The furore over the BBC’s Israel-Gaza coverage shows how strong and independent it needs to be

Pat Younge Chair of the British Broadcasting Challenge. Former chief creative officer of BBC Television. 24th October 2023
BBC correspondent Rushdi Abualouf reports from a camp in Gaza, where thousands of displaced people are living in tents.

BBC correspondent Rushdi Abualouf reports from a camp in Gaza, where thousands of displaced people are living in tents.

As the violence in Gaza continues, Pat Younge argues that we need a strong, independent and modern BBC to report the events properly. 

The BBC operates under the most intense scrutiny of any media organisation in the world. This has never been more apparent than over recent days, as the world comes to terms with an unimaginable massacre in Israel and the aftermath for Gaza and the wider Middle East. Some accuse the corporation of cowardice in the face of acts of terrorism by Hamas, others accuse it of cowardice in the face of alleged state terrorism by Israel. A number of politicians and media outlets, most with not well hidden agendas, have chosen to see the BBC as the issue on which to concentrate.

They are right.

The BBC is the issue because a strong, well-funded and editorially independent BBC has never been more important for an informed democracy than it is today. But during the past few years government policy on the BBC’s future has focused on marginalising or weakening it, including questioning its impartiality and significantly eroding its funding. This policy of attacking the BBC and starving it of funds has proved to be a strategy of national self-harm.

That’s how we find ourselves, in the middle of two major international conflicts, with the BBC having to make further cuts to news and current affairs budgets when it should be investing in next generation factchecking services such as BBC Verify. This is happening alongside output being slashed on television, the World Service and the decimation of truly local BBC radio, all a direct consequence of 30% cuts to the BBC’s budget since 2010.

So, even though the BBC is still relied on and envied by much of the rest of the world, there should be little wonder that the people who fund it, the British public, increasingly question its ability to deliver on its historical mission.

It is time for a new course. A group of us are proposing ways to restore the BBC to its proper position as one of our country’s great institutions, uniquely placed to project Britain and its values on a global scale. Our past calls in defence of the BBC’s public broadcast legacy have been supported by many, including David Attenborough, Lenny Henry, the late Hilary Mantel, and others who believe in the BBCs unique contribution to the cultural and social fabric of this country. Here is what we must do.

First, we need to re-establish the independence of the BBC, taking it out of the realms of short-term and partisan party politics. It must be clearly and fully insulated from political influence. Obviously, the prime minister should not personally appoint the chair of the BBC; there should be a genuinely independent public appointments process. And there must be greater public participation in BBC decision-making, through mechanisms like citizens’ juries and people’s assemblies.

Second, the charter renewal process likewise needs greater public engagement and a wholly independent funding mechanism, which should protect universal access to all BBC content, but take account of income when determining fees. Given today’s levels of inequality, the flat rate licence fee has had its day.

Third, we must change the British Broadcasting Corporation to make it fit for the world of today. BBCiPlayer, the news app and Sounds are good, as far as they go, but social media channels have now become a major global source of news discovery, consumption and debate. These channels are owned and dominated by predominately foreign, mainly American, tech moguls. They have no obligation to protect or promote British culture and cultural values, while their business model promotes division and conspiracy. Meanwhile Twitter’s (now X) descent into a cesspit of misinformation and disinformation shows these channels cannot be relied on for factual accuracy either.

The Nobel peace prize winner, Maria Ressa said: “Without facts you can’t have truth. Without truth you can’t have trust. Without all three, we have no shared reality, and democracy as we know it – and all meaningful human endeavours – are dead.”

The rich have always had access to good information, but if our democracy is to stay healthy it is essential that everyone has access to free, trustworthy, accurate and impartial information. We believe the BBC is the one British institution with the scale, global reach and editorial authority to create and protect this new and necessary, trusted digital public space. Such a space should be open to all of the UK public service broadcasters, and could come under the regulatory purview of Ofcom – a more achievable objective than policing the entirety of the web.

Facts. Truth. Trust. Independent from party politics and properly funded for the future. We believe these are the calling cards of a revitalised BBC, recognised as an element of critical national infrastructure, for an age in which an informed citizenry is the crucial bulwark against a descent into chaos. To achieve this we propose a genuine debate about the kind of BBC we want. A BBC backed by its citizens is a powerful and achievable idea.

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

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