by JOHN ELDER
Morning Star | 03 October, 2016
YET again we have the state setting out the conditions under which it will permit the BBC to operate for another term.
And, seemingly, not a whimper of opposition from any relevant group — or individual — that has questioned its right to do so.
Indeed, no major voice calling for the full disconnection of government from the corporation, that is to say except for granting it a licence to broadcast under the same terms and standards that are applied to the rest of its industry.
It is true there have been critics in the media — including the BBC — and from elsewhere who have questioned aspects of periodic government “reforms” to the corporation over the years. But, apparently, not seriously of its continuing control over the latter.
Essentially, their censure has been directed through the prism of a broadcaster that is not only closely linked to the state but whose existence — at least technically speaking — lies in its hands.
The long-standing unsatisfactory status quo is the result.
Any dissenting views expressed by the latest set of commentators following publication of the government white paper last May and the more recent draft royal charter and accompanying framework agreement have been of a similarly ineffectual kind.
Again, no-one appears to have addressed the small matter of state authority over the BBC.
And the impending countrywide parliamentary debates on the new arrangements will not change this position.
If anything, it seems the state will secure a firmer hold than currently on the corporation’s governance from next January onwards.
This is when a new unitary BBC Board comprising a total of 14 members will replace the current BBC Trust and BBC Executive.
Nine of them are to be BBC-appointed, of whom five will be non-executive directors and four executive directors — including the director-general.
Five publicly appointed and government-approved non-executive directors — the board’s chair included — will account for the rest.
Although the corporation’s appointees will give it a majority on the board, it does not alter the fact that the state will have a significant foothold in the broadcaster’s governance.
Now, the state-associated, fundamental BBC model has been around since 1927.
That’s a near 90-year grip on the broadcaster, a hold periodically renewed when it is obliged to secure royal charter approval, through government, in order to function for another term.
By the end of this next phase in its history the BBC will have been under the yoke of government for a full century. Would it not be the ideal milestone (why not sooner?) to release the broadcaster from this harness and allow it to operate in an independent and democratically put-together form that could find even greater public favour than it already captures?
As it happens, such a model has been around for a very long time, and continues to work successfully in a number of guises.
Basically, we are talking about a consumers’ co-operative.
Indeed, the kind of organization that is owned by consumers, managed democratically and aimed at realising the needs and aspirations of its members — licence fee payers in the case of the BBC if it was to change to a fine-tuned form of this model.
It is widely known that consumers’ co-operatives follow the principle of democratic member control — or one member, one vote. Most have a board of directors elected by and from the membership, and normally operate within the market system, autonomously of the state.
There are other aspects of the model that, arguably, seem admirably suited to the structure and workings of the BBC.
If a consumers’ co-operative can operate successfully in housing, healthcare, as a building society or credit union — and in other fields too — why not as our nation’s official public-service broadcaster?
Were it to be adopted, it would eliminate the periodic issue of the BBC being compelled to seek absurd royal charter cum-privy council permission to continue in business and, simultaneously, cease being a broadcaster that is answerable to the state in vital aspects but one accountable to licence fee payers.
How many will be aware that the BBC actually started life in late 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd, a private commercial organisation? It was established by a group of electrical equipment producers with an eye to exploit the new broadcasting medium for commercial purposes, while offering a revolutionary entertainment and information service to the public at large.
It seems clear that once this (eventually national) broadcaster had hit the airwaves, the state had intended to get its hands on it.
The government quickly set up the Sykes and Crawford committees which assembled in 1923 and 1925-26, respectively, to discuss and report on the broadcaster’s development and future form.
This action amounted to an unambiguous statement of its intentions.
Apparently, the question on whether the BBC should be covered by statute or royal charter surfaced in evidence given to the Crawford committee, with the latter device coming out on top.
The committee also reported they were in agreement that “the United States system of free and uncontrolled transmission and reception” was inappropriate for Britain and that broadcasting would need to remain a monopoly “controlled by a single authority.”
It didn’t say how these conclusions were arrived at.
The government accepted the committees’ (partially overlapping) key recommendations, then purchased the company’s shares and, in 1927 via the medium of royal charter and associated artificial means, established the British Broadcasting Corporation in its place.
A non-commercial public-service broadcaster, the latter would be funded by licence fee for 10 years and not subject to direct parliamentary control over its affairs. Note, not direct control.
As has been illustrated, the BBC is associated with and accountable to the state in crucial ways. But it is certainly not obliged to account for any of its actions to licence fee payers who finance it.
For example, the latter have no say in the appointment of the broadcaster’s top level movers and shakers, nor in how much they are paid for their services.
Even the undoubtedly large sums paid to programme presenters are kept under wraps, as are payments made to the endless line of guest print-media journalists, politicians, sports personalities, chefs and the like who regularly appear in its broadcasts.
Under the new charter and agreement arrangements only “the salaries of its employees and talent earning more than £150,000 will be disclosed.”
It is no wonder there are those who say that the BBC is a lucrative playground for the generally well-heeled and privileged.
Yet despite the periodic rules and regulations the government has imposed on the BBC over the years and flaws in some of the ways the latter manages its affairs, public trust in and appreciation of the broadcaster ranks higher than that in most other institutions.
It is ironic, then, that the BBC’s continuing existence has lain in the hands of politicians who, as a group, the public trust almost least of all.
Surely it is time that this political hold on the broadcaster was released so it could become an independent and democratically established institution that will attract even greater public approbation.
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