The BBC has survived for exactly a century. This is no mean feat. To endure for such a long time, it has had to transform itself repeatedly. It has also developed an empire-building tendency, expanding into new media and building whole new divisions and subsidiaries to entrench its position. But can it continue to flourish when prominent critics are calling for its activities and its resources to be radically cut? In government, the media and other sections of society, people are arguing that the BBC no longer serves its purpose. They are calling for it to be “defunded”. They want the TV Licence fee to be scrapped. So why don’t we just abolish the BBC?
Ever since it was established in 1922, critics of the BBC have argued that having such a big, publicly funded organisation at the heart of British broadcasting damages the UK’s media and creative sector. It crowds out private enterprise. Newspapers have often seen the BBC as a source of unfair competition. They lobbied hard to ensure that, from the outset, it would not be allowed to compete with them for advertising revenue. That is one of the reasons why BBC channels have not sold on-air advertising time, and why we have the TV Licence system.
In the 1920s, entertainment interests like record companies and sports and entertainment promoters also worried that the BBC would damage their business and pushed for tough restrictions on its activities. Today, independent television and radio production companies depend on the BBC for much of their work. Some have complained about the terms on which the Corporation deals with them. Because the BBC is so big, they say, it dominates the sector and hoovers up valuable commercial exploitation rights. Meanwhile national newspapers and big multinational media companies still see the BBC as a major source of competition, at a time when their business models are facing other threats. They thus give plenty of coverage to the BBC’s woes and to political opposition to the TV Licence.
In building up its media empire, the BBC was also keen to take on the work of broadcasting to overseas audiences. It played a key role in the propaganda conflicts of the Second World War and Cold War, and after the September 2011 attacks in the US it diverted major resources to broadcasting to the Middle East and other priority areas for UK foreign policy. This work often involved close links with the British government. Critics have argued that this makes a mockery of the supposed independence of the BBC. Getting rid of the BBC would, they say, leave the British media less open to government influence.
However, the BBC’s supporters point out that it remains the key source of British soft power in the world. It broadcasts and sells its programmes in markets all round the world, making money for Britain and projecting British culture and influence overseas. Abolishing the BBC would rob us of one of our main ways of selling Britain to the world.
The BBC faced a major threat in the 1950s when it lost its monopoly on broadcasting following the creation of ITV. Many thought this might mark the beginning of the end for public broadcasting in Britain. However, in the 1960s the BBC adapted and made itself relevant to new audiences through programmes like the influential satire That Was The Week That Was, and with dramas and factual programmes that addressed pressing and controversial social and political issues.
Now, the BBC faces a major threat from global streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video. As viewers switch to streaming, the BBC’s audiences are declining. In particular, younger and BAME viewers are deserting its channels. Households in general are spending less time consuming BBC content, and fewer are paying for a TV Licence. The audience for the BBC seems older, whiter and more middle class than ever before. One of the key arguments for keeping the BBC is that, without it, it would be difficult to ensure continued access to quality terrestrial broadcasting, which many older people in particular rely on. This fact might save the BBC from immediate threat, at least until the vast majority of the national audience has switched to online viewing and listening. However, the BBC will be in long-term danger if it becomes merely the provider of a dying legacy service.
If the BBC no longer serves the needs of its audiences, perhaps it is time to abolish it. Getting rid of the TV Licence would be a way to impose a radical transformation. In the eyes of some, this would be tantamount to killing off the BBC. The government has shied away from this step. Even more drastic would be a decision not to renew the BBC’s royal charter and licence, due to expire in 2027. This is possible but unlikely, as many people will probably still rely on terrestrial broadcasting at that point.
The most compelling reason for keeping the BBC is that, at the moment, none of the new streaming platforms or media outlets are providing enough of the British-made content that many people still want. Only the BBC currently has the resources to produce huge amounts of British drama, comedy and factual programming on a daily basis, and to maintain media production at scale across the UK, including local broadcasting. It is hard to see how this would continue without the BBC or the TV Licence. The BBC’s formidable and crucially important news operations and the World Service would also be at risk. If we abolished the BBC, we might not miss much of what it currently does, but almost all of us would certainly regret losing something that we value deeply.
Simon Potter is the author of This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain? 1922-2022 (Oxford University Press) and professor of modern history at Bristol University
Image: BBC radio news announcer Alvar Liddell who announced the abdication of King Edward VIII (Getty)