If the BBC didn’t exist we would have to invent it, says Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Chris Bryant, who fears that the recent publication of the green paper on the renewal of the BBC’s charter is evidence that the Beeb is under siege.
Bryant describes the BBC as the nation’s “cultural NHS”, earning both respect and money for Britain and British values. His argument is simple. “The BBC is the most admired public broadcaster in the world. We are the only country in Europe that is a net exporter of audio-visual services. Our programmes are renowned around the world. The truth is, if we didn’t have the BBC, we would have to invent it.”
Sitting across the table from me in his constituency office in Rhondda, he warms to his theme. “Sherlock was sold to 224 territories and had 67 million hits on China’s digital platform YouKu, Strictly or Dancing With The Stars is sold to more than 40 territories, while the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who was simulcast in 98 countries and 15 languages.
“And yet,” he says, “a lot of Tories object to the BBC. They think the BBC should be a subscription service or it should only do things that commercial broadcasters could not or would not do. I think that is to mistake the whole genius of the BBC, which is that everybody pays for it and everybody gets something out of it, but you have to have both halves of that equation otherwise it falls apart.”
Bryant fears that what he sees as the universal principle, or golden thread, at the heart of the BBC, namely that everyone pays and everyone gains, is under threat from the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary John Whittingdale, who seems, says Bryant, to favour a subscription model when the technology is available in every home to control access. “I firmly believe that a public sector broadcaster run with public money should make popular programmes. It is, however, clearly part of the BBC’s mission to do more than just chase audiences – but popular programming is what justifies the licence fee to the vast majority of my constituents,” he says.
With the BBC now taking on responsibility for the annual £750million funding of free TV
licences for the over-75s and the licence fee only likely to rise in line with the consumer prices index, Bryant argues the BBC is likely to find it increasingly difficult to deliver on its Reithian principle as entertainment provider.
“Whittingdale’s argument is that it is wrong for the BBC to make a programme like Strictly Come Dancing because it is popular and a commercial broadcaster could make it. That is a nonsense. If you did that why on earth would constituents across the land pay their licence fee for something that is unpopular?”
Bryant, who was head of European affairs at the BBC for two years before being elected as MP for Rhondda in 2001, says that, at its heart, the BBC is a good organisation. “I worked for the BBC because I believed in the BBC. I no longer work there but I still believe in it. The BBC has had enormous challenges in the last few years, not least the whole Savile scandal, when we as a nation, as well as the BBC and, for that matter, the NHS, were all duped. Obviously there must be some element of blame attached within the structure of the BBC but the whole of the nation was duped.”
Despite the challenges, Bryant thinks the BBC has been as rigorous with itself, if not more so than, for example, Fox News or ITV would have been. “The BBC journalist critique of the BBC is pretty robust. It has also used its flagship programmes like EastEnders and Holby City to raise big social issues in a way that is both sensitive and socially responsible.”
That is not to say, however, that Bryant sees the BBC as perfect. On diversity, he says: “It is a simple fact that the number of people from black and minority ethnic groups working in the whole of the broadcasting industry has fallen over the last seven years, at a time when as a share of the population it has grown. That must be a nonsense.”
The BBC Trust is clearly not working either, he said. He is open to negotiations about what a new governance structure may look like but emphasises the need for a non-executive board to oversee the fiduciary responsibilities of the corporation and an external regulation role for Ofcom.
As our interview comes to a close, Bryant returns to the licence fee. “I admit it has its flaws but, as Churchill once said of democracy, it is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. In the end, everyone always comes back to democracy. I am sure it will prove the same for the licence fee.”
BBC to offer robust defence
The BBC has until October 8 to respond to the government’s green paper and plans to publish its own proposals on its future later this month. Senior BBC figures will emphasise the economic benefits to the wider creative sector. In particular, it is understood they will defend the corporation against accusations the BBC crowds out its rivals, pointing to significant growth in the operating profits of Sky and ITV. A BBC source is quoted as saying: “The BBC is the cornerstone of our creative industries and a strong BBC is good for growth and the UK economy.”