Television & New Media
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“Public Service” and the
Journalism Crisis: Is the
BBC the Answer?
Professional journalism is under extraordinary pressure: not only are its traditional
business models under enormous strain but it is also regularly accused by the Right
of peddling ‘fake news’ and criticized by the Left for failing to play a robust monitorial
role. In this situation, there is a temptation to see public service media, and the BBC
in particular, as beacons of light in an otherwise gloomy picture. This article attempts
to provide a note of caution to those who see the public service model as the most
effective means of holding power to account and as the most desirable alternative to
the flawed news cultures of both commercial and authoritarian landscapes. It considers
some of the structural and institutional factors that constrain the BBC’s journalism
and suggests that its intimate relationship with elite power has long undermined its
ability to act as a reliable and independent check on power.
public service broadcasting, BBC, public media, media capture, journalism, impartiality
The Allure of the BBC
If journalism is in crisis (Anderson et al. 2014; Pickard 2011), then who or what can
save it? Of course, this crisis takes many forms, yet whether the crisis affects the for-
merly stable professional models of liberal democracies or authoritarian environments
characterized by clientelism and complicity, one potential solution is regularly pro-
posed: an independent public service news media that is strong enough to defy the
pressure of both government and market and to serve citizens without fear or favor. In
this heady narrative, it is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in particular that
1Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Des Freedman, Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, New
Cross, London SE14 6NW, UK.
760985TVNXXX10.1177/1527476418760985Television & New MediaFreedman
2 Television & New Media 00(0)
is often claimed to offer the best prospect of impartial, high-quality journalism that is
insulated from narrow considerations of profits or politics.
So, for example, in an interesting collection of case studies that demonstrate how
media in a range of countries—from Latin America to Eastern Europe and from Kenya to
China—have been “captured” by a combination of government and business interests
(Schiffrin 2017), the promotion of “transparently funded public service media” is held up
as a key policy measure that would help address the problem of capture (Nelson 2017). In
the same volume, the economist Joseph Stiglitz recognizes that while many public service
broadcasters are hostages of state power, there is nevertheless an important distinction
between public ownership and government capture: the “BBC and other public broad-
casters are an example of successful government ownership in that programming is bal-
anced, objective, and representative of diverse viewpoints” (Stiglitz 2017, 13). In his own
chapter, Nielsen (2017, 36–37) describes the BBC as “the most famous example of public
service media” that continues to operate with “a high degree of autonomy from govern-
ment and Parliament secured through multi-year charters.”
The attraction of a fearless public service news provider is especially strong in
commercial systems such as the one in the United States, an environment in which the
media’s role as a trusted source of information and facilitator of rational dialogue has
been comprehensively undermined and contested. News outlets, far from remaining
above the ravages of partisan battles and ratings wars, have instead been contaminated
by precisely those same forces. Coverage of the 2016 election, for example, was
relentlessly negative and extraordinarily light on policy, which occupied just one-tenth
of all reports, nowhere near the 42 percent of coverage that was devoted to horserace
coverage of the campaign (Patterson 2016). This is a system in which, because of its
fundamentally commercial orientation, the “elite media” were enthralled by the spec-
tacle of a candidate they professed to abhor but which they literally could not afford to
ignore. The comment by the CEO of CBS that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good
for America but it’s damn good for CBS” (quoted in Pickard 2017) was far from a slip
of the tongue but an honest description of the system’s underlying logic.
So it comes as little surprise to learn that, according to a 2016 poll conducted by the
Reynolds Journalism Institute (Kearney 2017, 16), four of the ten most trusted news
sources for U.S. audiences are from outside the United States, indeed all from the
United Kingdom: the Guardian, the Economist, Reuters, and of course, the BBC. This
confirms data from the Pew Research Center, which revealed that the BBC was one of
the very few organizations that were trusted by American audiences from across the
ideological spectrum—with even those people described as “consistently conserva-
tive,” recording that they believed the BBC was “about equally trusted as distrusted”
(Pew Research Center 2014, 5). Forbes magazine, reflecting this view, notes that the
BBC “is the global standard bearer for excellence in broadcast radio and TV journal-
ism,” sighing, “[i]f only U.S. cable news outlets could follow the BBC’s recipe”
(Glader 2017). Bill Moyers echoes this praise when insisting that, to counter the influ-
ence of Fox News, the United States needs “a journalism more in the mold of the BBC
at its best—unafraid of power and not complicit with it, reporting what conventional
journalism overlooked or wouldn’t touch” (quoted in Hertsgaard 2017). Emily Bell,
the director of Columbia University’s Tow Centre and someone who is very familiar
with British journalism, has also argued that “America needs a radical new market
intervention” along the lines of the BBC, one that is “independent of individuals or
corporations” (Bell 2017). In an age of both hyperpartisanship and hypercommercial-
ism, a public service organization such as the BBC, which is often seen as independent
of the market and of government, publicly owned, sufficiently resourced, and free of
advertising, appears to offer a genuinely refreshing alternative.
