centenary celebrations are in full swing, don’t be mealy mouthed and reluctantly admit that yes, maybe the BBC will be around in 10 years’ time. Be inspired by this extraordinary gift that our country has given to the world; appreciate that the need for a strong, vibrant, and independent BBC is greater now than ever before; and give it the respect, resources and freedom it needs to do that job for the whole country.