The BBC – are there defenders of “public service” broadcasting?

Most of you have written in in favour of the abolition of the Licence fee. Many of you deny there is a special type of broadcasting called “public service” broadcasting. There are still no defences of edgy comedy.

One of my critics seems to think offering top BBC executives the same salaries as Cabinet Ministers is another example of my fabled generosity to the public sector. I promise him it would represent a huge pay cut for the top executives we have been reading about.

I would like to hear more about whether anyone out there thinks there is something good and distinctive in parts of the BBC’s output that could be said to be “public service”. What does that mean and how does it differ from ITV and commercial radio? If there is then we can discuss how this could be preserved. It does not have to be paid for by a TV Poll Tax.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

25 Comments

  1. APL
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    JR: "One of my critics seems to think offering top BBC executives the same salaries as Cabinet Ministers .. "

    Not so much a critic of you, Mr Redwood, rather the timidity of the Tory party. It is very difficult and not very inspiring to find yourself being led from behind. As for offering a £5 discount off the BBC licence fee, that is just risible! At least you are prepared to discuss the subject, Cameron might have a thought to put it on the agenda of the next meeting that he is thinking of holding that might discuss possible Tory policy.

    JR: " I promise him it would represent a huge pay cut for the top executives we have been reading about."

    Good, but hardly the point of my comment. Neither a Cabinet minister nor a BBC executive is worth more than three times the national average wage when 1. we are governed from Brussels. 2. The BBC continues to trade on its once deserved reputation, while turning out dross the likes of Jonathan Ross' chat show. In such circumstances, neither such individual is providing value doing the job he/she is currently paid to do!

    JR: "I would like to hear more about whether anyone out there thinks there is something good and distinctive in parts of the BBC’s output"

    BBC news output is biased and superficial.
    BBC costume drama – you can only do so many Jane Austen productions.

    BBC fiction for example 'Spooks' is dire. Compare it with 'Tinker Tailor soldier spy' for example and you can see how far standards have fallen.

    There is nearly no hard documentary productions, the BBC used to do a fine series called 'Horizon' that would discuss in depth all sorts of current affairs. Why was it for example channel four produced " the great global warming scandal" and not the BBC? There used to be a program called 'Tomorrows World' that discussed scientific developments, there isn't even a replacement for the much reviled Blue Peter, that program used to give children an idea how to entertain themselves, today all we seem to have is glove puppets.

    One or two folk have said the reason they like the BBC is the absence of advertisments. That is not strictly true, the BBC never stop broadcasting advertisments for whatever programme they are going to broadcast in five, ten minutes or next week. News 24 is the worst for this, we could do with out that, but also a voluntary subscription based BBC would have no need to broadcast commercials and actually should be prohibited from doing so.

    JR: "Many of you deny there is a special type of broadcasting called “public service” broadcasting."

    I don't deny it, I maintain that no such broadcasting takes place in the UK anymore. The BBC once did something like that, but not for a long time.

    By the way, to attempt to reach a consensus about does the BBC to this or does the BBC do that, we need to have a definition of that thing. At the moment you say 'Public service broadcasting' is a good, tell us what you think that may be, and we will be in a position to say, 'the BBC does/does not do that thing'. And 'that idea of public service broadcasting is/is not a good idea'. At the moment you and the BBC executives are waving this thing called 'public service broadcasting' in the air, and expecting everyone to rally around it like some sort of battle field standard. No.

  2. Obnoxio The Clown
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    One of my critics seems to think offering top BBC executives the same salaries as Cabinet Ministers is another example of my fabled generosity to the public sector. I promise him it would represent a huge pay cut for the top executives we have been reading about.

    Maybe he thinks you're going to give them the expenses allowance and the John Lewis list access as well. :o)

  3. David Eyles
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    There are still parts of the BBC that still provide genuine public service: the bulk of Radio 4, and the whole of Radio 3 and the World Service. In the event of wholesale privatisation, most of this high quality output would disappear.

    The priciple difficulties the entire network seems to suffering are that the genuine "public service" of unbiased and rigorously analysed news/current affairs have been largely traduced by the infatuation with New Labour and the large, overweening state. The other principle of "no adverts" has also been eroded by the amount of time between progammes where they spend huge amounts on self advertising. This is as irritating as the commercial adverts on commercial TV.

    Were we to be presented with more rigorous analysis which goes outside of the intellectual Left/Liberal view of smart urban London, then there we would not be having this debate at all, because the service would be there.

