Is the BBC worth saving?

At the end of January, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced the latest redundancies in its drive to ‘save’ £800 million between 2016 and 2022, following reductions to its licence fee income. Fresh lay-offs in news will exceed 500 as the division works towards its allotted £80 million share of the cuts. Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, called it “part of an existential threat to the BBC”.

The need to defend these jobs is not in question. Trade unions organising in the BBC must urgently discuss with members and propose industrial action to stop the cuts. But what of the institution itself? What is the real role of the Beeb – and the media under capitalism?

State broadcasters like the BBC are not the standard model for the media, which by and large is privately owned. The basic function of any private property is as capital: to generate surplus value from the labour of employees, extracted as profit by the employers.

However, the media is a special form of capital. Its stock in trade is information and ideas – in one way or another, on how society is organised. While revenue (chiefly advertising) is important to the individual capitalist, the media’s primary worth for capitalism as a whole is not direct profit, but political influence.

Competing private media can facilitate ‘democratic’ debate while keeping it within pro-capitalist parameters. A state broadcaster can in turn be important as a counterweight, representing the interests of the capitalist system as a whole above sectional concerns. And in building a perception of ‘balance’ and ‘impartiality’, it can try to set the tone – and restrain the terms – of public discourse.

Of course, the BBC is not impartial. It is a wing of the capitalist state, headed by a long list of sirs and lords. But it is not without nuance. An uncomplicated mouthpiece for the government would rapidly lose credibility; even the Chinese Communist Party permits criticism by the press – within limits, on secondary matters. The BBC has to criticise the government from time to time, even though this (and the defence of its own institutional interests) can invite political retaliation.

The Today programme, for example, made trouble around the suicide of the scientist David Kelly in July 2003, who had exposed Tony Blair’s justification for invading Iraq as fabricated, leading to the establishment of the Hutton inquiry (which, in turn, whitewashed the Blair government). However, this was after the main goal – the imperialist intervention itself – was achieved. More recently the BBC joined the campaign of slanders against Jeremy Corbyn. And when the chips were down in 1926, with a general strike posing the question of workers’ power, the corporation’s founder Lord Reith declared that “the BBC must be for the government”. The balancing act is – as Leon Trotsky said of the Times – to tell the truth nine times in ten, the better to lie the tenth time, when fundamental class interests are at stake.

The BBC is also a noted tool of Britain’s ‘soft power’ in world relations. However, soft power cannot indefinitely outlast its roots in ‘hard power’ – economic, political and military strength. British imperialism’s continuing historic decline has forced it more and more to make deals with – and resist financial domination by – more robust capitalist powers.

This is clearer than ever in 2020. Johnson’s proposal to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, absent another substantial funding source, is aimed at forcing the BBC to downsize further; perhaps to move to a Netflix-style online subscription model, or US Public Broadcasting Service-style donation model. All of this creates more space for private media. The British market requires Anglophone production – giving the main advantages to the US, important in trade negotiations, and to the politically influential Murdoch empire.

So today’s campaign against the BBC does have an element of expediency in the ‘post-Brexit’ era. The Tories may also prefer to erase conspicuous examples of long-term public ownership and funding. Moreover, at a time of systemic social crisis, the incumbent political representatives of capitalism can become more concerned with short-term boosts and repression than maintaining a democratic veneer of pluralism and ‘neutrality’.

However, the general programme of deregulation and privatisation dates back to the advent of neoliberalism as the new capitalist orthodoxy. At the end of the long post-war boom, capitalism needed to find new markets as well as roll back the gains of the working class. Public employees do not directly create profit for the capitalists.

The drive to liberalise Britain’s media market and clear the space occupied by public broadcasting began in earnest under Margaret Thatcher. In 1985 her government instructed Professor Alan Peacock, a neoliberal economist, to review state broadcasting and the licence fee model. Thatcher apparently hoped the Peacock Committee would call for abolition of the licence fee, but its 1986 report judged this would cause more problems than it solved. Instead, Peacock recommended moving responsibility for collection from the Post Office to the BBC itself as a preparatory step. The other proposals included privatising BBC1 and BBC2, selling overnight transmission time, outsourcing at least 40% of BBC and ITV output, marketising ITV franchises, and letting Channel 4 sell advertising.

Many – not all – of Peacock’s suggestions made it into Thatcher’s 1990 Broadcasting Act. Underlining that these changes were part of a bigger picture, the act also codified UK compliance with the latest marketisation law from the European Union (then the European Community), the 1989 Television Without Frontiers Directive.