What these commentators (and many audiences) want is a body to report on U.S. poli-
tics that is somehow removed from the corrupting loyalties and bruising skirmishes of
everyday life and, therefore, able to provide a more impartial perspective. For some theo-
rists (e.g., Benson 2011; Pickard 2015), public service media offer a significant, if limited,
space for critical coverage, diverse voices, and independent journalism and are a neces-
sary counterweight to the failures of commercial journalism. For others (and this applies
to many of the writers referred to in previous paragraphs), public service can perform a
more enduring and trusted monitorial role, such as that of the “stranger” discussed by the
German social theorist Georg Simmel at the start of the twentieth century. These wander-
ing figures, for Simmel, have long played a vital role in how societies come to see them-
selves, precisely because of their ability to take a “birds-eye view” of the world around
them, something sadly missing from the silos and echo chambers that are said to dominate
the contemporary news and information environment (Pariser 2011).
Because he is not bound by roots to the particular constituents and partisan dispositions
of the group, he confronts all of these with a distinctly “objective” attitude, an attitude
that does not signify mere detachment and non-participation, but is a distinct structure
composed of remoteness and nearness, indifference and involvement. (Simmel 
Simmel insists that strangers are able, even with the harassment that many of them
faced, to exercise a kind of independence not available to what he calls “organically
connected persons.” The stranger
is the freer man, practically and theoretically; he examines conditions with less prejudice,
he assesses them against standards that are more general and more objective; and his
actions are not confined by custom, piety or precedent. (Simmel  1971, 146)
This is a powerful normative evocation of journalism as a fourth estate: news organi-
zations that are protected both from narrowly commercial considerations and partisan
affiliations and thus able to speak truth to power. Of course, most public service insti-
tutions are not “outsiders” in their own domains but, instead, quite the opposite: con-
stitutive forces of national identity and what it means to be an “insider.” They are not
strangers but primary definers of the territory in which “others” are designated and
recognized as strangers (Ahmed 2000). Far from being able to escape “custom, piety
or precedent,” public service broadcasters in particular are intimately tied to notions of
tradition, heritage, and boundary-making. So when it comes to “actually existing”
4 Television & New Media 00(0)
public service institutions such as the BBC, Simmel’s moving account of truth-telling
and fearlessness may not stand up to meaningful scrutiny.
Indeed, I argue in this article that the BBC, as the most important institutional
enactment of public service ideals, is perhaps the ultimate “insider” (at least in relation
to its “home” state) and, therefore, a very unreliable ally in the battle to deliver hard-
hitting journalism, to restore trust, and to resolve the journalism crisis. Far from retain-
ing its independence from all vested interests, and delivering a critical and robust
public interest journalism, the BBC is a compromised version of a potentially noble
ideal: far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able
to offer an effective challenge to them.
When offering this line of critique, I should make it clear that I have little sympathy
for the arguments of conservative critics of the BBC in Parliament, the press, and even
in its own midst. Consider Robin Aitken, a former BBC journalist, whose book on his
time in the newsroom berates the Corporation for being a hotbed of left-wing ideas and
a bastion of political correctness (Aitken 2007). The BBC, he claims,
Is passionately against racism, in favour of “human rights,” supportive of internationalism,
suspicious of traditional national identity and consequently strongly pro-EU; it is
feminist, secular and allergic to established authority in the form of the Crown, the courts,
the police or the churches. (Aitken 2007, 12–13)
The problem with this line of attack is not only how odd it would be if the BBC was
actively in favor of racism and opposed to “human rights” and internationalism (as if
those latter two were things to be ashamed of) but that these claims, as I shall show,
simply do not stand up to empirical analysis. Indeed, these arguments have long been
put forward as a means to weaken the BBC specifically to expand the space for com-
mercial provision inside the British media environment (Booth 2016; Green 1991).