    To give an example from my own occcupation: the BBC (and Channel 4) view of the countryside is delivered from two highly filtered viewpoints. One is through the eyes of two or three (very good) celebrity chefs. The other is via natural history programming. Whilst Bill Oddie is a very good twitcher and entertainer, his presentation of naturewatch is sometimes highly partial ("….Badgers are virtually vegetarian anyway"). Only rarely have we had other points of view, on hunting say, and that has been done by people like Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Johnny Scott; who are good, but are so archetypal of one tiny sector in the countryside, that they are almost a parody. There is a wealth of interesting programming out here in rural England, but for the BBC, it scarcely exists. "Countryfile" has degenerated from a farming information programme (It used to be a true Service) into little better than light entertainment. The occasional revamp of "One man and his dog" has degenerated into being more about the jolly presenters – the real stars of the show – than about the people, dogs and sheep involved.

    Apart from the well known bias against the Tories, there are serious issues out there which the BBC is not addressing properly. The first is the Climate Change debate, which the BBC has been so unbalanced about, and delved into the controversy so lightly, that it is almost as if there is no debate at all. The second is their almost total obeiscance to the EU and corresponding lack of critical analysis of this institution. If the British public knew this organisation conducted itself, then the EU debate would be so much better informed. But the sad fact is that the British public know very little about how and who are running our lives.

    Oddly, despite the uncritical BBC view of the EU, we know very little about our European neighbours. When was the last time you actually saw a documentary about life in, say, France or Germany or Denmark? Considering we are supposed to be members of a European community, the only way most Brits get to know their neighbours is by buying a house in Spain, France or Tuscany, or taking a holiday there. Despite its vast resources of talented correspondents in many of these countries, the BBC consistently underuses/wastes this talent and fails to inform the British public.

    If they gave us genuine public service then I would be willing and happy to pay a smaller licence fee to rebalance the waste in their management and overpaid presenters. But if they carry on producing the huge amount of dross that they do, then the best thing is to regret the demise of Radio 3 and privatise the lot.

  4. alan
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Mr Redwood.

    The only radio station operated by the BBC should be saved, all the others should be sold off. The BBC WORLD SERVICE should be retained and I believe the BBC should have one Satellite Television Channel only and that should be the BBC WORLD SERVICE. That would be true public service broadcasting.

    What other, supposedly democratic country runs music radio channels for its people? and a similar question could be asked in relation to television? Is it just another way to keep we lower orders down?

  5. Acorn
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Firstly John, is there something going on we don't know about? The green benches of the Commons seem to be very poorly attended lately.

    Second; Lewis wins a world championship and BBC Radio5 Phone-in, slags him off for being a tax exile; would you believe it.

    Some readers will have sampled "public service radio" in the US. Most stations are locally licenced and tend to import programming material from the likes of PBS and NPR on a franchise basis. There is considerable locally produced content on some. You are not likely to become Mr Angry listening to it. They have sponsors (underwriters) and donors; are always appealing for cash. The BBC they are definitely not.

    We tend to underestimate the sheer size of the BBC – £4.6 billion business – and how it causes a massive distortion of the non-print broadcast media market. If the likes of Tesco had such market share, the Monopolies Commission and the OFT would be all over it; regardless of how it is funded.

    Would the likes of Lark Rise to Candleford have been made by an independent Production Company rather than a BBC Production department with a taxpayer funded budget? Probably. Dub it into thirty three languages and it will sell anywhere. Interesting to note that the BBC had income of nearly a £1 billion from its commercial businesses. [see link below]

    How would you break it up? You could turn it into lots of Channel 4's, only commissioning programmes from private sector production companies; make it sell off its back catalogue (BBC Worldwide). There is a lot of good stuff on the BBC and the World Service Radio is the best of its kind. The move to the digital platform may make some kind of subscription funding easier; but, the current television tax system has passed its sell by date.
    http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?storycode
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/network/pub

  6. Rose
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I think we should have a publicly funded BBC. There should be one news bulletin a day, or at the most two. These should be about what has happened, not what is rumoured to have happened or declared about to happen. They should not be vehicles for HMG propaganda except in wartime, and they should be rigorously checked for accuracy and balance before going out. They should be entirely free of opinion, and they should bew decent. Something akin to the old Telegraph under Deedes, when fact and opinion were kept under separate management, and anyone who muddled the two just wasn't sent out to report again. Live broadcasts by satellite are an expensive and often inefficient affectation. They are not necessary.

    Then there should be education and entertainment – preferably by people who know what the word edgy means, and don't hate their country and its history and culture. For only by first loving your own can you truly appreciate and understand other people's.

