The Value of Public Service Broadcasting

This year has seen two of the UK’s unique and most important cultural institutions celebrate important anniversaries. The BBC and Channel 4 have now been entertaining, educating and informing audiences for 100 years and 40 years respectively. On 3rd November, the BBC’s centenary was marked in the House of Lords and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, Sandford St Martin Patron and a former Chair spoke about the UK’s unique public service broadcasting:

Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, 3 November, 2022

“Public service broadcasting in the UK is unique on the planet and one area in which this country is genuinely a world leader, which is why it is so important that, in the centenary year of the BBC and the day after the 40th birthday of Channel 4, we assess the value of what we have and steel ourselves against the ideologically driven impulse to diminish it. Yesterday, I asked a friend who works in public service broadcasting what she would focus on in a debate such as this. Her response was immediate: imagine a world without it. That is, imagine a world in which broadcasting serves only narrow cultural or political interests and is subject purely to commercial or transactional persuasion. I might put it like this: look at broadcasting in the United States. Price is not the same as value.

The broadcasting landscape has changed, as has been noted by a number of speakers, and is changing by the day. Technology drives both the pace and nature of such change, but there remain principles which, if neglected or sold down the river to the highest bidder, will sell our culture short—and not just the UK’s but that of the global audience who rely on the BBC for accuracy and integrity. Does it get it wrong sometimes? Yes, obviously; but it is also open to scrutiny, challenge and critique. To understand the global importance of the BBC and what the loss of soft power might look like, just ask Arabic speakers what they think of the recent decision to close our Arabic service, at a time when it is most needed.

The main point about PSB is surely that, as the report by the House of Commons DCMS Committee makes clear, it is characterised by universality of access, accuracy and impartiality, and independence. It is surely not coincidental that we read on the walls of New Broadcasting House the words of George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

For this freedom to be guaranteed, there needs to be a well-resourced facility for universality of access, accuracy and impartiality—which is not the same as neutrality—and independence.

Yes, technology has changed everything, and it is timely that there should be some serious scrutiny of legislation for a rapidly moving digital and legal world. But, as I wrote in a newspaper article some years ago, “If the BBC needs to hear what it doesn’t want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform PSB cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries that are not admired for their democratic credentials.”

As we have heard, PSB is not the sole preserve of the BBC. The landscape has changed; there are different media with differing offerings, which are funded by different models. This provides a balance that is precarious and must be respected. Please can the Minister update us on the future of the media Bill, particularly the threat to privatise Channel 4, which is a clear success story of the last 40 years and for which there is no popular mandate to privatise?

Following the appointment of the new Prime Minister, the Government said the Secretary of State was “carefully considering the business case for a sale of Channel 4”.

Might I suggest that business is not the only case to be considered here?

The Minister might like to help us with further questions. For example, how will the current drastic squeeze on BBC local broadcasting impact local democracy, community cohesion and accuracy of reporting? How will the drastic squeeze on the BBC World Service, and its consequent reduction in service, impact UK soft power in parts of the world where our reputation as a leading democratic and free nation is fragile, and matters?

Young people are accessing the BBC less than ever, but does this not emphasise the need to reach them more effectively with PSB, rather than simply diminishing its resources according to some numbers equation that takes little account of power that cannot be cashed out in a profit and loss spreadsheet? If PSB is reduced as a source of public funding—my assumption here is not incidental—what does this say about the encouragement and nurturing of a new and younger generation of journalists and programme makers who need to embody cultural values, not just technical skills? Do the Government value the fact-checking credibility of the BBC in a world being flooded with disinformation, with a serious impact on truth, democracy and culture?

A reform of legislation may be needed in the wake of radical technological change, to say nothing of the wild west of digital streaming and social media, but please will His Majesty’s Government commit to ensuring the cultural and democratic future of PSB in the UK, in order that we do not lose what has taken a century to build, but could be lost in weeks?”

For a full transcript of the November 3 debate, including the response, please visit Hansard.