Precisely because of these attacks, there is an understandable reluctance among pro-
gressives to criticize the BBC for fear that they may give ground to would-be privatiz-
ers. However, this need not mean ignoring significant problems underlying the BBC’s
news culture and organizational structures, and if we are to celebrate the principles
behind public provision of the media, then we also need an honest accounting of the
performance of actually existing public service institutions.
The article first explores normative definitions of public service media in more
detail and then considers some of the structural and institutional factors that shape the
BBC’s news output and that constrain its truth-telling potential.1 The article concludes
by urging citizens, in whatever country they are based, not to turn to an admirable but
flawed institutional model to rescue them from hypercommercial polarization or
authoritarian capture but to struggle for public media that are meaningfully indepen-
dent of all vested interests.
Normative Dimensions of Public Service Media
Public media—including one of their most historic embodiments, public service
broadcasting—stand in contradistinction to environments where the main concern is
either to generate revenue for corporations or to generate publicity for governments.
They are a crucial example of the “corrective surgery” that is necessary to compensate
for the tendency of markets to underserve minority audiences and counter-hegemonic
perspectives, and for authoritarian regimes to neglect them entirely. Public service
media, argues Nicholas Garnham (1994, 8), are based on the rejection of “the market
definition of broadcasting as the delivery of a set of distinct commodities to consumers
rather than as the establishment of a communicative relationship.” They are designed
not to sell or propagandize but to facilitate public knowledge, meaningful dialogue,
and collective representation. In principle, they are “merit goods,” vital for democratic
interaction but unlikely to generate the revenue necessary to sustain their production
and, thus, in need of subsidies and support mechanisms that nevertheless do not com-
promise their independence. Public service media are the green vegetables that are
necessary to offset the impact of the sugary content that would otherwise pollute our
bodies and that have, as Paddy Scannell (1989, 136) once memorably put it, “unobtru-
sively contributed to the democratization of everyday life.”
Critical and comparative research seems to back up this democracy-enhancing
potential.2 Ramsey (2017) focuses on public service’s contribution to original content,
while Curran et al. (2009, 22) suggest that “the public service model of broadcasting
gives greater attention to public affairs and international news, and thereby fosters
greater knowledge in these areas, than the market model.” Other researchers claim that
public service media facilitate greater amounts of, for example, creative competition
(Padovani and Tracey 2003), source diversity (Tiffen et al. 2014), political engage-
ment (Baek 2009), and social trust (Schmitt-Beck and Wolsing 2010) than do their
commercial counterparts. There is, of course, following on from Hallin and Mancini
(2004), no uniform model of public service delivery or predetermined institutional
shape and, therefore, no standard measure of its contribution to democracy. This is a
crucial point for those seeking to democratize existing public service structures.
Yet there are also voices and organizations that argue that public service broadcast-
ing, even as currently organized, constitutes an unadulterated public good. Peter
Bazalgette, the chairman of the British commercial broadcaster ITV, has recently
described public service television news as generating “the trusted news that informs
our democracy in an era of widespread fakery, the original programmes that help
define our national culture, and the economic growth and international influence that
flow from our creative excellence” (Bazalgette 2017). UNESCO argues that public
service broadcasting systems, underpinned by editorial independence, accountability,
and transparency, can serve as a “cornerstone of democracy” (UNESCO 2008, 54),
while the European Broadcasting Union (EBU 2016) found that countries with a
strong public service media ethic had a higher degree of press freedom, increased
voter turnout in elections, less corruption, and even lower levels of right-wing extrem-
ism than those without a public service orientation.
It is, however, a myth to think that actually existing public service media, as
opposed to our normative conceptions of what they ought to be, are somehow auto-
matically able to stimulate cosmopolitan viewpoints and higher levels of knowledge
about the world, to act independently of elites, and to be accountable to their users.
