On the BBC's relationship with Government…

So there’s an article about the BBC’s iCan project over at BBC Offers Power to the People. It’s an interesting, if slightly frustrating piece, for a whole range of reasons, but there’s one misconception that I think needs to be cleared up.

“In addition to finding the iCan issues a bit trivial, Kirkcaldy, a 20-year-old antiwar activist, doubts the BBC’s ability, as a government-owned entity, to objectively manage the site’s issues.”

The BBC very clearly and very much is not owned by the government. It’s an organisation originally created by a conglomerate of wireless manufacturers supported by a license fee that gave it financial independence from the Government that was given a royal charter in 1927. From that point onwards it has been answerable in principle only to the British people via the Board of Governors who are appointed to act as trustees for the public interest – ensuring it’s accountable and independent.

That’s not to deny that the BBC has a relationship with government – because members of the Board of Governers are appointed by the Queen under recommendation from the Prime Minister of the day. And the Government has a certain amount of power over the BBC – they approve the level of the license fee for a start (but are in no way responsible for its collection) – but there’s a very specific piece of legislation that guarantees editorial independence that should be evident to anyone who has seen the recent spat between the Labour government and the BBC.

If you’re sufficiently interested, there’s a great deal of information about the history of the BBC online as well as about how and why it operates.

6 replies on “On the BBC's relationship with Government…”

You are quite right to point this out as a gross simplification of the BBC’s relationship to the British government, and as one of those who was interviewed for the piece, I agree with you on that.
The BBC is one of the best examples of a contemporary British institution, and it does a good job of fulfilling the mission that you link to above. Whilst it is not government owned/run, it is nonetheless an organ of the state in a broader sense, as you illustrate by describing the composition of its governance. Generally, it does a good job of keeping the government on its toes and we I think we should support its continued independence as far as possible. However, BBC News is sometimes justly criticised for the way it “frames” issues that fall outside the general consensus, or that are perceived to be contrary to the interests of the state.
Contrast the BBC’s desire to respond to the fuel protests (which seems to have been one of the influences behind iCan) with its extremely cautious coverage of the anti-war movement, anti-globalisation initiatives, the Middle East conflict and so on.
Ideally, iCan should avoid “framing” either the spectrum of opinion or the issues themselves as far as possible. In pratical terms this might mean devolving control over the way subjects and issues are described and organised, perhaps through some kind of distributed metadata system that gives users the ability to contribute to how content is named, grouped and linked. It should probably also reflect the wider world by placing more emphasis on aggregation, partly to solve its own content problem and partly because this could help provide some really useful civic enagement functionality for people organising campaigns. Finally, I don’t think the focus on the “tail” (does that just mean least popular by the way, or am I understanding it wrong?) should mean that we ignore one of the basic roles of the BBC, which is to “inform” civil society activity through its often excellent investigative reporting and analysis – i.e. why not create links between BBC output (News, TV and radio programmes, etc) and related issues and camapigns? That’s what created the impetus for campaigns such as Shelter and Oxfam. Indeed, the people involved may have such developments in mind already.

The BBC’s funding is more convoluted, and as a result, its financial links with government more direct, than you suggest.
The money flow is simple – but unexpected. Licence fees are collected by TV Licensing on behalf of the BBC who have the statutory responsibility for its collection. The money collected does NOT go to the BBC, though – it goes to the consolidated fund aka the government (Communications Act 2003 s365(7) – but that’s a re-enactment of a long-standing provision)). The government then pays grant-in-aid to the BBC of a sum equivalent to the licence fee revenue.
The practical upshot is much the same, of course, so you could argue that it’s a distinction without a difference. It does though go to the heart of the BBC’s self-mythology – and if more widely known might tend to exacerbate the kind of confusion shown by the Wired piece.

Now that the charter is coming up for review in 2006, do u think there might be any changes? Especially since Murdoch and co. and even the British govt. seem to have decided that the BBC has had its day? I think it collects something over 4 billion pounds a year, that is a hell lot of money!

No – £2.658 bn. Still a lot of money, but also a lot less. At £10 per household per month, that still looks like a pretty good deal. Charter renewal is certainly an opportunity for changes at the margin, but change to the principle of core licence-fee funding isn’t really on the political agenda.

I think with the future switch-over where everyone will have to update their tv sets with either cable or free-view which is paid for through monthly fees, having to do this how will the BBC justify having to pay the Tv licence and a monthly charge for the same service one in which we have to pursue?

Comments are closed.