    To say you must be offensive to some but never to others in order to keep up with the times is an odd philosophy and an irrational one. Trying not to offend and yet convey meaning is much more of a challenge.

  7. Rose
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    PS I think there is much that is really excellent on Radio 4 as a result of Jenny Abramsky's control. She raised it up when she took over, even though the common expectation is for things always to get worse. Her successor seems to be chipping away at that, especially in trying to overlay each programme with electronic noise – presumably in a mistaken attempt to "heighten the tension" and "move things forward". The same is happening to the good television programmes on history, archaeology, art and architecture etc – even the gardening and dogs programmes. We were told by Dame Elizabeth Forgan the other morning that the best thing about the radio 2 controller who resigned was that she had foisted the electric guitar on the Radio 2 audience. Why was that such an achievement when there was already Radio 1? Jeremy Paxman hit the nail on the head when he said "Television is made by middle aged people for young people when everyone knows it is watched by old people, so why not give them what they want?" So many institutions – the Church included – make this well-meaning mistake of thinking they must offend their existing audience and run after the young, not understanding that the young grow up into the old and will come of their own accord when they are ready.

    But worst of all has been the cancer of Political Correctness and Anti-Elitism. It is strangling our culture to death. Indeed one might say that so constraining has it been that it has given birth to this very unpleasant genre of "comedy" in reaction. The challenge to today's comedians – who still laughably call themselves "alternative" – is not to be clever or enlightening, or even original, but merely shocking; and with so many groups and subjects out of bounds, those who are left as permitted butts of humour, have to take the brunt of a lot of pent up nastiness and frustration after years and years of censorship.

  8. APL
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    "public service broadcasting"

    fortuitously this drops into my lap today.
    http://edition.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/11/03/teen.pre

    Given that the BBC 'public service broadcasting' includes Eastenders, The Lakes, Little Britan, which of course is humourous so it doesn't count. The BBC could have actually been promoting teenage pregnancies.

    A whole new meaning to 'public service' broadcasting.

  9. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I don't think this is top of most people's agendas. Also Cameron raising the subject of reform and supporting the BBC serves no purpose except to bring a smile to the face of Brown. Get on with the job of holding this rotten government to account.

  10. Alistair WAtson
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    There is no doubt that we all benefit from an independent public broadcaster. It is important that it is led by intelligent, articulate, competent, people absolutely dedicated to accuracy and absence of bias in output, particularly in news and current affairs reporting.
    There is much to praise the BBC for; the quality of its drama, children’s programming, Natural World and radio output is without match, certainly in the English-speaking world.
    Failure to control bias in news and current affairs has been with us for a long time and has always been denied by the BBC. Denial can only come from those who are blind – some one must impose political balance or alternatively BBC news & current affairs broadcasting must be closed down.
    The recent furore over Ross & Brand should have resulted in the dismissal of the producer who made the programme and all who approved it for broadcast. It seems they are the only ones who have NOT been taken to task.

  11. adam
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    It means educational content. It means citizens advice bureau televised. How to rent your first property, how to buy your first house, how the nhs works, difference between a drop in centre, a gp and a hospital
    Etc etc.

    It means educational and inspiring documentaries.
    On physics, chemistry, biology, history, mathematics and many other subjects from a variety of experts not one celebrity x-factor historian who happens to hold the 'correct' opinions

  12. Mark
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    It is fair to criticise the BBC. But in terms of television it is far superior to ITV and Channel 4 (although I like Channel 4 news). There are excellent programmes which do not have their equivalents on other channels. And Radios 3 and 4 are not available in the commercial sector.

    In terms of quality, the BBC's problem is that it is paid for by all licence fee payers, not all of whom watch the sort of programmes which are publc service or listen to Radios 3 and 4. The BBC therefore offers them something in return for their licence fees and so finds itself competing with non-public service broadcasters.

    This annoys them (including now competitors on the internet) and so ensures that any problem is pounced upon in the press. This, I think, results in some manufactured and artificial criticism of the BBC and in opinion polls which overstate anti-BBC views.

    In terms of bias, it is undoubtedly the case that there is a liberal (small l) bias and it is a fair point that criticism of both Conservative and Labour governments comes from the left on the BBC, at least from its journalists. And as for US politics, the BBC is just a mouthpeice for the Democrats.

    But I would still keep the licence fee and still give it all to the BBC. As a Conservative I am wary of destroynig institutions (and the BBC is a national institution) without a very clear idea of what would replace them and of the consequences.

    The BBC is far from perfect, but it is not broken to the extent that it needs fixing.