6 Television & New Media 00(0)
Evidence shows that public media have, at different times and in different circum-
stances (Benson et al. 2017), offered a more insightful and rigorous oversight of politi-
cal culture than their commercial counterparts, and when they do so, they should be
applauded. However, not only does this speak more to the structural flaws of commer-
cial news systems rather than the intrinsic performance of public media, but it is also
highly contingent. Public service media can be just as intertwined—through funding
arrangements, elite capture, and modes of governance—with the specific configura-
tions of political power in their “home” states as commercial media. According to
Benson et al. (2017, 2), the undoubted democratic possibilities of public service media
are, at times, offset by the fact that “some publicly funded broadcasters are less than
civically optimal, producing content that uncritically reflects the views of those in
positions of power or that fails to attract audiences representative of the citizenry as a
whole.” The ability to realize the potential of public-ness depends on the extent to
which broadcasters are able, in reality, to extricate themselves from dependent rela-
tions and to offer meaningful scrutiny of established power.
For example, with reference to the EBU’s list of advantages that accrue from public
service media environments, empirical evidence suggests that they are an inconsistent
bulwark against right-wing extremism. In Germany, where the market share for public
service TV is some 43 percent, the far right AfD (Alternative for Germany) secured an
unprecedented 13 percent of the vote in the election in September 2017; the Netherlands,
where public television has a one-third audience share, also saw a vote of 13 percent
for the nationalist PVV (Party for Freedom); Marine Le Pen and her Front National
managed to attract a 34 percent share of the vote in May 2017 despite 30 percent of the
TV audience tuning into public television; finally, Austria, where public television has
a 35 percent audience share, nevertheless saw a vote of 46 percent for the Freedom
Party candidate in the presidential election of December 2016.3 Public service broad-
casters alone cannot guarantee low levels of right-wing extremism, not least because,
far from addressing the structural problems and political crises that are exploited by
far right parties, these broadcasters are often attacked by the far right who perceive
them to be part of a ruling and corrupt establishment—precisely as we have seen in
Germany (Schwartz 2016). Of course there are many variables behind the rise and fall
of the far right, but my point is that it is unrealistic to expect that public service media
will be able either naturally to transcend the tensions and polarization that mark their
wider political environment or to establish themselves as fully independent of power
elites wherever they exist.
The Structure and Performance of the BBC
What evidence is there to support this argument and what are some of the factors that
constrain the BBC’s ability to represent the whole of the country back to itself and to
hold power to account?
First, its governance structure has always been subject to political interference and
influence. Appointments to its most senior positions have long been effectively over-
seen by government ministers and reflect an overwhelming preference for top
executives, civil servants, and generally what is described in the United Kingdom as
“the great and the good”—in other words those trusted by the Establishment to “hold
the line.” “In reality,” argues Mills (2016, 24),
the Corporation’s governors and trustees have been appointed by the leader and close
advisors of the current ruling party. By convention, they have been non-partisan
appointments, unable to interfere with programme making. But these appointees, most of
all the BBC chair, have often been highly politicised and interventionist.
For example, Rona Fairhead, the outgoing chair of the BBC’s former regulator, the
BBC Trust, was a nonexecutive chairman of HSBC holdings for many years and chair-
man and CEO of the Financial Times. Soon after leaving the BBC in 2017, the govern-
ment offered her a life peerage together with a role as an international development
minister. The incoming chair of the new BBC Board, Sir David Clementi, is a former
chairman of Prudential Insurance and actually got the job after the government invited
him to design a new governance framework—in other words, he wrote the rulebook of
which he was the first beneficiary. Five of the current fourteen-strong Board are gov-
ernment appointees—a figure that would have been far higher if not for the vigorous
opposition to the government’s initial plan to pack the Board with its own nominations
(Tran 2016). This is not the recipe for a truly independent governance structure.
