The BBC is no longer a national broadcaster: it is at odds (and even at war) with a majority on social issues, is losing younger viewers to rival platforms and its grip on the commanding heights of British culture is steadily loosening.
For decades, foreigners have been baffled by just how emotionally attached we are to our health service and national broadcaster, and their outsized role in our national story. Other countries define themselves by their language, food, culture, history or constitution, but the British have long cited the NHS and the BBC as central to who we are.
This unusual love for two state-owned, technocratic organisations and their egalitarian financing mechanisms goes to the heart of the UK’s complex Left-Right, collectivist-individualistic identity. Even Margaret Thatcher didn’t dare take them on, fearing the electorate’s wrath.
Yet even Britain can change, as the BBC’s panjandrums at Broadcasting House are about to discover. The electorate, regrettably, still considers the NHS, for all its appalling failures, to be one of the gods in Britain’s unofficial polytheistic secular religion, which is why Boris Johnson has promised to spend billions more on it. The BBC, by contrast, has been slowly falling out of favour for the past decade, its popularity eroded by technological, cultural and political forces, just as minor deities were sometimes superseded by others in pre-Christian and pre-Islamic civilisations.
The internet, as ever, is the most important reason: not merely the rise of streaming services such as Netflix but also of social media. The NHS remains unassailable in the public psyche because its monopoly means it treats more people than ever before and its share of GDP keeps on rising; the BBC, by contrast, is losing the relentless battle for time and attention to hyper-dynamic competitors.
Even its huge budget, financed by a poll tax enforced by the threat of prison, is no longer enough to save it. Most people don’t actively dislike the BBC: they just don’t care as much about it and are increasingly unwilling to pay for it. It is clear that the private sector can and will provide every kind of “public service” broadcasting.
Yet the BBC’s problems are greater than apathy. The politically engaged cannot stand it any longer: the hard-Left sees the BBC (absurdly) as a pro-capitalist, pro-Tory plot and blame it (spuriously) for Jeremy Corbyn’s implosion.
But it’s the anger of the Brexiteers and of conservatives which will ultimately lead to its disestablishment. They consider it to be hopelessly biased, not just in its news coverage but also in its entertainment programming, which they find infuriatingly woke, anti-business, preachy and engaged in full-on cultural war against conservative values. Its news division found it impossible to predict Brexit, and then appeared to feel guilty for having “allowed” it to happen. A lack of political, class and geographic diversity means it does not understand the country it is meant to serve.
Someone who only watched Today or Newsnight would have been shocked when Johnson won his 80-seat majority and would be ignorant of the nation’s hierarchy of concerns. The corporation’s defensive attempts at encouraging its senior staff to engage with social media have merely shown up Left-wing bias – and confirmed that the few Tory Brexiteers are in hiding.
The BBC is no longer a national broadcaster: it is at odds (and even at war) with a majority on social issues, is losing younger Left-wing viewers to rival platforms and its grip on the commanding heights of British culture is steadily loosening, with no way back in a fractured, heterogeneous society. It is no wonder that commercial radio, led by LBC-owner Global, is on a roll: its finger is on the national pulse.