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted November 4, 2008 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Child labour and restricted sufferage were institutions once upon a time. Simply the fact something exists does not amount to an argument for its retention. As for what would replace it, well, those programs for which there was a demand, wouild still be made, those for which there was no demand, would not.

      The fact that no country in the world is deciding to introduce a TV licence fee at this time is a compelling argument for me.

  13. Donitz
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Auntie is just a propaganda tool for the tax taking state.

    In the words of one of its better creations:

    Exterminate, exterminate……………….

  14. Blank Xavier
    Posted November 3, 2008 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    The thing is, even if there IS unquestionably something good and unique about the BBC, it STILL does not justify forcing people to pay for it when they don't want it and don't watch it.

    If I have a TV and I don't watch the BBC, so what if they make the most amazing content ever – *I don't want it* and so it is *wrong to make me pay for it*.

    A tax to provide a service to all when not everyone wants that service is a violation of individual freedom and of private property rights.

  15. richard lilley
    Posted November 4, 2008 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    To answer your questions:

    Public Service Broadcasting is surely those Broadcast services (both words themselves that are trickier to define these days as the drafters of Licence Fee legislation are discovering) that should to be provided by the state and thus funded according to rational economic principles by the taxpayer.

    Examples of what the state should fund are also very tricky these days, but here goes:

    Those that serve security and the national interest: from the provision of an appropriate Ealing Comedy to take our mind off things before thermonuclear anhilation; to the World Service – both now in my view anachronisms one literally and the other in its bizarre PC -"Listen to Britain" -District Commisioner style.

    Those that preserve cultural artefacts that cannot be supported by voluntary activity. A tricky and elitist area but the obvious candidate is the still surely the exemplary Radio 3 – which despite the obviousness of the formula commercial operations, however excellent, simpy cannot emmulate. Like Oxbridge.

    Those that showcase, encourage and above all nurture new talent. Something again the BBC has been very good at in the past but has rather been poisoned by the notion, mostly used to justify the outrageous salaries of its managment and "stars", that you can be innovative elitist and popular.

    What it shouldnt be doing is the News which it covers in a shockingly superficial stupid and biased manner (it just cannot be politically impartial because it has huge political power and therefore vested interests); and popular entertainment on which it wastes taxpayers money in vulgar spectacles, absurd remuneration for individuals and unfair competition with the private sector.

  16. Stuart Fairney
    Posted November 4, 2008 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    The BBC website, main welcome page carried a headline yesterday "Social mobility improving says report" Only when you actually read it, did you find out the report was from the Prime Ministers policy unit! (or some such).

    This is not news or journalism in any sense of the word, it is cheer-leading for the PM.

    So again, I find myself in the odd company of Mr Donitz (his first sentiment anyway).

  17. Rose
    Posted November 4, 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Why doe this excerpt from the BBC's own guidelines remind one of the Soviet Union's Charter of Human Rights?

    "Serving the public interest

    We seek to report stories of significance. We will be vigorous in driving to the heart of the story and well informed when explaining it. Our specialist expertise will bring authority and analysis to the complex world in which we live. We will ask searching questions of those who hold public office and provide a comprehensive forum for public debate.

    Editorial integrity & independence

    The BBC is independent of both state and partisan interests. Our audiences can be confident that our decisions are influenced neither by political or commercial pressures, nor by any personal interests.

    Impartiality & diversity of opinion

    We strive to be fair and open minded and reflect all significant strands of opinion by exploring the range and conflict of views. We will be objective and even handed in our approach to a subject. We will provide professional judgments where appropriate, but we will never promote a particular view on controversial matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy."

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted November 4, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      "…we will never promote a particular view on controversial matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy.”

      Hahaha………..

  18. jean baker
    Posted November 4, 2008 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Labour's use and abuse of the media for political influence is well documented. Two innocuous complaints have resulted in debate involving 'reformation' of BBC including abolition of licence fee.
    Amid the media sensationalism, John Prescott and his wife have been appearing on BBC at either Labour's of BBC's instigation.
    Ex minister's fronting unresearched complex issues of class and class divide under Nulabor is the antithesis of Public Service Broadcasting, the foundation stone of democracy. Many have no doubt that removing the licence fee and feepayer's rights to complaint, will lead to a sharp increase in use of the BBC for 'labour friendly' political propaganda wrapped up as authoritative documentaries. Nulabor wastes millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on misleading 'social engineering' propaganda on ITV. It's not by coincidence that Brown's 'reshuffle', OTT media 'hype' (on Campbell's return to town) has led to talk of 'reshuffling' the BBC and 'silencing' it's customers in the one year run up to the next election. In so doing, the blame will be placed on the public – Nulabor's spin and manipulation tactical means of 'rule'.