Senior editorial appointments also reflect an underlying commitment to an aggres-
sive defense of the status quo. For example, the outgoing head of news, James Harding,
is a former journalist at the Financial Times and editor of The Times, part of the Rupert
Murdoch stable of newspapers, while its political editors in recent years—including
Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson, and Laura Kuenssberg—are (perhaps necessarily)
establishment “insiders,” loyal to the perpetuation of the “Westminster consensus,” a
distinctly British version of reporting from “inside the Beltway.” There is, in addition,
a long history of movement between the upper echelons of the BBC and the govern-
ments of all persuasions—a “revolving door” illustrated most recently by the journey
of Robbie Gibb from Conservative Central Office in the 1990s to top editorial posi-
tions at the BBC before departing in July 2017 to be prime minister Theresa May’s
head of communications (R. Mason 2017). “The circulation of such figures back and
forth between the BBC and pro-business factions in both major parties mirrors, at a
lower level, the circulation of elites at the apex of the BBC hierarchy, which has been
a feature of the BBC since its establishment” (Mills 2016, 139).
Second, its funding arrangements also prescribe against transparency given that the
level of the license fee (itself a highly regressive form of taxation in that it is a flat fee)
is set in secret discussions between the Treasury and the director general, a situation
that has always laid open the possibility of political intervention and influence. This is
precisely what occurred in the 2015 settlement when the government forced the BBC
to absorb the enormous cost of providing free television licenses for the over-seventy-
fives as part of the Conservative government’s broader welfare agenda, in return for a
small rise in income for the Corporation (Martinson and Plunkett 2015). Ordinary
members of the public may pay for the BBC, but it is the government that effectively
8 Television & New Media 00(0)
sets the terms of debate and is able to use license fee negotiations as a lever with which
to extract certain forms of behavior from the BBC.
Third, the BBC has always recruited from the most privileged sections of the popu-
lation. A 2014 report on social mobility found that one-third of BBC executives came
from Oxford and Cambridge alone in contrast to 0.08 percent of the U.K. population,
while 26 percent went to private school in contrast to 7 percent of the general popula-
tion (Social Mobility and Childhood Poverty Commission 2014, 206). This applies
even to top “talent” where 45 percent were privately educated and where the numbers
of people who went to a nonselective high school could, according to one press report,
be counted “on one hand” (Bulman 2017). Research carried out for the BBC found
that 61 percent of all employees had parents from “higher managerial position and
professional occupations,” roughly double the national average, leading to the
Corporation’s decision to remove details of educational backgrounds from the recruit-
ment process (Ruddick 2017).
The BBC’s record in terms of its recruitment and representation of women and the
minority ethnic population is also a cause for concern. In 2017, as required by the
government, the BBC revealed the salaries of its highest paid stars. The fuss in the end
was less about the amount that was paid out at the very top than to the fact that none
of its highest earners were women or people of color. This was followed in January
2018 by the dramatic resignation of Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s China editor, protesting
against the existence of what she described as a “secretive and illegal” pay culture that
systematically discriminated against women (Ruddick and Slawson 2018).
Additionally, while 13 percent of its workforce comes from a black and minority eth-
nic background, in contrast to 14 percent of the general population, minorities make
up only 6 percent of senior management positions (Ofcom 2017, 18) and are likely to
be overrepresented in some of the lowest paid jobs in cleaning and catering. True, the
BBC is not necessarily worse than some of its commercial rivals, but the idea that a
public service broadcaster would automatically address ingrained structural dispari-
ties is a fantasy.
These practices are likely to affect the ways in which the BBC is received by par-
ticular audiences. While loyalty to and trust in BBC services are much higher than
those of their commercial rivals (BBC 2017, 15), the numbers are far more complex
when it comes to thinking about the ways in which the needs of specific groups are
met. So, for example, the wealthiest audiences are significantly more likely to praise
the BBC’s performance with some 63 percent of the wealthiest households reporting
that the Corporation offers them at least “quite a bit” of what they need compared with
only 47 percent of the poorest households (ICM Unlimited 2016, 22). There are also
regional and ethnic disparities in terms of audience satisfaction: while 72 percent of
Londoners feel adequately represented by BBC news output, only 52 percent of those
in the South and South East and 50 percent of those in the North East and Cumbria feel
the same way (ICM Unlimited 2016, 41); 45 percent of minorities agree that “the BBC
is good at representing my ethnic group,” a figure that drops to 43 percent for black
audiences, albeit a dramatic increase from 2014 when the figure stood at a mere 32
percent (ICM Unlimited 2016, 44). The BBC, in other words, reflects rather than tran-
scends the underlying inequalities of the political geography of the United Kingdom.
