The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a publicly-owned media giant in Britain. Largely funded by the licence fees that every British owner of a television set must pay, it produces a huge amount of news coverage and TV programs (dramas, comedies, kids’ shows). The BBC model inspired similar institutions in other Commonwealth countries, including Australia’s ABC, which continues to have a fairly cosy relationship with the BBC meaning that tons of BBC programs get broadcast here.
The BBC was first founded as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922, as a consortium of private businesses whose main priority was getting people to buy the radio sets they manufactured: the only reason they were interested in broadcasting radio content was because they thought it’d get more people buying radios. The BBC was brought under the auspices of the government by 1926, in time for it to play a leading role delivering the news during that year’s general strike (when all the newspapers were shut down). There was a debate within the Conservative government as to what level of independence the BBC should’ve been allowed to have – Winston Churchill was adamant that the government should control it directly and use it as a mouthpiece, while PM Stanley Baldwin’s argument, which ended up carrying the day, was that the BBC should remain nominally independent, but always under threat of direct government takeover if it should stray too far from what the government considered to be its rightful place. As such, it could be intimidated into covering the 1926 general strike in a way that pleased the government, without outright losing its “independence”.
It went through a period of relative journalistic freedom in the 1960s, and even to a slightly lesser extent into the 1970s. This was an era in which they ramped up their investigative reporting and challenged the official governmental line more often. However, in the neoliberal era they’ve become increasingly compromised. Over the Thatcher/Major years the BBC introduced an “internal market” to force programs to compete for funding, and senior management roles got filled with right-wing ideologues. Its previous way of covering economic issues – where the ramifications for workers and trade unions would get coverage – was dumped, instead favouring an outlook where the stock market is the be-all and end-all. Where previously the BBC had taken it for granted that the interests of workers and their bosses are inherently in conflict, the neoliberal BBC adopted the fantasy that they aren’t, and of course it’s the ruling class whose interests are taken as “everyone’s best interest”. It doesn’t help, either, that the BBC has always been dominated by people from affluent backgrounds who went to private schools and the most elite universities, like Oxford and Cambridge.
Even today, the BBC’s news coverage is often criticised as way too deferential to the Conservative viewpoint on events. This certainly stood out to me when I visited the UK in 2016, where soundbites from Conservative politicians would be repeated uncritically while Jeremy Corbyn would get ripped into for making comments that were common sense. This is very different from Australia’s ABC, which despite being funded directly by government and not at the level of remove granted by licence fees, actually takes impartiality very seriously. The BBC will give airtime to the range of opinions held by the elites, but that’s actually a very limited range of opinions – a range which in the modern era takes neoliberalism for granted, for example (which is why they treated Corbyn with such incredulous hostility). While they will give some coverage to anti-war viewpoints, because some sections of the elites are unnerved by war, the overall tenor of the BBC’s coverage of wars that the UK’s involved in is very positive and pro-war.
But, as mentioned, here in Australia our main exposure to BBC content is not its news arm, but its entertainment programming. Some of the BBC programs that I have made pages about include: