The BBC may be respected the world over, but at home it’s facing a hostile crowd. The UK government has been attacking the BBC recently for—of all things—making television that is too entertaining.
Efforts to tame Britain’s leading broadcaster illustrate the massive influence that broadcasters still hold over the minds of the public. In the BBC’s case, that influence extends across geographical boundaries. But it has not proven strong enough to keep the critics in the UK government at bay.
How has such a situation arisen? And could it end with the fall of the House of Beeb?
Being generally in favor of private enterprise and competition, Conservative governments have a history of animosity toward the BBC—a large, public institution. Allegedly this led to Margaret Thatcher’s administration giving preferential treatment to privately owned broadcasters. These included Rupert Murdoch’s umbrella, which covers not only BBC rivals like Sky, but newspapers like The Times and Sunday Times, which have the capacity to voice criticism of BBC market monopolization.
Today, the government launched a review of the whole of the corporation’s activities. So far, this has included suggestions that the BBC should not be producing “highly commercial” content like The Voice, a competitive singing show.
It does sound strange. The BBC believes it is under an ideological and commercial attack, rather than having genuine structural problems. But then, many things about the situation are strange…
The UK monarchy may have limited power, but one thing it does control is the issuance of the “royal charter” (pdf) that legislates for the existence of the BBC, lays out its purpose (“The BBC exists to serve the public interest,” etc.) and mandates its independence from government. The charter lasts for 10-year terms and is up for renewal in 2016, opening up a chink in the BBC armor that those wanting change may wish to poke at.
The BBC is funded via a license fee, another unusual structure. Brits don’t have to pay the license fee of £145.50 ($227) per household per year, but if they do not, and at the same time persist in watching television made by the corporation, they are committing a criminal offense (another matter that’s up for debate). In one of the most recent spats, the BBC agreed to assume the cost of the licenses for people over the age of 75, at a potential cost of £650 million ($1.01 billion).
The BBC is adamant that most people are happy to pay the license fee. The corporation has extremely high penetration, and approval ratings in the 80s. But it has its critics, beyond the politicians who are attacking it now. One notable recent example is the Scottish National Party, which said coverage of Scotland’s recent independence referendum attempted to sway voters away from voting ”yes.”
A beloved behemoth. A cultural imperialist. The conflict rages on.