These institutional factors also have important consequences for the actual content
of news coverage. While the BBC claims scrupulously to adhere to its obligation to
respect “due impartiality,” this is a conception of newsroom behavior that deliberately
bows down to a prevailing neoliberal consensus organized around notions of what is
considered in elite circles to constitute a desirable “middle ground” (P. Mason 2017).
This refers to the celebrated “conventional wisdom of the day,” a phrase used by Nick
Robinson, formerly the BBC’s chief political correspondent and still one of its leading
broadcasters, to describe a narrow set of ideas about, for example, economics, immi-
gration, and foreign policy that helps to ground its coverage (N. Robinson 2017).
Thus, views that run counter to a market sensibility and that would have been part of
a mainstream critical standpoint twenty years ago have gradually come to be seen as
eccentric, marginal, and unrealistic—although, of course, the growing popularity of
the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on precisely such a platform is likely to put pressure
on this conception of the “middle ground.”
The point, however, is that “impartiality,” while for some an admirable professional
objective, is also a way in which, in recent years, a market consensus has come to be
normalized, legitimized, and seen to be effectively inevitable. As Owen Jones has
argued, “the BBC is a perfect vehicle for the Establishment, as it allows the free-mar-
ket status quo to be portrayed as a neutral, apolitical stance” (Jones 2014, 120) when
it is instead a deliberate political choice. The BBC does not have the shrill, overt bias
of, for example, U.S. cable news channels but quietly and paternalistically presides
over and protects a “centre ground,” partly of its own making, which is being chal-
lenged both from left and right. Political centrists may argue that this is precisely what
is needed to reconcile warring factions in polarized political environments. There is,
however, another argument: that a public service broadcaster needs constantly to inter-
rogate what is meant by the “conventional wisdom of the day,” to distance itself from
routinely reproducing an artificial consensus and, indeed, not to pretend that a consen-
sus is always desirable or possible. These are the lessons of its “risk-averse” approach,
which was revealed in the BBC’s coverage of the Scottish Independence referendum,
Brexit, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.
This is not to argue that there is no space at all for lively debates on the BBC. At
times, it produces content, such as its coverage of the Suez Crisis in 1956 or its criti-
cism of Tony Blair’s drive to war in Iraq in 2003, which is widely seen as uncomfort-
able for the sitting government and, therefore, celebrated as evidence of its ability to
act independently. However, the parameters of these disagreements are extremely lim-
ited and reflect situations in which there are already tensions at the highest levels of
government. Far from these occasions demonstrating the limitless independence of the
Corporation, they reveal instead the extent to which the BBC is an important vehicle
for capturing disagreements that percolate down from establishment sources. Tom
Mills argues that the idea that the BBC’s coverage of Suez was in any way systemati-
cally antigovernment is simply fanciful and that, in the case of the build-up to the
invasion of Iraq in 2003, this was “not a straightforward struggle between an
10 Television & New Media 00(0)
‘independent’ broadcaster and a bullying government, but rather as the most visible
part of something of an imbroglio among the British elite” (Mills 2016, 104).
A number of recent academic studies reveal that while the BBC may be far from
monolithic in its reproduction of elite power, it still fails adequately to represent mar-
ginalized voices and to highlight the more “unconventional” wisdoms of the day, such
as the antiwar case in relation to the invasion of Iraq, antiausterity voices during and
after the 2008 financial crash, and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour
For example, despite claims that the BBC was “far ahead” of its rivals in challeng-
ing the British government’s drive to war in Iraq (Benson et al. 2017, 1), comprehen-
sive analyses of coverage show this not to be the case. Justin Lewis (2003) argues that
the BBC had the most pro-war content of all TV channels, that it used twice the pro-
portion of government sources, and that it was less likely than the other channels to
report on Iraqi casualties. Despite repeated criticisms from government, the BBC “was
often the channel least likely to engage in ‘whingeing and whining’” about the govern-
ment’s case for war. Similarly, in their study of media coverage of the invasion of Iraq,
Piers Robinson et al. (2010, 86) conclude that “whereas the BBC was the focal point
for government anger, it was actually Channel 4 that adopted the more critical stance
toward the war.”
