The BBC Is Struggling to Survive the Era of Fake News
An attendee sits in a ‘Fake News’ hammock in Maryland, U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The BBC Is Struggling to Survive the Era of Fake News

BloombergOpinion
Bookmark

A group of Zurich University researchers this year published a study comparing the vulnerability of 18 advanced societies to online misinformation. The best defended, they concluded, were the Nordic nations, led by Finland, with a resilience score of +7, followed by Denmark with +5. The U.K. ranked fifth, with +4.

Much more credulous were the southern Europeans. Greece was marked as -6, Italy as -5. To some of us, however, the most dismaying conclusion of the survey was that the U.S., the world’s largest economy, ranked last, with a marking of -11.

Americans, say the researchers, are most likely of all developed democracies to believe fake news, to swallow conspiracy theories. The country has “conditions that favor an easy dissemination of and exposure to online disinformation.”

We shall not here discuss manifestations of this phenomenon, related to “rigged elections” and such. My focus is on why these findings should be as they are, by considering an institution the U.K. possesses, but the U.S. lacks. The Zurich study found a common strand among the best-informed, least readily deceived societies: All have strong, responsible public broadcast services. These make them far less vulnerable to mendacious social media and partisan news sources, of which Fox News is the most conspicuous.

The U.K., of course, has the BBC. Beyond its domestic audience, it boasts a global reach of 426 million viewers and listeners, for whom its World Service is among the most trusted of all news sources.

Many Americans believe that BBC is a state broadcaster. Not so. It is, instead, a curious hybrid, funded through a compulsory license payment for the right to view and listen, topped up by a government subsidy toward the costs of its World Service output. It is controlled by the BBC Board; while the prime minister selects its chairman, it displays an independence that often enrages Downing Street.

The British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in 1922 as a private company, then five years later turned into a public institution, governed by royal charter. Today it has one of the largest international news organizations, with 2,000 journalists, 50 news bureaus and a budget approaching half a billion dollars. 

In a 2019 survey by Ipsos MORI that invited British people to choose a single source to which they would turn for impartial news, 44% chose the BBC; 3% favored the left-leaning Guardian newspaper; just 1% each, Al Jazeera and the right-wing Daily Mail and Sun newspapers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, BBC audiences have soared.

And yet, amazingly, the corporation trembles on its foundations. It is besieged by formidable forces: right-wing politicians who now govern Britain; competition for audience share from streaming channels such as Netflix; and declining revenue — in real terms, its income has fallen by one-third over the past decade.

A new book by two British media researchers, Patrick Barwise and Peter York, “The War Against the BBC,” asserts that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “the most hostile prime minister the Corporation has ever faced.” Beyond ideological objections, he has personal grievances, deriving from its past reporting of his extravagant love life.

You might suppose that, when a towering national institution is imperiled, cavalry would be riding to “the Beeb’s” rescue. This is not happening, however. A range of rivals, headed by organs controlled by the Murdoch family, which has controlled both Fox and Sky, bays for BBC to be vastly downsized. They cite unfair state-aided competition, left-wing bias, wanton extravagance by an institution that employs 22,000 full-time staff, and still has an annual income of more than $5 billion.

James Murdoch, the younger son of media empire-builder Rupert Murdoch, has compared BBC to Pravda. In a prominent 2009 lecture, he said: “As Orwell foretold, to let the state enjoy a near-monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion … Yet we have a system in which state-sponsored media — the BBC in particular — grow ever more dominant.” 

Many of the elderly viewers and listeners who increasingly dominate its audiences moan about the BBC’s alleged surrender to woke culture. It is certainly true that its bosses, goaded by anxiety to woo the young and minorities, have shown a politically reckless disregard for the sensibilities and interests of their traditional audience. This is symbolized by BBC’s recent announcement that it plans to spend $124 million on racial and gender diversification. Grumpy pensioners complain that this is not what they pay their license money for, and they have a point. 

Ah yes, the license. This is a concept so alien to other nations, that it bears explanation. Some 95% of British households pay an annual charge of $204 for the right to watch the BBC’s 10 national TV channels and listen to its 11 domestic radio stations. The poor and those over 75 have since 1998 been spared license payment. 

The latter exemption was introduced at government behest, as a sweetener for older voters, and paid for by the Treasury. But five years ago, the burden was transferred to the BBC. As the population ages, it is costing the corporation almost $500 million a year in lost revenue. Amid rage from the elderly, echoed in their name by political leaders and newspapers, the BBC has insisted on withdrawing the over-75 concession.

The row is absurd, of course. The average British person accesses one or other of BBC’s outlets for two and half hours a day, for which they pay little more than 50 cents. For that, they get a stunning range of news programs, together with drama of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens quality, soaps, quiz shows, comedies such as “Fleabag” (and, in past days, Monty Python and “Fawlty Towers”), “Strictly Come Dancing,” history documentaries, the obsessively watched “Great British Bake Off,” the best children’s programing in the world, and much else.

Stop there, say the corporation’s critics: Most of this can as well be done by commercial channels or streaming services. If the BBC is to be allowed to survive, it should relinquish its role in everything save genuine public service broadcasting, and be funded by subscription or advertising.

