Is there a place for Public Service Broadcasting in the UK?

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Is there a place for Public Service Broadcasting in the UK?

Case Study: The BBC

The BBC is a unique institution.  Unique in the role it plays in public life.  Unique in the way it is funded.  Unique in the place it holds in the public’s affections… it is a quintessentially British institution.  The public trusts it.  It is part of what defines us as a nation, both at home and abroad.  The BBC is recognised throughout the world, where it is seen as a benchmark of quality, integrity and diversity.  (Tessa Jowell, 2003)

The future of public service broadcasting (psb) is an issue that has been fiercely debated in Britain for a number of years.  In this essay, I will attempt to unravel some of the discussions surrounding the debate and explain the argument for and against the retention of the licence fee.

The British Broadcasting Company was set up in 1922 with a licence to broadcast contracted by the Post Office.  The company began broadcasting daily programming through the wireless.  The effect this had on the country was profound ‘listening in to the wireless in the United Kingdom quickly became a social and cultural phenomenon as the BBC in London and regional stations around the country gave birth to a new form of mass communication’. (BBC Website, 2004)

John Reith was the Managing Director of the British Broadcasting Company and in 1927 became the first Director General of the Corporation.  He was widely credited with being at the forefront of developing the BBC’s ethos, which included the ‘maintenance of high standards, the preservation of a high moral tone and avoidance of the hurtful or vulgar’. (Goodwin 1990:13).

Arguably, one of the biggest proposals advised by Reith in this period was the idea of changing the status of the BBC from the private sector to the public domain.  He wanted a move away from an organisation that was purely profit driven to a forum that would have an aim of culturally improving those who interacted with it.  This plan became reality when the BBC was granted it’s first Royal Charter from the government in 1927 which defined the corporations ‘objectives, powers and obligations’

The BBC’s Royal Charter is handed down by the government of the period  The criteria contained in the Charter relates to what is expected of the BBC. This is reviewed every ten years.  The next Royal Charter renewal is 2006.  The BBC is headed by a Board of Governors, these 12 governors act as trustees of the public interest and regulate the BBC.   They are appointed by the Queen on advice from government ministers.

The BBC (often referred to affectionately as “Auntie” or “the Beeb”) is seen as being an establishment that is renowned for being accurate and strong, possessing something of the British ‘stiff upper lip’.  This is exemplified in viewers’ thoughts.  For example, some believe the BBC’s coverage of news stories is superior to that of other channels.  Others consider that because the corporation is ‘such an institution’ it will somehow provide a ‘better’ and more accurate picture of news events.  This seems strange; there is no ‘proof’ that the BBC does provide a superior news service.  However, the BBC tries extremely hard to promote this philosophy to the viewing public.

Over the last 30 years the BBC has created an image for itself that is underpinned by numerous ideologies that suggest that it is a better-quality and therefore more trustworthy service.  However, in recent years these ideologies have been questioned.  Most noticeably and controversially in the aftermath of the Hutton Enquiry.

In 2003 the Labour government led by Tony Blair told the country that they had evidence to suggest that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed in 45 minutes and possibly put British people in danger.  The BBC did not report this assertion made by the Prime Minister.  Instead they allowed one of their journalists (Andrew Gilligan) to ‘get a second opinion’ from Dr David Kelly (a leading expert on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction).  Kelly reported that the government had exaggerated evidence of the ferocity of Iraq’s weapons as an ‘excuse’ to go to war.  

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The BBC duly reported these findings and enraged the government.  The BBC did not withdraw their report and stood by their reporter and in turn their journalism.  When David Kelly committed suicide (he was named as the source of the ‘sexed up’ allegations) the government enlisted Lord Hutton to launch an enquiry into the circumstances of his death.

The publication of the report in January 2004 injured the reputation of the BBC in some commentator’s eyes.  The BBC’s editorial policy, management, the Director-General and the Governors were all heavily criticised by the report.  This led to the resignation ...

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