The BBC is facing its biggest funding threat yet – and there are parallels to ABC

The BBC is getting ready for celebrations to mark its centenary. Yet there is a grim irony in the news that this may be the year it faces the greatest threat to its existence.

Britain’s culture minister, Nadine Dorries, has confirmed that the government intends to abolish the company’s existing funding model, based on its licensing fee, after 2027.

Mrs Dorries has also suggested that the fee would be “frozen” for two years, anything other than securing huge cuts in BBC production and staff.

At this point, I should reveal that I worked for the BBC as a senior journalist between 2012 and 2020 – before joining ABC – and have seen the organization go through periods of crises and cuts from up close.

However, this is different.

The timing of the latest announcement has been met with skepticism by parts of the media and the government.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in the midst of an onslaught of criticism over reports of multiple parties being held at 10 Downing Street – his home and office – while COVID-19 restrictions were in place.

If reports are to be believed, his leadership can be challenged any day now.

A major overhaul of how the BBC is funded is likely to prove popular with members of his Conservative party, as well as sections of the media – both groups holding his fate in their hands.

The leader of the British Liberal Democrats has been picky in his assessment and tweeted: “Cutting back on the financing of a beloved national tax just because you do not like the headlines on the news at 6 o’clock is no way for a responsible government in a democracy to build. “

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Public broadcasting at the mercy of politics

Whether politically motivated or not, the writing has been on the wall for the BBC for some time.

In 2010, the license fee was frozen for six years, which meant that it did not increase in line with inflation.

This led to a budget cut of about 16 percent in fixed prices as the company also picked up the bill for other services.

There are parallels to ABC.

In 2018, the Turnbull government froze ABC’s funding, leading to a round of cuts and layoffs across the board.

But while ABC has been at the mercy of the government for its funding, the BBC’s funding model has kept it largely protected from falling victim to the policies of the day.

The BBC is funded through a licensing fee, essentially an extra annual tax that every UK citizen who owns a TV must pay.

That licensing fee is currently £ 159 ($ 301) and brings in more than £ 3.5 billion a year.

It pays for a wide range of services: TV channels, radio stations, websites, streaming platforms and podcasts, just to name a few.

Failure to pay the license fee can result in a fine and in some cases a criminal conviction.

In the past decade, the number of people evading the TV license has increased slightly from 5.2 percent in 2010-11 to 7.25 percent in 2019-20.

Ms Dorries claims this is an important reason to scrap the license fee, saying: “The days when seniors were threatened with prison sentences and bailiff knocks on doors are over.”

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However, data from a briefing from the lower house in the United Kingdom show that support for the license fee has actually increased among the general population over the past five years.

The global television station

So it’s a model that’s kept the BBC well funded for decades, but – with the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime – it’s a model that’s also more and more unsustainable.

The BBC now faces two threats to its bottom line: the abolition of the license fee and the potential freeze that will require immediate and deep cuts in production.

Where these cuts fall will have profound consequences for the future of the BBC.

Like ABC has, the BBC will have to decide whether to shut down entire parts of its production – such as taking a channel out of the air or pulling a high-profile program like Newsnight – or spreading cuts across the output, a process known internally as “salami cutting”.

Spreading the cuts across the whole organization allows programs to remain in the air – and postpones any difficult decisions by the BBC’s management on which areas to remove forever – but it also leads to a real and noticeable drop in quality.

And this is where we all have something to lose.

The BBC is more than a TV station or a content creator. In the UK, its audience reach and cultural dominance means it sets the bar for the wider national media – and it sets the bar high.

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But the reach and impact of the BBC extends far beyond Britain.

The BBC’s global audience is likely to exceed 500 million this year. In America alone, nearly 50 million people say they regularly use BBC content.

A poll for the Reuters Digital News Report 2020 showed that the BBC was the second most trusted media brand in the United States, just behind “local television”.

But it is in emerging economies that its impact is felt most.

In India – which is languishing in the bottom 25 percent of the World Press Freedom Index and where local journalists are increasingly threatened – more than 60 million people regularly watch and listen to the BBC.

Before the Taliban returned to power, nearly a third of Afghanistan’s population consumed BBC news content.

And in African nations like Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya, tens of thousands of people watch or listen to the BBC every day.

In all these regions, the BBC provides national and international news in local languages.

The company currently broadcasts in 42 languages, across television, radio and online. Russian, Mandarin, Pashto, Urdu, Pidgin and more. All for free.

Many of the journalists who work for these services are born in the countries they report to. They know their patches better than anyone else and are committed to the BBC’s values ​​of impartiality.

The BBC says their foreign services help sustain “global democracy through accurate, impartial and independent news reporting”.

Just an example: The organization’s Africa Eye survey team has been responsible for bringing some of the biggest news across the continent in recent years. In 2021, the team revealed the inequalities at the heart of Nigeria’s pension system, which also revealed corruption in parts of the government.

This is a very important story for the 200 million people living in Nigeria, but one that many major Western businesses are unlikely to invest in because they know it will not register with their audience and lead to the vital “clicks”. “.

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Currently, much of this journalism is funded through grants from the UK Foreign Office and not from the license fee.

This work is subsidized by the government because they are aware of the soft power that the BBC exercises and the positive effect it has on Britain’s image internationally.

But when the ax falls, it is likely that these language services may also be affected – either through direct cuts or through a drop in quality as other parts of the organization falter, the so-called ‘salami slicing’.

Cuts in operations mean fewer camera operators are available to hop on a plane and respond to the latest news.

News collection cuts mean fewer people on earth around the world.

The BBC is a multi-headed beast, but that does not mean that cuts in one area do not affect another.

Alternative financing models

A number of alternatives to the license fee have been proposed. But the fact that no one has been traded is a sign of their various shortcomings.

A charge on broadband connections would be closest to the current model. But there are concerns that this could make internet access prohibitively expensive for some.

Getting the BBC funded directly by the government, just as ABC is, has been debated for many years.

However, BBC leaders do not support this model, as they are worried that it would leave them at the mercy of today’s government and expose them to questions of editorial independence.

Then there are ads. Making the BBC a commercial network has previously been proclaimed by members of the Conservative Party.

But a BBC chasing the same eyes and crowns as other commercial networks will hardly invest in stories and programs that appeal to a smaller niche audience.

Conservative politicians are also talking about the BBC becoming a subscription service, like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Mrs Dorries says the BBC needs to compete with these services in a way that only the free market can allow.

A woman in a brown dress walks across the frame and looks at the camera.
British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries says it’s time to discuss new ways to fund UK content. (Reuters: Henry Nicholls)

Negotiations with the government have not been concluded. The BBC will continue to push for robust funding.

And if there is a change of government within the next five years, it is likely that some, or all, of these plans may be scrapped.

Wisdom in danger

When I was employed by the BBC, there was a journalist named Hamid Ismailov who worked for the World Service in London.

He was an expert on Central Asia who had been deported from Uzbekistan after serving the government’s anger there.

During unrest in Uzbekistan, he took to the air to carefully explain what was happening, while offering a fair and balanced analysis of the very government that deported him.

He is also an award-winning poet and novelist. His works are banned in Uzbekistan.

I mention him, not because he’s unique on the BBC, but because he’s not.

There are hundreds of journalists like him – a collective millennium of wisdom and knowledge that cannot be found anywhere else.

Now, you may not give any of them a Netflix special, but we all need their expertise at some point.

The BBC and the British government have a challenge on their hands: How to make the organization viable and relevant as it enters its second century, without losing the people and programs that make it what it is completely unique.

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