Why do people want to “Defund the BBC?”

Why do people want to “Defund the BBC?”
Source: Defund the BBC via The Economist
Organizers and backers of the self-proclaimed “grassroots” effort point to an alleged “far-left” bias in the BBC’s broadcasting, with “Defund the BBC” mirroring calls in the United States to “Defund the police” in the wake of police brutality claims.

Calls to “defund the BBC,” the United Kingdom’s public service broadcaster, have escalated throughout 2020 as organizers of a social media campaign have called on the British public to stop paying their television license fee – the yearly fee that funds the BBC.

2020 has proved a difficult year in many respects for the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation. The coronavirus pandemic has forced media companies to be increasingly frugal with their limited funds and the BBC itself is currently facing political pressure from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, which is reportedly in favor of scrapping license fee payments. The arrival of a new director general at the BBC could signal significant changes for the corporation.

The campaign to “Defund the BBC,” however, is not solely concerned with license fees.

Organizers and backers of the self-proclaimed “grassroots” effort point to an alleged “far-left” bias in the BBC’s broadcasting, with “Defund the BBC” mirroring calls in the United States to “Defund the police” in the wake of police brutality claims.

Despite its critics, public trust in the BBC and of its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic remains higher than its competitors, suggesting that the “grassroots” effort to upend the BBC remains very much a fringe movement.

“Defund the BBC”

In the UK, watching or recording live television broadcasts requires the payment of a TV license fee that adds up to around US$200 a year. This license fee is predominantly used to fund the content services of the BBC, the UK’s public service broadcaster.

The license fee has always carried an air of controversy, particularly over its enforcement. Unannounced visits to homes suspected of not paying the license and vehicles with technology allegedly capable of detecting television broadcasts have all been used as a means to make sure the public is complying with the license.

Certain sectors of the public are disproportionately affected by these enforcement efforts and subsequent prosecutions of nonpayment. In 2018, 130,000 people were prosecuted for not paying the license fee, the substantial majority being women who live alone and are more likely to open the door to enforcement officials.

It is these concerns and others that have prompted growing calls to decriminalize nonpayment of the TV license fee, which potentially risks hundreds of millions of pounds in funding for the BBC.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported to be “looking at” different options regarding the BBC’s funding, which could include the scrapping of license fees. Getting rid of the license fee would completely upend the current funding structure of the corporation.

Prime Minister Johnson’s notorious adviser Dominic Cummings is one reported advocate of wholesale changes to the BBC’s funding. Cummings is reportedly in favor of plans to “whack the BBC,” in effect, eliminating the corporation entirely.

The BBC itself has stated that a different funding model could be adopted, similar to other European countries, where funding for the corporation is “linked directly to an existing common household bill,” such as an electricity bill, with the BBC entitled to receive a portion of the proceeds.

Although it is open to discussion of a new funding model, the BBC still defends the funding structure of its license fee. In one statement, the corporation argued that “the BBC is a universal service – one to which everyone contributes and everyone receives something in return.”

Consequently, the BBC argued, “any system based on a universal contribution must have a sufficient deterrent and sanction to ensure that principle holds up and the system is fair to those who do pay, as well as those who don’t.”

A “grassroots” effort?

Long-standing concerns over the license fee, especially the prosecution or threat of prosecution of license fee “evaders,” have combined with new concerns in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the UK to form new attacks against the broadcaster.

The “Defund the BBC” campaign that trended on Twitter recently was founded by self-titled Conservative student James Yucel. Yucel reportedly started the campaign in response to what he saw as the left-wing bias of the broadcaster in covering Black Lives Matter after the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests in the US and UK.

At its core, the “Defund the BBC” campaign is a conservative one. Alongside Yucel, the campaign counts among its team Darren Grimes, a frequent right-wing talking head on British television, and Rebecca Ryan, a founder of the StandUp4Brexit campaign and supporter of other pro-Brexit causes.

Grimes has spelled out the main concerns of the “Defund” campaign, which appears to be more of a response to American “culture wars” than concerns over license fee payments.

In one post, Grimes argued that the BBC has allowed “itself to become the propaganda wing for Black Lives Matter protestors” and that he supported action against the “biased, bloated, antiquated and regressive BBC.”

Grimes founded “Reasoned UK” in May 2020, which bills itself as a free-speech platform that stands against the “mob.” In July, Grimes came under fire for an interview conducted with British historian David Starkey, in which the historian stated that slavery wasn’t genocide because there were “so many damn Blacks.”

The “Defund the BBC” campaign supported by Grimes and others paints itself as a “grassroots” effort, a claim that has been picked up in Britain’s tabloid newspapers, which depict the BBC as being under pressure from a swelling public effort to overturn the corporation’s existing funding.

Yet data allegedly shows that the Twitter account for “Defund the BBC,” the social media platform it is most active on, grew by some 20,000 followers overnight in the UK, with most accounts containing no more than 50 followers.

This has prompted some analysts to claim that the campaign, which “wanted to look like a spontaneous eruption of popular anger,” is instead a “suspiciously coordinated operation” undertaken by mainly pro-Brexit and right-wing social media accounts.

Changes at the top

Although the conservative-ran “Defund the BBC” social media campaign may not live up to its “grassroots” claims, change may be coming to the BBC nonetheless.

In June, the BBC appointed a new director general in Tim Davie, a former BBC executive, marketing executive and Conservative Party local politician.

In one of his first speeches in his new role, Davie told BBC staff that the corporation urgently needs to “champion and recommit to impartiality,” seemingly taking onboard the critiques made by right-wing campaigners painting the BBC as under the control of the “far-left.”

In one sign of Davie’s commitment to “impartiality” as a move to appease conservative critics, BBC presenter Gary Lineker agreed to a new contract with provisions reportedly agreeing to tweet with more caution regarding political topics. Lineker has been an outspoken critic of the Johnson government on social media and has shown support for a number of social causes, including Black Lives Matter, in the past.

Davie has also reportedly been in favor of restructuring the BBC, which may see changes made to its current license fee funding model. The new director general reportedly told staff that the BBC has “no inalienable right to exist” and that the corporation will “not hesitate to close channels if they do not offer value to our audiences.”

Despite the pressure placed on the BBC by right-wing campaigners, the British government and, now, its own director general, both trust and reception of the public service broadcaster’s coverage is largely positive.

Although suffering an engagement crisis with younger individuals, the BBC remains the most widely used source of news in the UK both online and offline with trust in the coverage of its news services remaining high among both self-identified right, left and center leaning audiences.

Coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, as well, has emphasized the value of the broadcaster to many audiences. The BBC’s coronavirus coverage received positive feedback of some 60% from audiences, with data showing the broadcaster “doing a good job by a majority both on the political left, the political right, and in the centre,” during the crisis.

These responses may suggest that the public service aspect of the UK’s largest public service broadcaster never went away.

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