During his reign on the BBC throne, Reith came under much criticism on his views of overestimating the mentality of the public, and providing a service that contained the matters that he thought should be most important to society. He was often accused of being elitist in his approach to programming policy. Many of the working class began to feel alienated by the programming choices of the BBC, and felt that by Reith basing his programming choices on his own tastes, he was only attracting those on a higher social scale who had a deeper interest in things like classical arts, literature and music. It seemed that he was more influenced by his individual attitudes, which were by no means representative of the population at that time, rather than the attitudes of the masses. Reith attempted to educate the masses by subjecting them to a culture that was imposed on them, if they chose to tune in to the BBC's programmes. Therefore, the Reithian values meant that the audience were being given a service that was selected for them, rather than by them (Gorman et al, 2003).
This can be linked in with Gramsci's ideas on hegemony, in which he believed that certain things like the mass media can facilitate in creating the predominance of one social class over another. His theory argues that cultural perspectives can become skewed to favour the higher social classes (cited in Storey, 1993). However, in order for hegemony to be achieved and maintained, the working classes must accept the subsidence of their views in favour of the more dominant groups, and view it as being natural. This is clearly not what happened in the case of the BBC, as instead of the lower classes accepting what was being broadcast to them, many of them challenged it.
Reith was eased out as Director General by the BBC's Board of Governors in 1938, and whilst things may have changed to be more inclusive and representative of the diverse society that we live in, much of the BBC's work is still very much underpinned by the foundations that Reith laid. Nowadays, it is run by twelve governors, who regulate and uphold standards. According to the BBC website, 'the BBC is run in the interests of its viewers and its listeners'. Whilst it might be argued that this was not the way it was run by Lord Reith, it still adopts the same basic principles of universality, detachment from vested interests and government, competition in terms of good programming and quality rather than numbers, and a concern for national identity. In addition to this, it promises to cater for all interests, tastes and minorities, as well as providing guidelines that liberate programme makers and not restrict them. The government also encourages a system of public service broadcasting to ensure that quality is maintained and all consumers have access to a variety of programmes (www.culture.gov.uk, 2003)
As much as Reith has been criticised on his views, it is clear to see why educating and informing society have been considered as important cultural aims for the BBC. Firstly, the role that the media can play in shaping identity (particularly that of young people) is a well known one and many would argue that there is a place for public service broadcasting in this. Every consumer of the media has multiple identities - on national, regional, family, religious and personal levels. Public service broadcasting has a duty to appeal to consumers on more than one of these levels, in order that the needs of the license-paying consumer are being met. It is increasingly thought in today's world that the identities that young people form is influenced in varying degrees by the values and beliefs that they see being portrayed to them in the mass media. In order to grow up as good citizens, some would argue that they must be given all the information they need to make informed decisions in an unbiased and factual way, which is what the BBC claim to do.
Another reason that this has been an important aim of the BBC is the fact that they believe society should have a public service broadcasting system they can trust. Phil Harding, Director of BBC World Services, delivered a speech to the European Parliament regarding the role that the BBC plays today, in which he made a pertinent point regarding this matter -
'Programmes that reinforce a particular point of view, that play to an audiences pre-existing beliefs and prejudices may win audiences - may please the advertisers and the shareholders - but they will not necessarily serve audiences well. At its best, broadcasting has the potential to foster understanding and establish a genuine dialogue across cultural, linguistic, and national boundaries'. (October 10th, 2003, cited on www.bbc.co.uk)
This emphasises that the interests of the BBC are not in their shareholders, but in their consumers and this is the way that the BBC has always tried to remain. In doing so, it has gained a respected reputation of being able to culturally inform people in an impartial manner. It refuses to give into populist demands and provides programming for many minority groups, in order that not only the masses have the opportunity to be educated and informed. And in more recent years, the BBC have been seen to introduce more radio stations and channels, that give the consumer some of the choice that is yearned for.
The number of people in society who have access to the BBC, is another point to be considered. As much as we would like to think so, it is simply not the case that the poorer sections of society have the same access to the media as other groups. Many critics believe that with technological advances being made in all aspects of the media, public service broadcasting is no longer relevant today. However, not everyone has access to the Internet, and not everyone has access to Sky TV (where consumers can make their own decisions on the topics that they would like to be 'educated' in, so to speak). The reality is, these commodities cost money - significantly more money than what citizens pay on a yearly basis to have access to terrestrial channels and so be culturally informed. At present, the BBC has a 'reach' of 90%, meaning that 90% of the population tune in at least once a week (www.bbc.co.uk). There must be provisions so that poorer groups can gain access to news, documentaries and entertainment without needing to have enough money to do so, and this is why many agree with the cultural aims of the BBC.
Nonetheless, there are those who think that Reith's views on culturally informing the masses are outdated and the Peacock Report of 1989 suggested that consumers should be given more choice in what they watch -
'British broadcasting should move to a system that recognises that viewers and listeners are the best ultimate judges of their own interests which they can best satisfy if they have the option of purchasing the broadcasting services they require from as many alternative sources of supply as possible' (cited in Hood, 1994).
This leads on to another argument in that not everyone watches television to be culturally educated or informed. Many tune in for some light-hearted relief away from the daily grind of stressful jobs and busy family life. In Reithian times, viewers did not have much choice over what was shown on television, and if they wanted to participate in the new phenomenon of their time (which most people did), they watched what was being shown to them or turned off. Nowadays, in a world of abundance and choice, if viewer's tastes are not being catered for, it is more likely that they will turn over than turn off. Is this really what the BBC want? Would they rather that they stuck to what they believed in whilst they lose viewers in their droves to the commercial channels, that are catering for their wants and needs, instead of listening to their viewers? Many would answer yes to this statement, and refer back to one of the BBC core values; that they will measure success in terms of quality of their programming as opposed to the number of viewers. However, if their audience share begins to dwindle, maybe this is something that they will reconsider.
Many believe that media policy does have a role to play in assisting the BBC to achieve its cultural aims. At present, the BBC is still funded by a universal license fee, as in the times of Lord Reith. If there were no license fee, it would be difficult for the BBC to maintain its mission of providing quality programming that caters for all interests. The BBC has became renowned for their investigative journalism and fly-on-the-wall style programmes that bring hard-hitting issues, like abuse in care homes and drug addiction, into our homes and make people aware of them. Most commercial channels have no interest in producing such programmes, as they will not make as much money from them, and fundamentally, commercial channels are ruled by the pound. These channels may provide the public with easy on the mind, mass-produced, junk food like offerings. They may be enjoyable; they may be quick and easy, but they do not challenge or stimulate the minds of the viewers and they do not provoke thought. In terms of the BBC, if a programme makes a valid statement then it has succeeded. The diversity of BBC attracts viewers, who can choose to dip in and dip out of the programmes, according to their tastes. The BBC can do this because they are a non-profit based institution, and the continuation of the license fee agreement with the government, means that they can continue to fulfil this aim.
To conclude, it is clear to see why the BBC traditionally felt they had a cultural aim to educate society. Not everyone has access to education, and in this sense it is important that there are provisions for less privileged communities to gain information about things that are happening in the world. It is also important that there is a provider of unbiased information in the media, so that people can make informed decisions and become better citizens. Whilst there are some who disagree with what they believe to be an 'elitist' approach to programming taken by the BBC, the BBC does still try to provide for all tastes and minority groups, without the aim of making as much money as they can, and the fact that they are funded by the license fee helps to make this possible.