Higher standards expected from BBC


By John C Beyer, Director of mediawatch-uk



hese days broadcasting issues are rarely out of the newspaper headlines whether they concern the latest appalling behaviour in the Big Brother household or the BBC spending £50 million on re-training its 7000 journalists!


This week the BBC launched its campaign, called Building Public Value, for the renewal of its Royal Charter.  It focuses on funding and management issues although it says that all BBC television, radio and Internet services will have to meet a 'public value' test to stay on air.


Every ten years the Corporation has to submit to scrutiny of its performance in the light of its core purposes, as set out in 'The BBC Beyond 2000', and the objectives set annually by the Board of Governors.   Because of the unique way the BBC is funded it is right that there should be rigorous public accountability although I would argue that such scrutiny should be more frequent and far more openly discussed in TV and radio programmes.


Earlier this year, and for the first time, the Government invited the public to respond to a consultation on the renewal of the BBC's Royal Charter.  The results of this consultation, 'Your BBC, Your Say' are currently being analysed and a Green Paper setting out policy options is expected before the end of this year.


The consultation paper made a number of questionable observations including one that said competition with other public service broadcasters has had "the aim of driving up quality".  This may be true in terms of technical quality but in terms of programme content it could be said, in some respects, to have had the opposite effect!  Indeed, the emphasis placed by the BBC on ratings and audience share has led to a perception of "dumbing down" and "lowest common denominator" programmes. 


Regrettably, and without discussion or consent, the BBC has played its part in the incremental movement towards more screen violence, greater use of obscene language and ever more explicit depictions of intimate sexual activity.  Some programming has had a negative effect by the promotion of degrading values and models of behaviour that undermine social order and traditional family values.


The BBC has certainly contributed to the democratic political process but has evidently been biased in favour of permissive ethics and morality presenting such as the norm and excluding or ridiculing opposing views.  This has occurred in discussion programmes, talk shows and in news and current affairs programmes.  This was especially true in the 1960s when the foundations of the "permissive society" were laid and in the 1970s and 1980s when these were built upon.  The BBC, of course, was not alone in doing this, but because it was the "trusted BBC" it carried greater weight and authority.


Creating fresh and pioneering television, on the whole, seems to be a failed objective bearing in mind that a number of programmes seem to have become immovable pillars around which others have to fit.  Such as: Grandstand, Top of The Pops, EastEnders, The Simpsons, Newsnight, Neighbours, Holiday, University Challenge, Top Gear, A Question of Sport, Casualty, Parkinson, Songs of Praise, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, The National Lottery, Ready Steady Cook, Antiques Roadshow, Gardeners World, Ground Force, Only Fools and Horses and Last of The Summer Wine.  


This is not to say that these programmes are bad or not popular but to point out that there is a certain perpetuity evident. Comparing the BBC to other broadcasters indicates a degree of sameness that seems to be determined by ratings and audience share which have become the overriding priority.


Taken as a whole, however, the BBC's contribution to the life of the United Kingdom in its 80-year history has been enormous.  The BBC's record in providing news, current affairs, drama, sport, lifestyle, regional and children's programmes, politics, national and international events has been exemplary.  The provision of a broad mix of quality programmes certainly is what the general public expects from the BBC.  The underlying philosophy of the BBC should be to provide excellent programming that evidently complies with the requirements against harm and offence set out in the Royal Charter and the Producers' Guidelines.


Few people would doubt that the BBC provides value for money.  The argument that the BBC costs less than a daily newspaper is compelling.  The number of TV and Radio channels, national and local, and the broad range of material provided is itself evidence of value for money.


The BBC has undoubtedly set benchmarks for others to aspire to but the simple truth is that there are now other competing providers who meet the viewing and listening needs of a growing proportion of the population.  As a society we have to ask ourselves whether the overall broadcasting environment would be better or worse without the BBC?  Equally, the BBC must ask itself how to engage more effectively with its 'shareholders' especially on the question of taste and decency standards.    


This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper 1/7/2004


‘Building Public Value’ can be obtained from BBC, Media Centre, London, W12 7TQ


Click here for Reviewing the BBC’s Royal Charter


Click here for news release on Building Public Value


Click here for Joining Form