Dominic Cummings, until last month Johnson’s de facto chief of staff, has campaigned for years for the BBC to be blown asunder. Cummings reportedly banned ministers from appearing on many BBC shows, on the grounds that they are biased against the government. He and Donald Trump would get on a storm. 

The fanatical BBC-haters, of whom there are depressingly many both among Conservative members of Parliament and newspaper publishers, refuse to acknowledge that no other content-maker in the world comes close to matching the range and quality of BBC output.

I should here declare an interest, as a longtime contributor. Back in the 1960s, I worked as a junior researcher on its epic 26-part TV series “The Great War,” which still gets regular screenings. Later I served as a TV reporter for the Corp, as we called it, in many countries, including war-torn Vietnam. Ever since, I have been a regular performer on its shows.

The BBC is no more perfect than any other large institution. It is overstuffed with bureaucrats, ever more desperate to be seen to meet the demands of political correctness. I have believed for years it could be downsized by sacking thousands of managers. 

Every few years, it is convulsed by a scandal. In 2007, it overreached itself by buying a publishing company for nearly $200 million, which it was obliged to sell six years later for less than $80 million. Its foes demanded: What was the BBC ever doing in publishing? This was a good question.

Eight years ago, it suffered shameful embarrassment over accusations that one of its foremost children’s presenters, Jimmy Savile, who had died in 2011, was a serial pedophile — and that BBC executives had ignored, then sought to cover up his actions. 

There are frequent political rows, headlined in newspapers, when BBC broadcasters display alleged bias. Last May, current-affairs presenter Emily Maitlis delivered an on-air blast against Cummings for his willful defiance of national Covid-19 lockdown rules. Supporters of the Johnson government tore into Maitlis, and into the BBC for indulging her rant. Her facts were impeccable — the issue was that she should not have been permitted to lambaste the prime minister’s key adviser on national TV.

Yet the mere fact that there are such spats over alleged bias stands in stark contrast to the daily assaults on truth that take place through many American radio and TV outlets. U.S. public-service broadcasting is chronically weak and poorly funded. 

Most British people, when they stop to think, recognize that their principal broadcaster is, broadly speaking, fair, often to the point of blandness. There is little doubt — in my mind, anyway — that many BBC broadcasters share a private liberal bias, but they know that they must not be seen to take this into the studio.

In a national poll two years ago, 22% of respondents said they thought the BBC somewhat or strongly biased toward the left; 18% thought the corporation somewhat or strongly biased to the right. But 37% thought it “politically neutral or balanced.”

Nonetheless, the pressures facing the corporation are growing relentlessly. Talent costs, especially for actors and writers, are being driven up by the streaming services’ open wallets. Right-wing politicians lose no opportunity to squeeze its funding. And more and more young viewers abandon live programming in favor of streaming.

In 2019, BBC television had an audience share of 31% against 33.4% for the commercial channels ITV and Channel 4, and Sky’s 9.7%. Slightly more British people now watch Netflix than BBC’s flagship Channel One. BBC radio still plays a dominant role, with 31.5 million regular listeners, but TV is struggling, hampered by loss of sports to commercial channels.

Five years ago, the corporation’s then-director general Tony Hall said in an address to his staff: “The BBC is at a crossroads. Down one path lies a BBC reduced in impact and reach in a world of global giants … Down the other path is a strong BBC helping to bind the country together at home and champion it abroad.”

The BBC’s defenders constantly seek to remind the British people that it gives them a bargain for less money than Germany and Japan spend on their national broadcasters. Yet many people, not all enemies of the corporation, argue that the viewing and listening license model is broken; cannot survive amid declining audiences. It would help little for the BBC to take advertising, as this would yield only a share of a shrinking commercial cake. 

Nobody will ever again create an organization like the BBC, funded in a fashion that reflected the paternalistic, elitist society in which it was founded. Its first director general, Lord Reith, whom I knew slightly, served from 1922 to 1938, and believed shamelessly in giving the British people what was good for them, rather than what they professed to want. A little of the Reithian ethic still survives in the Corp., and some of us think this no bad thing. 

Many British newspapers, dominated by right-wing proprietors, urge their readers that the BBC is a wasteful left-wing racket, extorting money from the public. I am frequently exasperated by the Beeb’s follies and shortcomings, but never doubt that should we lose it, Britain will be a much poorer place — and would rank far lower in a future Zurich University survey of the public’s resistance to fake news. 

No government, even the right-wing nationalist one of Boris Johnson, would think of outright abolition. But politicians are content to allow BBC to atrophy, to suffer death by a thousand economic cuts. Should the extremists ever get their way and force the corporation to become a subscription service, it would be doomed, because nowhere near enough people would pay sufficient money voluntarily.

More plausible is a shift to funding through a compulsory levy for all households — a system that works well in Germany. Yet no government can be trusted to impose such change without also slashing the BBC’s income. While I am cautiously confident that the corporation will outlive my lifetime, I fear that its enemies — many of them foes of freedom and justice as well as of liberal values — will continue their campaign to eviscerate it.

In an age when truth is fighting a vital battle against falsehood, even in the greatest democracy on earth, a public body committed to the former, and recognized as such by listeners around the world, is a jewel. Only a nation that is struggling to define its future and its identity, as is Britain today on the eve of Brexit, could make the BBC’s future, and even its survival, the focus of such pernicious controversy.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.