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The BBC needs defenders in an age of misinformation

Auntie’s being put through the wringer again. There has been a fresh round of calls this week to “defund the BBC”, following culture secretary Nadine Dorries’ ham-fisted attempt to divert attention from the latest round of Downing Street “partygate” revelations by threatening to scrap the public broadcaster’s licence fee — an idea from which she was later forced to retreat.

Attacks on the BBC came from all sides. “What I see and hear is a massive platform for every far-right blowhard who can generate some noise on social media, while almost everyone to the left of Keir Starmer is persona non grata,” tweeted Guardian columnist George Monbiot.

At the other end of the spectrum, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore — once the prime minister’s boss — declared that the BBC has been behaving like “the Fox News of the Left”. The broadcaster, Moore wrote, needed to show not just impartiality — which director-general Tim Davie has repeatedly said must be a priority — but “super-impartiality”, whatever that might mean. GB News presenter Dan Wootton raged that during the pandemic “the BBC’s coverage has been nothing short of a disgrace”.

Such views are hardly borne out by the public, measured either by viewing or polling figures. In March 2020, when Britain went into its first lockdown, the BBC’s nightly news audience soared to 15m. According to the broadcaster’s latest annual report, 8 out of 10 British adults continue to use at least one BBC news service a week. The UK regulator Ofcom’s latest report shows the BBC takes up seven spots in the top-20 most-used news sources. More than two-thirds of the public say the BBC is effective at providing news and current affairs coverage that is “trustworthy”, while 49 per cent cite the BBC as the source they turn to for news they most trust.

Some, such as anti-Brexit campaigner and lawyer Jolyon Maugham, say such dominance is unhealthy, as it means the BBC can rely on residual trust rather than having to earn it. Maugham also complains that the BBC’s survival is “contingent on pleasing those in power”. But neither of these criticisms seem fair — the broadcaster is as often criticised for being too aggressive as it is for being too cosy with politicians.

The idea that getting rid of BBC News, as Maugham advocates, might somehow improve the media landscape is a fallacy. Part of the reason that the UK is less susceptible to online disinformation than some other countries is that the national broadcaster sets a high standard for others to follow.

The truth is that the very fact the BBC is complained about so much by both sides of the political spectrum is proof that it is succeeding, at least to some extent, at providing balanced coverage. It is hard to imagine such denunciation from both sides in the highly polarised, commercially driven world of US media, where just 12 per cent of Republicans trust the Democrats’ favourite CNN, and just 14 per cent of Democrats trust the Republicans’ preferred Fox News.

When misinformation proliferates online and seeps out into the real world, with echo chambers splintering people into tribes that struggle to understand each other, having a single source of truth, flawed as it might be, is something we shouldn’t take for granted. “One of the fundamental principles of public service broadcasting is that it is universally available to all. This talk of getting rid of the licence fee and going to subscriptions by definition would lose that,” says Patrick Barwise, co-author of The War Against the BBC and emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School.

Even those who say they don’t want to be forced to pay for the service perhaps protest too much. In a so-called “deprivation study” in 2015 — commissioned by the BBC although carried out by an independent firm — more than two-thirds of those who had said they were opposed to paying the licence fee changed their minds just nine days after being cut off from the BBC’s services. Barwise says a new, yet-to-be-published study had almost identical findings.

We need to leave Auntie alone — she’s far from perfect, but our media landscape and, thus, our democracy, would surely be in much worse shape without her. That’s something worth defending, not defunding.


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