There was some dissent in Tory ranks. Allowing commercial concerns to challenge the authoritative position of the capitalist state broadcaster was a threat to ‘standards’. For a start, as a pillar of the establishment, the BBC had overall acted as a moral and cultural ballast for conservative social attitudes. BBC Written Archives, for example, explains the origin of the well-known nickname ‘Auntie’. It was “increasingly used in the 1950s to contrast the BBC’s prudish, cosy, puritanical, ‘refined’ image with that of the much brasher ITV”. The ratings-chasing profitable concerns could have the effect of undermining this stabilising influence for capitalist society through sensationalism, populism and so on. There was also the danger of undue influence accruing to some section of domestic or foreign capital.

As in most battles of this epoch, Thatcher’s hard-line neoliberal ‘dries’ prevailed against the more paternalistic Tory ‘wets’, a reflection of the changing needs of big business in general. However, alongside an economic imperative to open out the media market, Thatcher recognised the political need for state oversight of this special form of capital. That act – and updates since – require that a broadcasting licence can only be held by a “fit and proper person”.

The standard is open-ended and has rarely been tested. Its highest-profile invocation was in 2011, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation attempted to buy a 39% share of British Sky Broadcasting. BSkyB had been under the infamous Australian media baron’s de facto control since its creation, but his bid for direct ownership coincided with the phone hacking scandal at one of his Sunday papers, the News of the World. Those shocking revelations came on the heels of the credit crunch and Great Recession – whose destructive effects threw all the institutions of capitalism into question – and further eroded public confidence in the capitalist press.

Capitalist politicians felt compelled to censure Murdoch. Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, announced it was considering whether he was a fit and proper person to own BSkyB. News Corporation prudently withdrew its bid to prevent more damage from a possible ruling against it.

At the same time, however, News Corporation’s New York share price rose. Analyst Rich Greenfield explained that predatory investors were buying influence “to see News Corp sell off their UK newspapers”. This would have allowed US capital to muscle in. It did not come to pass. Nonetheless, both Murdoch and US media owners continue to eye British markets for expansion.

The majority of state regulations are aimed at the competing capitalist interests who have the resources to operate a mass media. Even so, the Communications Act 2003, for example, requires that Ofcom “have regard” to “the desirability of preventing crime and disorder”. It is not hard to imagine a broadcaster falling foul of this clause for, say, giving too much time to views supportive of major strike actions. Britain’s wartime newspaper censorship shows form. The capitalist state will always act to defend its interests against other nation-states and classes.

This is evident from the BBC’s role at times of crisis. So it is clear that public ownership is not enough; it is also a question of workers’ control. Jeremy Corbyn recognised this in 2018 when he proposed reforms for a BBC “obsessed” with sabotaging the Labour Party under his leadership. But would those proposals have solved the problem?

Corbyn called for “some elections of places to the BBC Board, for example of executive directors by staff and non-executive directors by licence fee payers”. This was to replace the present system where all members are appointed, in practice, by the government. Journalists would be “set free to do their best work, not held back by media bosses, billionaires or the state”.

Leaving aside the question of the licence fee, which as a de facto regressive tax ought to be replaced, and the exact composition of the board, which seems imbalanced against audiences, such elections might nonetheless create a certain potential for more pro-worker content. This would be positive.

However, the wider state apparatus would remain unelected, and the wider media and economy would remain in the hands of the billionaires and their shadows. The capitalists would still dominate the wider debate, supply most of the BBC board candidates – and exert at least the same enormous pressure on them as on elected parliamentarians, for example.

So, as with other reforms in Corbyn’s programme, the first major omission was the essential link to a wider transformation of the economy and replacement of the state on socialist lines. The second was the need for independent workers’ organisation and media.

Given the myriad channels of control the capitalists have over their media and state, the labour movement can never rely on them. It needs to develop a vibrant array of news outlets, including broadcasters, owned and controlled by its own organisations such as trade unions and workers’ parties. Only this could reliably challenge the capitalist media lies.

This would also represent the kernel of the media under socialism. Just as the capitalists cannot tolerate too-narrow control of their media, the question of workers’ control of the media would be one for the class as a whole. The bodies through which this would be enacted would need to be elected, and balanced between media workers, their audiences, and the wider working class. This entails nationalising the mass media and allocating its resources based on the popular prevalence of each given trend, with guaranteed access for minority views and experimentation.

The workers’ movement must fight for BBC jobs, and for reforms that open more space for journalism that can further working-class interests. But the goal is not to rescue the BBC as it is constituted. It is to create the most favourable conditions for organising an independent labour movement to replace it with a democratic workers’ media and state.

James Ivens