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The BBC Is Struggling to Survive the Era of Fake News

The BBC Is Struggling to Survive the Era of Fake News

Tuesday, 22 December, 2020 - 05:45

A group of Zurich University researchers this year published a study comparing the vulnerability of 18 advanced societies to online misinformation. The best defended, they concluded, were the Nordic nations, led by Finland, with a resilience score of +7, followed by Denmark with +5. The UK ranked fifth, with +4.

Much more credulous were the southern Europeans. Greece was marked as -6, Italy as -5. To some of us, however, the most dismaying conclusion of the survey was that the US, the world’s largest economy, ranked last, with a marking of -11.

Americans, say the researchers, are most likely of all developed democracies to believe fake news, to swallow conspiracy theories. The country has “conditions that favor an easy dissemination of and exposure to online disinformation.”

We shall not here discuss manifestations of this phenomenon, related to “rigged elections” and such. My focus is on why these findings should be as they are, by considering an institution the UK possesses, but the US lacks. The Zurich study found a common strand among the best-informed, least readily deceived societies: All have strong, responsible public broadcast services. These make them far less vulnerable to mendacious social media and partisan news sources, of which Fox News is the most conspicuous.

The UK, of course, has the BBC. Beyond its domestic audience, it boasts a global reach of 426 million viewers and listeners, for whom its World Service is among the most trusted of all news sources.

Many Americans believe that BBC is a state broadcaster. Not so. It is, instead, a curious hybrid, funded through a compulsory license payment for the right to view and listen, topped up by a government subsidy toward the costs of its World Service output. It is controlled by the BBC Board; while the prime minister selects its chairman, it displays an independence that often enrages Downing Street.

The British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in 1922 as a private company, then five years later turned into a public institution, governed by royal charter. Today it has one of the largest international news organizations, with 2,000 journalists, 50 news bureaus and a budget approaching half a billion dollars.

In a 2019 survey by Ipsos MORI that invited British people to choose a single source to which they would turn for impartial news, 44% chose the BBC; 3% favored the left-leaning Guardian newspaper; just 1% each, right-wing Daily Mail and Sun newspapers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, BBC audiences have soared.

And yet, amazingly, the corporation trembles on its foundations. It is besieged by formidable forces: right-wing politicians who now govern Britain; competition for audience share from streaming channels such as Netflix; and declining revenue — in real terms, its income has fallen by one-third over the past decade.

A new book by two British media researchers, Patrick Barwise and Peter York, “The War Against the BBC,” asserts that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “the most hostile prime minister the Corporation has ever faced.” Beyond ideological objections, he has personal grievances, deriving from its past reporting of his extravagant love life.

You might suppose that, when a towering national institution is imperiled, cavalry would be riding to “the Beeb’s” rescue. This is not happening, however. A range of rivals, headed by organs controlled by the Murdoch family, which has controlled both Fox and Sky, bays for BBC to be vastly downsized. They cite unfair state-aided competition, left-wing bias, wanton extravagance by an institution that employs 22,000 full-time staff, and still has an annual income of more than $5 billion.

James Murdoch, the younger son of media empire-builder Rupert Murdoch, has compared BBC to Pravda. In a prominent 2009 lecture, he said: “As Orwell foretold, to let the state enjoy a near-monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion … Yet we have a system in which state-sponsored media — the BBC in particular — grow ever more dominant.”

Many of the elderly viewers and listeners who increasingly dominate its audiences moan about the BBC’s alleged surrender to woke culture. It is certainly true that its bosses, goaded by anxiety to woo the young and minorities, have shown a politically reckless disregard for the sensibilities and interests of their traditional audience. This is symbolized by BBC’s recent announcement that it plans to spend $124 million on racial and gender diversification. Grumpy pensioners complain that this is not what they pay their license money for, and they have a point.

Ah yes, the license. This is a concept so alien to other nations, that it bears explanation. Some 95% of British households pay an annual charge of $204 for the right to watch the BBC’s 10 national TV channels and listen to its 11 domestic radio stations. The poor and those over 75 have since 1998 been spared license payment.

The latter exemption was introduced at government behest, as a sweetener for older voters, and paid for by the Treasury. But five years ago, the burden was transferred to the BBC. As the population ages, it is costing the corporation almost $500 million a year in lost revenue. Amid rage from the elderly, echoed in their name by political leaders and newspapers, the BBC has insisted on withdrawing the over-75 concession.

The row is absurd, of course. The average British person accesses one or other of BBC’s outlets for two and half hours a day, for which they pay little more than 50 cents. For that, they get a stunning range of news programs, together with drama of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens quality, soaps, quiz shows, comedies such as “Fleabag” (and, in past days, Monty Python and “Fawlty Towers”), “Strictly Come Dancing,” history documentaries, the obsessively watched “Great British Bake Off,” the best children’s programing in the world, and much else.

Stop there, say the corporation’s critics: Most of this can as well be done by commercial channels or streaming services. If the BBC is to be allowed to survive, it should relinquish its role in everything save genuine public service broadcasting, and be funded by subscription or advertising.


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