Happy Birthday, BBC

Nicola Biggerstaff – 21 October 2022

This week saw the 100th birthday of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The traditionally household staple has seen many changes throughout its time, for better and for worse, and has evolved to be the central component of British culture. Now would be a good time to reflect on its purpose in modern society, what will its place be going forward? Will there be a place for such a historically, almost painfully British institution in a future independent Scotland?

The original British Broadcasting Company was created on the 18th of October 1922, eventually branching out to the airwaves across the country in the following years. Making the slow, cautious expansion to television through the 1930s, their regular programming soon evolved and flourished, becoming one of the primary broadcasters as we know them today.

The crux of the controversy surrounding them is ultimately in their legal commitments to unbiased journalism. As a taxpayer-funded, Ofcom regulated broadcaster, the ‘BBC bias’ is often bandied about by people when it most suits them. None of them can say anything, critically analyse anything, without being accused of favouritism.

This has been warranted in previous cases. The latest chairman, Richard Sharp, is a Tory party donor. This should raise questions of intent but are seemingly ignored: how much influence should the government have over the taxpayer-funded institution? Should it be run like a government department, where the best jobs go to your closest friends? Shouldn’t we have more of a say?

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other, more recent examples of bias accusations bordering on the farcical. Comedian Joe Lycett took his usual satirical flair to the debut of Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning political talk show, satirising Prime Minister (at time of writing) Liz Truss in one of her first televised interviews while she was still a Prime Ministerial candidate back in early September.

The right-wing backlash made front page news the following day, with many calling for increased vetting of political talk show guests. In my view, if you hadn’t already heard of Joe Lycett’s track record on calling things directly as they are through his consumer rights activism, then that’s on you.

It’s such a statement on the increasing cultural divides of today, when legitimate cases of harmful journalism by other outlets, such as they who shall not be named, are so often glossed over in favour of whether or not comedians should be allowed a political opinion as a fellow voter.

One minute they’re a Westminster propaganda machine, the next they’re actively plotting to overthrow them. The problem with maintaining the middle ground is you will never please everyone.

Being the official broadcaster of Britain, having dibs on coverage of major global events would no doubt raise the BBC in the nation’s esteem. From the Olympics to state funerals, they will cover just about anything, drawing in just about any viewer. Admit it, at one time or another, at the first sign of boredom. What channel do you flick to? Just to ‘see what’s on’? We trust them to entertain us, and we trust them to inform us.

In the face of modern journalistic misconduct, such as the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, many turn to the BBC as a source for more observant reporting. I personally turn to their rolling news coverage at the slightest hint of breaking news. As I write this, I have BBC News on in the background as rolling coverage of the Home Secretary’s resignation and the chaos at the fracking vote rolls on. They are so often the first to report, the most trusted source. My phone pings, the TV goes on: an instinctual reflex, born out of a necessity to stay informed.

It’s with this trust that they remain as popular abroad as they do at home. The World Service continues its endeavours to report on global events, including re-establishing shortwave radio in Ukraine so residents could stay informed of developments as their own media and internet access were bombed by Russian forces. But it begs the question: can a force for good which was, at one point, rooted in colonialism, remain so?

It has never been completely innocent, with many criticisms of equally dark connotations.

As an institution with stakes in the public interest, it takes a lot to build back the trust of the fee-paying public when it’s broken. Many still have not forgiven them in the aftermath of Operation Yewtree and similar investigations, internal and external, in which cases of gross sexual misconduct by BBC employees and prominent figures were ignored or covered up. At time of writing, we await the publication of the final report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which had scope to investigate the BBC from the 1950s onward. We can only hope that they have moved with the times, in that the increased modern day protections for children and vulnerable people are strictly adhered to across the industry, across the country, so that it may never happen again.

Calls have increased over the years from across the political divide to defund the BBC, with more people than ever cancelling their TV licences, a legal requirement for access to BBC programming, and turning to other sources for their information and entertainment.

But without such an ingrained, unbiased institution, what would be our source for round-the-clock, high-quality journalism and analysis? What future could await us in the very industry where money talks? When our national attention is sold to the highest bidder, we risk both losing a trusted source and gaining borderline maniacal analysis in the wake of the vacuum. Just look at Fox News in the USA, whose divisive coverage has accelerated the polarisation of society, with serious political consequences.

Even removing the journalistic context, we would also lose some high quality entertainment programming, including drama, documentary, and arts. This investment in production has brought us the likes of Line of Duty, whose last series finale drew in over 13 million viewers, David Attenborough’s Frozen and Blue Planets, highlighting the devastating impact of climate change on our wildlife, as well as arts programming broadcast on BBC4, presenting the arts in a more accessible format for the masses.

Depriving us of these would leave a massive entertainment vacuum across the country, threatening jobs and livelihoods across the creative industries. Just look at Channel 4, whose position as a public broadcaster is threatened with privatisation on a regular basis, even if it’s now on the backburner in the face of the current political turmoil. It has already predicted that this would result in 1,300 job losses and could shut down as many as 60 production companies.

They contribute so much more to our everyday viewing and outlook that I couldn’t possibly cover in one sitting, that I actually can’t imagine how my life would be without it. I’m sure my Guardian news notifications will help me keep up, and Channel 4 in combination with endless social media scrolling will always conjure something to keep me entertained, but it just wouldn’t be the same.

What does all of this mean for its place in a future independent Scotland? It’s difficult to say. Such an ingrained institution would create a painful removal process, and I think a surprising amount of people may come to its defence to stay broadcasting here, even as a foreign media outlet.

Whatever your thoughts on it, it’s clearly here to stay. Whether it stays as ingrained in an independent Scotland remains to be seen, nor is it my place to predict. But I do hope, at a minimum, we will still be able to access these high-quality services.

What do you think? Is there a place for the BBC in an independent Scotland? What would be a good alternative?

4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, BBC”

  1. How about a Scottish Broadcasting Service that is not led by anyone who donates to or is a member of any political party for a start.

  2. Gordon Andrew West

    I object to the BBC for two reasons – firstly, though required to be impartial, it clearly isn’t; secondly, we are all forced to pay towards the cost of the ‘service’ through a licence fee.

    I hope the BBC is moved to a funding model where people have to opt to subscribe to receive BBC output, just as we do with Sky or Netflix. Then people like me can happily ignore BBC output in the knowledge that I am not paying towards it. I would have no objection to people subscribing to the BBC within an independent Scotland any more that I would object to people choosing to watch CNN, RT or Al Jazeera. Separately, I would also like to see a Scottish public sector broadcaster.

  3. Good article Nicola, I too recognise the go to value of the BBC, especially for drama and documentaries. Without the interruption of advertisements. However being the BBC, it naturally has an inbuilt bias towards its source ie Britain, ie the Union. I now tend to get my news from other less biased sources. After Scottish independence, Britain will no longer exist as a political entity so will the broadcaster become the EBC or rUKBC? It’s news output would be of a foreign country so we would have to concentrate on and control the current BBC Scotland and Alba channels to focus more on our own news. Just as we subscribe to the Guardian (me too) which is based in Manchester and does not focus on Scotland, there would still be a demand for many of the BBC programmes.

  4. Naughton Alastair

    Great article! Their political bias is blatant in UK politics. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than in the 2014 referendum debate. However as a source of information and entertainment it is second to none.

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