Joan Bakewell on why the government must both extend and expand its public consultation on the future of the BBC
The future of the BBC hangs in the balance, and the government is gunning for it. It has given plenty of warning over recent months, headlined in The Daily Telegraph: Tories go to War with the BBC. I suppose it was decent of them to give us notice. Now we have to mount a defence of this outstanding British Institution, which I believe to be one of the pillars of civic society.
Plenty of people agree with me, especially the public. The government has made a big play of wanting to consult all interested parties. They have declared proudly that there is an 18 month window of opportunity for interested parties to make their views known. There are no parties more directly concerned than the viewers and listeners themselves, who through their license fee pay for what they get. The BBC belongs not to the government, nor the state – but to the public. People need to make their voices heard.
This is not made easy by the government. On 16 July, the Department for Culture Media and Sport issued a 74 page glossy document called BBC Charter Review: Public Consultation. Its first page tells us the consultation continues until 8 October. Just three months – and those summer holiday months, too – for the public to get its act together and tell Ministers it really thinks. The only other way to make your thoughts and feelings known to the government is provided by the BBC itself. The BBC Trust website is running questionnaires and the BBC will be holding seminars around the country. How much bolder and more trusting than the government, whose meagre three month consultation suggests they might be planning to go ahead with change whatever the public wants or says.
Why does any of it matter? The BBC will surely stagger on as it has when under attack from previous governments. Besides, there’s plenty wrong with it. I know that: I work for it. It is overloaded with management, people with lengthy acronyms whose job is never quite clear. Its governance needs revision, too. Even the Chairman of the BBC Trust thinks so. So yes there’s plenty of room for improvement.
But funding the BBC adequate to the needs of this global institution should not be subject to mean-spirited cuts imposed by a governing party that complained of bias during the election. A party whose wealthy donors often own rival media enterprises, and whose philosophy is to cut down to size any British institution that doesn’t conform to the neo-liberal model.
The BBC deserves more than to be on the receiving end of the whim of a passing party of government. Its reputation for decades has been and remains the envy of the world. Its World Service is the one source of honest reporting that can be trusted in many of the world’s desperately divided countries. It supplies – without the irritating interference of commercials – work that is both the pride and inspiration of our cultural life.
I urge the government to honour its pledge to consult the public more widely, by extending and publicising its consultation document. Make it known in schools and factories, churches and mosques, to the WI, the Scouts and Guides, local communities and libraries. These are the people who have come to take the quality and reliability of the BBC for granted. It is their BBC. Let their voice be heard.
Baroness Joan Bakewell is a journalist, broadcaster and backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords
Published 9th September 2015