19 July 2017

The case for the BBC


There is, let us be honest, something prurient about demanding the BBC publish the broad salary details of its highest-paid employees and contractors. And like most prurient things, it is fascinating even if it is also, at some level, demeaning and an invasion of the “talent’s” legitimate privacy.

Of course this is justified by the manner in which the BBC is funded. Because it is “our” money, the BBC must argue the case for the manner in which it spends – forgive me the cliche – “taxpayers’ hard-earned” cash. Well, maybe. There is, as is always the case when puritans indulge their prurience, a danger of confusing the price of something with its value.

Nonetheless, some of those salaries are eye-popping. Is John Humphrys really worth nearly three times the salaries paid to his co-presenters Nick Robinson and Mishal Hussein – even when you factor in his Mastermind appearances?  Is Gary Lineker really worth six Clare Baldings?

Some of the more extravagant contracts were doubtless signed before the BBC began to feel the need to restrain spending on “Talent” and it is notable that relatively few presenters based in Manchester feature on the list of high-earners. But even so, it is hard to avoid the fact that the BBC often pays more than it might need to since having a plum spot on the BBC is worth a lot in itself. That doubtless helps explain why the likes of Andrew Neil or Laura Kuenssberg prefer to work for the corporation even though they could almost certainly earn more at one of the BBC’s commercial rivals.

We might also agree that if an organisation such as the BBC were proposed today, we would not create an organisation which looked very much like the BBC we have now. Nor would it be funded by a licence fee, the payment of which can be enforced through the courts. If we were starting from the beginning, the BBC would have to take its chances on the open ocean of the free market.

But of course we are not starting from scratch. The BBC makes no sense and by making no sense it proves its incorrigible Britishness. This is a country in which the anomaly is the rule. If we were building a new national health service, we would not organise, and fund, it in the way we organise the NHS. If we were constructing – and even, novelty of novelties, writing! – a new constitution, we would not create a second chamber which looked very much like the current House of Lords. A chamber in which, you will need no reminding, some hereditary peers still sit and in which bishops of the Church of England continue to enjoy mystifying privilege. Hell, if we were starting again we might not even site parliament in London.

Be that as it may, we are where we are – and that’s a place in which we muddle along as best we can. Illogicality is acknowledged, but straitening the crooked timber from which Britain’s public institutions are constructed is more trouble than it’s worth, not least since it is far from obvious that doing so would lead to any appreciable improvement. Tories, in particular, should be wary of the bracing gales of ideological purity and consistency. Something need not make sense to be important and valuable.

Still, like those other British idiosyncrasies, the BBC is hardly perfect. Its critics have a point when they complain about the manner in which the BBC, which is now a publisher just as much as it is a broadcaster, distorts the commercial market. The licence fee gives the corporation a privileged position within that market and the effect on newspapers – at both a national and, especially, a local level – has been profound. Those of us who toil in inky vineyards have reason to think the BBC is in danger of abusing that privileged position.

Nevertheless, it is also the case that the BBC has become adept at doing more with less. The licence fee has not increased – in real terms – in 20 years. By any reasonable estimation it remains a bargain even if it is, inescapably, funded as a kind of household poll tax. No other country receives as much for so little from its national broadcaster. (It seems worth mentioning that people from other countries are constantly astonished by, and envious of, the BBC.)

There is a danger of thinking that because the BBC is anachronistic and far from perfect we must make it logical and worse. Some of its enemies complain about the manner in which the corporation chases ratings – how now, Lord Reith? – but, let us be frank, those same critics would condemn the BBC if it failed to make programmes the public wanted to watch. In the latter situation, the licence fee would become ever harder to justify. Which, of course, is precisely the point.

All this is comforting, however. The BBC is attacked by the Right and Left alike which is both a tribute to its importance and a suggestion that, on the whole and broadly speaking and at least in terms of its news coverage, it is getting it right. Certainly it is hard to imagine Britain without it and hard to imagine that any replacement service forced to operate on a purely commercial basis could offer so much across so many platforms and to so many different audiences.

And that matters too, not least because societies need institutions that command some respect and some authority. The BBC is a vital part of the glue which holds an increasingly diverse – and even, if you must, “atomised” – society together. It is a meeting place for everyone. That, increasingly, is its enduring value. The BBC has become one of our permanent things, the worth of which may sometimes only be properly appreciated in its absence.

Of course it must change so it may remain the same, but the corporation gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. How it survives the challenges of a new era in which its competition is Amazon and Netflix is another matter. The BBC, for all its wealth, is a pauper in comparison to the American tech giants and if we recognise this we might also recognise that, for all its waste and questionable extravagance, there is a strong argument for sharply increasing the licence fee.

No, the BBC doesn’t make sense. That is its beauty and its strength. Long may it continue to infuriate us; long, more importantly, may it continue to matter.

Alex Massie is a political commentator