Researchers at Cardiff University conducted a major content analysis of BBC cov-
erage of business in 2007 and 2012, which discovered that business voices receive
substantially more airtime on BBC network news than do its rivals. In relation to cov-
erage of bank bailouts in 2008, “opinion was almost completely dominated by stock-
brokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society
voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance
sector were almost completely absent from coverage” (Berry 2013). More recent anal-
ysis of the coverage of the deficit debate in 2009 found a similar lack of space on the
BBC “available to Keynesian or heterodox economists, academics, labor unions or
other representatives of civil society who might have advocated countercyclical or
anti-austerity policies” (Berry 2016, 850).
Justin Schlosberg (2016) assessed coverage by the main TV news bulletins of the
leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and concluded that BBC evening news bulletins gave
nearly twice as much airtime to critics of the Labour leader than to his supporters dur-
ing a critical period in 2016. This was in stark contrast to the more balanced approach
taken by ITN, its main rival. Schlosberg also looked at the language used in the bul-
letins and found that “the Labour leadership and its supporters were persistently talked
about in terms that emphasised hostility, intransigence and extreme positions”
(Schlosberg 2016, 4), a perspective that appeared out of step with the BBC’s own
Even in its mobilization of “facts,” the Corporation seems far more prepared to
draw on sources closest to power. For example, Cushion et al. (2017, 11) examined the
use by the BBC of statistics in the run-up to the Brexit campaign and found that “sta-
tistical claims that routinely feature in the news appear to reinforce rather than chal-
lenge the institutional voices that have traditionally dominated broadcast programming
and shaped pubic debates” (italics in original). They also found that of the statistics
generated by political parties, some 83 percent of all those used came from one party
alone, the ruling Conservatives (Cushion et al. 2017, 12). The authors argue that this
is not evidence of a systematic bias toward the Conservatives per se but rather toward
the authority of government—whichever government happens to be in power.
So in some of the key issues of the day, the BBC marginalized those voices that
were not part of the established consensus and normalized those closest to official
sources. It may have been “impartial” when debating issues within a narrow window
of elite disagreement but was far more partial about debates it judged not to be reflec-
tive of the “mainstream.” Far from being a hotbed of liberal dissent as Robin Aitken
suggested earlier, the Cardiff researchers concluded back in 2013 that the BBC “tends
to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-
wing, anti-business agenda” (Berry 2013).
There is a term to describe high levels of entanglement between state and media where
the former uses funding, advertising, and direct or indirect subsidies to manage and
control the latter: media capture (Schiffrin 2017). This is a form of soft power rather
than crude or coercive pressure that is placed on media to guide them into submissive
coverage of the state’s affairs. In recent literature, as I mentioned at the start of this
article, this is seen as directly relevant to media environments in places such as Latin
America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Indeed, very often, as I noted, it is
precisely the public service model and, in particular the reputation of the BBC, that is
held up as an answer to the insidious and antidemocratic consequences of “capturing”
states and “captive” media. Yet, as I have tried to show, this is a frame that is just as
relevant to the United Kingdom given just how hard it is for the BBC to remain mean-
ingfully independent either of the governments who surround it or of the establishment
from which it draws in senior personnel and its “conventional wisdom.”
Of course, it is far from a stable and predictable relationship, but it is nevertheless
a very close one. The Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins (2015, 147) describes the
relationship between the BBC and government in terms of a “curious dance” and a
“delicate waltz.” I believe that what is required is a more aggressive step in which each
party stands their ground—perhaps something like capoeira. Yet this is unlikely to
happen given the long-standing administrative and political connections between the
two partners—a relationship full of unspoken assumptions, bureaucratic procedures,
and stubborn hierarchies that help define and police a “centre ground” that, despite (or
because of) the occasional flare-ups between government and broadcaster, works for
the long-term interests of the establishment.
James Curran has famously argued that the abolition of the “taxes on knowledge”
and the commercialization of the British press in the mid-nineteenth century “did not
inaugurate a new era of press freedom” (Curran 2002, 81) but of corporate control.
Perhaps the same argument can be made in relation to public service broadcasting in
the United Kingdom. The creation of the BBC has certainly inhibited and countered
12 Television & New Media 00(0)
prospects for a wholly commercial media system in the United Kingdom, but it seems
to have replaced one form of social control, based on market forces, with another that
is based on state patronage and elite consensus. Public service has come to be as effec-
tive a form of regulating public discourse as market forces were in the second half of
the nineteenth century.