  19. J Mitchell
    Posted November 5, 2008 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    The BBC is a world class broadcaster when on top of its game. Radio 4 is a gem. The problem the BBC has is meddling policiticans who simultaneously demand that it does not broadcast material which is not intelligible to the lowest common denominator (social exclusion) and who then complain when it does broadcast just such material (vide Brand & Ross). If programmes are made which do not achieve high ratings the politicians complain – waste of money. If high ratings are achieved it is a scandal and the BBC is encroaching on the commercial broadcaster's patch. They cannot win.

    For all the sniping about programmes aimed at the "middle classes" (which has sadly become a political term of abuse – especially in the context of the education debate) remember who pays th bulk of the licence fee – the middle classes.

    The fact is that the Wreathian ideals were spot on. If you aim to provide educative and uplifting programming people will watch it. If you simply chase rating, you will get rubbish.

    The BBC has the gift of the licence fee. It can and should make programmes that would not otherwise get made in the commercial sector. That should be its role and we should celebrate it.

    The licence fee would not buy you 6 months subscription on Sky and the programming is infinitely better. Sadly they occasionally broadcast the offensive and unforgiveable output of the likes of Ross Brand. He isn't funny; he is childish and juvenille. He might appeal to the hopelessly drunk. He does not appeal to anyone with a sense of decency. Good riddance.

  20. Bazman
    Posted November 5, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Have we all decided we want SKY or just don't want to pay our license fee? up to £80 a month to sky seems no problem though. Another £12 to the BBC? What is the problem? Ah! choice. Maybe Rupert Murdoch could run the BBC. We all know how good the quality of TV is on sky. Maybe he could bring the quality and 'unbiased' news content up to American levels. Fox News anyone? Or maybe he could break up the BBC into regional commercial Channels broadcast to the nation like in Germany. We would be in for a treat then. Mindless talk shows and anything cheap to produce, mixed in with American TV show and advertisements for anything that can be eaten or consumed. News Bulletin: Cat stuck in tree!
    The license fee could be kept for a while to fund the transition and seen as a subscription. Less 'subscription' means more advertisements. Most channels would be scrambled anyway.

  21. Michael Taylor
    Posted November 5, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    It seems obvious to me that the BBC is bloated monster with the ability and willingness to project its own 'group-think' agenda which both the Conservative and Labour parties are scared of. It isn't that the BBC is biased towards the Labour Party, it is that New Labour constructed itself to be the arm of the BBC in government.

    It's overwhelming and very largely unaccountable domination of the public agenda is damaging to our democracy, and must be confronted and faced-down.

    Two tell-tale signs of where the power lies: first, BBC executives are paid (much) more than our legislators; second, the zeal with which non-TV-tax payers are hunted down and prosecuted exceeds any response to petty crimes such as burglary, vandalism, assault etc.

    Mr Cameron's remarks make it perfectly clear he has no desire to fight this fight.

    I'm sorry to be Mr Angry, but whilst the BBC thrives, Britain cannot and will not.

  22. no one
    Posted November 6, 2008 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    radio 4 is not a gem its a middle class sanctimonious lot of clap trap mainly giving a vioice to folk in publically funded chushy jobs

    far too little realism from the wealth creating economy

    shut the bbc down, its not a valid use of taxpayers money

  23. Helen
    Posted November 8, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Mr Redwood

    I am in favour of the abolition of the licence fee, but that isn't because I deny the existence of public service broadcasting. Like six other people I know, I don't have a television. I don't watch or record live broadcasts. I would like to see the licence fee abolished because of the continual harassment that I, and others like me, am subjected to by the TV Licensing Authority, which refuses to believe that there can possibly be such a thing as a person who doesn't watch television. Nowadays, the Authority is running what is, in effect, a protection racket. If I tell them I don't have a television, they will refuse to believe me, and will demand that I allow them to inspect my home, in order to prove that I am innocent of a crime they have no genuine reason to believe I am guilty of. As far as I can see, the only way to keep them out of my home and stop them from harassing me would be to pay for a TV licence I don't need. I have nothing against the BBC (I find their Web site useful), but in my opinion the licence fee isn't the way to go about funding it.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

  • John’s Books

  • Email Alerts

    You can sign up to receive John's blog posts by e-mail by entering your e-mail address in the box below.

    Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

    The e-mail service is powered by Google's FeedBurner service. Your information is not shared.

  • Map of Visitors

    Locations of visitors to this page