Image Credits - K. Mitch Hodge

The BBC, public enemy no.1?

By Samuel Rafanell-Williams

How do young brits feel about the 101 year old British Broadcasting Corporation

Almost every school morning for ten years, my dad would put on the Today Programme on Radio 4 whilst driving us into town. I remember the voice of James Naughtie narrating our journey on that over-familiar route through Edinburgh whilst the car gradually warmed and blood returned to my freezing fingers. On many evenings we would have the 6 o’clock news on the little television in our kitchen whilst we ate dinner. Sometimes I sat at the table long after the meal was finished, mesmerised in that way only young kids are by television. The imagery of colourful, refracted studios is imprinted in my mind’s eye, even now, as well as the recurring settings of reportage: Downing Street in the rain, the Westminster lobby, the Kabul skyline and the White House lawn. When a particularly distressing news item was inevitably covered, my dad would promptly switch the TV off.

After I left home for university, I didn’t have a car in which to listen to the radio. Neither did I have a television. I was rarely up early enough to listen to the Today Programme anyway, and my mealtimes didn’t exactly align with the televised news. What I did have was a laptop and a smartphone – Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, an infinity of media resources completely untethered from any kind of broadcast schedule. In the chaos and irregularity of being an undergraduate, the BBC dropped out of my daily life completely. And I hardly noticed it.

2016 was both my first year at university and the first year in which social media outstripped television as the primary source of news for young people in the US and UK. A number of years later, I find myself returning to the BBC with considerable fascination. I still don’t have a car with a radio and I’m still not a licence-fee payer. However, I’m gradually coming to realise the extent to which certain epochal episodes of history during my adolescence were narrated almost solely by the public broadcaster: The war on terror, The financial crash, austerity, the student protest movement, the Arab Spring, the Scottish independence referendum.

The BBC remains the dominant source of news for the British public at large, despite the emergence and growth of alternative news broadcasters (Talk TV, Times Radio, GB News, LBC) and the generally pressurising effects of social media on legacy outlets. But whilst the BBC persists as a monumental cultural institution in the UK, is it possible that the broadcaster is gradually losing its faculty to facilitate national social cohesion, and instead is becoming the source of a profound social division?

Claims of a crisis of legitimacy in the BBC can be overstated. According to YouGov data from 2023, the BBC still enjoys the highest rates of trust of any news outlet amongst the British public. However, looking closer at this data at the opposite end of the spectrum, we can see that the BBC also has the highest rates of mistrust amongst all major television broadcasters except GB News, with 22% of those polled describing the BBC as either “untrustworthy” or “very untrustworthy”. These figures indicate that certain substantial demographics in the UK find themselves alienated from the BBC as a public institution, although exactly who these people are and on what grounds they distrust the broadcaster would require much more detailed evidence than polling can allow for. 

What is evident is that the BBC is the subject of constant criticism from both the right and left in mainstream political discourse. Instances such as Emily Maitlis’ controversial interview over Brexit animated accusations of bias from Leave voters. The suspension of Gary Lineker after he Tweeted criticism of Tory immigration policy led to an extended public outrage during which the supposed editorial independence of the BBC from the government was openly questioned. These are just discrete instances in which the broadcaster has alienated politically diverse portions of the UK public. The divided attitudes towards the BBC are aptly symbolised by the more recent news that of the 1,500 complaints received over coverage of the current conflict in Palestine and Israel, exactly half accused the broadcaster of bias in favour of Israel, whilst the other half contended bias against it.

However, being subject to criticism from both sides of the political spectrum should not be taken as evidence that the BBC is necessarily fulfilling its impartiality commitments. Recently, doubts about the BBC’s political independence were raised around the appointment of Richard Sharp, a former Tory donor, as the corporation’s chairman, even before he was discovered to have facilitated a massive loan for then prime-minister Boris Johnson – an issue over which he subsequently resigned. Johnson’s appointment of Sir Robbie Gibb, formerly the director of communications in Theresa May’s government, to the BBC’s board likewise raised questions about the probity of staffing senior posts of a public-service broadcaster with party affiliates. It is only reasonable that elements of the British public should be sceptical of the BBC when it has undergone so many high-profile controversies surrounding its political independence in recent years.

I for one, as someone who now watches the BBC as a media student, am less convinced of a clear political bias in its coverage than I used to be. What is more evident is that the broadcaster has a sustained bias in favour of the interests of the British state, whichever party happens to be in government. Extensive scholarly studies by the Glasgow University Media Group over the past 50 years have focused on the framing and source-selection biases prevalent in BBC coverage of issues ranging from domestic industrial relations to foreign policy. Media sociologist Tom Mills’ recent book documents the broadcaster’s consistent historical alignment with government framing of war and, more recently, economic austerity. And in my case, the instance which most clearly revealed the true function of the BBC was its coverage of Queen Elizabth II’s death. This was a surreal moment in British history which has so far been curiously under-discussed by media critics. It was a textbook case of what scholars would call a ‘media ritual’: a national-scale public relations campaign – led by the BBC – to reinforce and legitimise this country’s possibly most regressive public institution, with any commitment to balance or impartiality utterly abandoned.

I will continue watching and listening to the BBC, alongside other more independent news outlets, with constant scepticism. In a world where our choice in news information is practically limitless, I still think it’s important for socially engaged young people to engage with the public-service broadcaster, even if we might feel increasingly alienated by its coverage of certain issues or its pro-establishment positionality in general. Like it or not, the BBC is here to stay as an institutional monolith in British public life, and there is much to learn from attending to its political and cultural output, as a staunch critic, faithful listener or otherwise.


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