Are the days of the BBC over? Not exactly, but its towering position is clearly on the decline. Bearing a series of battering over the decades, it is accused of biases — not necessarily from authoritarian regimes or rival nations but scholars and critics from its own midst, that is, Britons. A full century after regular public news broadcasting made a debut, the tide and trend in news flow through organised media institutions have undergone changes to suit the demands of the emerging tastes, habits and demands of audiences.
Every now and then, British politicians and MPs have dismissed BBC as a government paid agency. What could have been the most bruising blow to the prominent broadcasting service, when Conservatives dubbed the BBC “Brexit Bashing Corporation”? It was not Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China, but leading British political figures who derided it on many an occasion for left-leaning biases creeping into the newsroom. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, in January, sounded the warning of a body blow to the BBC: “The days of state-run TV are over.”
Not only will the annual fee collected from individual households be frozen for the next two years but increments thereafter are vowed to be below inflation rate. The notice means the broadcaster will have to resort to drastic belt tightening, which the staff members fear risks compromising standards.
By the time BBC’s current Charter expires in December-end 2027, an alternative model is expected to be put in place. In that case, Britain’s premier broadcasting house will no longer be the same as it has been since post-World War I. At different times in the past several decades, both Labour and Conservative Parties expressed serious reservations about the way it functioned and slanted contents removed from the vow to be bias-free, impartial and fair.
The licence fee from the public fetches the corporation about $ 4 billion annually. Said David Mellor, former Conservative Party minister who also looked after the ministry covering also the BBC during the 1980s and the 1990s: “At last, there’s someone with the guts to tell the BBC bigwigs to live within their means...” Mrs (Margaret) Thatcher saw the licence fee as an unwarranted imposition on the long-suffering British people — a poll tax.
Reversing his earlier conviction, Mellor no longer subscribes to the existing model of BBC in its content flow and fee structures. Media mouthing from Voice of America through BBC to those closer home is nothing new. The we-do-now-wrong attitude is media’s No. 1 enemy. A couple of days before Nepal’s 1980 referendum results were out, BBC’s Delhi-based South Asia Bureau chief Mark Tully fumed and fretted at Shrish Shumsher Rana at a press meet in Kathmandu, when Kedar Man Singh, who also stringed for BBC, identified him as an editorial team member of the National Star.
Tully took umbrage at an opinion piece I had penned for the fortnightly-turned-weekly, which had already created a stir for the innovations introduced and the incisive commentaries presented. The article, basically a media critique, noted that the BBC had announced several weeks earlier that the Surya Bahadur Thapa government would change soon. There was no such change. Thapa, appointed in June 1979, continued as prime minister, held the first general elections under the new constitution and became the elected premier for another two years.
Since news items filed by BBC’s stringers in Kathmandu were routed through the New Delhi Bureau before landing at the Bush House in London, this scribe wondered how come the Delhi bureau did not issue a correction. Tully privately could not deny the BBC report’s inaccuracy but claimed that he was not responsible for it. He threatened the Star editor, “I can sue you.” Rana calmly retorted: “It’s your choice. But if you write a denial, we’ll be glad to publish it.”
Parachute journalism plagues the international media, with the bureau chiefs and special correspondent reducing local staff as extras, who are expected to meekly submit to the precedence accorded the bosses from the headquarters or a regional bureau. Indeed, there are many a slip between the cup and lips, when it comes to putting professional rhetoric into practice. Lusty, lofty claims were made over the very provisions enshrined in Nepal’s 1990 Constitution but it took 17 years for the relevant Act to navigate through the parliamentary process. The manner in which information is parted with makes the substantive difference between revealing and concealing.
To their credit, Nepal’s private radio broadcasting services, well into the four-figure mark, are a running commentary and standing testimony of a sterling aspect of free speech — something not to be found in most countries, including those listed as economically advanced.
Those who compromise the media through planted pawns and dubious businesses are predators, who talk of freedom but queer the pitch against the universally prescribed media professional practices. Low public ratings of news outlets in countries described as the freest and professional by agencies their country folks fund highlight the scale of trust deficit. Studies in the US and Europe indicate that barely 40 per cent of the audiences trust the media.
All good things come to end. BBC’s good streak ran for long. Its imperial era, the post-World War II decades and the commonwealth years saw it ride the crest of wide popular approval. By the onset of the new millennium, the urge of audiences for alternative information outlets tossed up new channels that enabled audiences to compare and contrast the fares offered by the old and the new.
Headquartered in Qatar, Al Jazeera broadcasting network has given the traditionally dominant media the jitters. A vice-like grip of monopoly by a few big media groups have, of late, begun to shake and slowly crack. The Russians and the Chinese have launched their versions of alternative channels, making modest efforts at giving alternative views to what the Western media present or overlook. India’s Doordarshan, too, is toying with the idea of launching a global broadcasting service.
Less content but professionally sound and all-inclusive approach should suit the BBC fine and enable it to cruise ahead in the ever overcrowded field of news outlets and mass communications channels, whose combined fares are already an overload on audiences. No matter what the conditions, unwavering professional approach and content quality should stand in good stead to all. Of note is that BBC World Service is secure in financial terms, thanks to its dependence on the foreign ministry for full support rather than fees from individual resident households.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)