Why does this matter? It matters for audiences in the United Kingdom because
the BBC, through its domestic news output, has been a key institutional mechanism
for reinforcing in recent years a particular form of “common sense”: that the United
Kingdom’s foreign policy interventions are necessarily legitimate despite the odd
mistake, that neoclassical assumptions provided for a rational and rewarding eco-
nomic system despite the odd hiccup and crash, and that opposition to austerity is
the domain of “militants” and the “hard left” even though their arguments would
have been widely accepted forty years ago. This is done in calming tones and with a
well-established voice of authority, but it nevertheless represents the strategic inter-
ests of powerful elites far more than it does the disparate and messy views of domes-
It matters to audiences outside the United Kingdom for two reasons. First, it
reminds us that if we want comprehensively to address the issues that matter in any
country, then neither a journalism that is based on ratings alone nor one that is
allowed to nurture the “conventional wisdom of the day” will be enough. Indeed, it
appears to be the case that by not taking seriously the grievances of voices that lie
outside of this consensus and by continuing to operate within a narrow and comfort-
able “centre ground” even while that center ground is under siege from other forces,
mainstream journalism can find itself in the position of being increasingly irrelevant
to citizens’ concerns. Second, it suggests that while we might want to draw inspira-
tion from the ideals of “public service” when confronting existing journalism crises
and designing potential solutions, we need to remain attentive to the gaps between
individual examples of public service media and the democratic principles that ani-
The vision of a truly public media—one that is genuinely accountable to and repre-
sentative of publics and that scrutinizes elites rather than deferring to them—remains
as relevant as ever. The problem is that actually existing public media, including the
BBC, have been severely constricted in their ability to realize these ambitions. We
need instead to look at ways in which we can stimulate independent public media
provision that fits specific configurations of power in different contexts. For example,
in some countries, it may be possible to fund new and diverse sources of public interest
journalism from the revenue generated by spectrum sales or cross-subsidies from digi-
tal intermediaries and other revenue-rich organizations (see Pickard 2015); in others,
we will need to struggle for constitutional guarantees for transparency and indepen-
dence. In all places, however, we will surely need active and resourceful “media
movements” (Segura and Waisbord 2016) to secure distinctly public forms of com-
munication that are independent of both state and market. If we are to conceive of
communication landscapes that are not controlled by billionaires or bureaucrats, poli-
ticians or moguls, then we ought not to limit our imagination to the structure and
performance of a single flawed and compromised institution, no matter how admirable
its reputation, but to recreate new models from the ground up.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. The article focuses on the BBC’s news provision as distinct from the many other services
and content provided by the Corporation, because of its central contribution to the politi-
cal culture of the United Kingdom. This reflects current regulatory debates on pluralism
where, according to Ofcom, “news and current affairs play the primary role” in delivering
public policy goals concerning the democratic role of the media (Ofcom 2012, 9). It is also
by far the contested policy area. The article also focuses on the BBC’s domestic content, as
opposed to its international services, because that is, after all, its central remit, where the
vast majority of its resources are concentrated, and where the key ideological battles take
place. That would be the case for anyone who wants to copy the BBC model: domestic, not
international, services are likely to be the key legitimating forces. Indeed, it is a testimony
to the BBC’s reputation that its World Service operation appears not to have the same rela-
tionship to “soft power” as Voice of America, Russia Today, or the China Global Television
Network, all of which are more regularly understood in relation to the foreign policy objec-
tives of the host government. This is despite the fact that the biggest expansion of the World
Service since the 1940s—with some eleven new language services due to come online by
2018—was funded by the U.K. government and announced in its 2015 Strategic Defence
and Security Review, a fairly explicit link to the United Kingdom’s strategic interests.
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Des Freedman is a professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of
London. He is the author of “The Contradictions of Media Power” (2014), “The Politics of
Media Policy” (2008), and (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) Misunderstanding the
Internet (2nd edition, 2016). He was a founding member of the Media Reform Coalition and
project lead for the 2016 Puttnam Inquiry into the future of public service television.