Since the last BBC Charter Review in 2006 the media landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. For the first time smartphones have overtaken laptops and tablet computers as the British public’s primary method of accessing the internet.
Fewer people are watching live television as catch-up and video-on-demand services become ever more popular. Technological advances, increased competition and huge changes in the methods through which the public consume content mean the BBC faces a more challenging environment than ever before in fulfilling its remit to inform, educate and entertain.
As the media landscape has shifted, so too have the constitutional arrangements of the country the BBC serves. Powers have been devolved across the UK with significantly more power expected to be transferred to Holyrood by the Scotland Bill currently making its way through Westminster. The Charter Review process provides the BBC with a much-needed opportunity to assess how best it can achieve its purpose in this changing environment.
Since it was founded in 1922, the BBC’s purpose has been content creation, currently delivered through radio, television and online. It is imperative that the organisation remains in a position to produce high quality and marketable content and remains globally relevant.
Universality must continue to underpin the BBC’s editorial approach and it should continue to strive for excellence across all its services. There is, however, an opportunity for streamlining services in radio, television and online and for the BBC to restate its priority for each service and their public and social purposes. The content it produces needs to be inclusive, taking into account the range of audiences across the UK and as technology continues to advance, the BBC must keep pace with this change and not be left behind its commercial rivals.
The BBC must also seriously examine the way in which it is funded. A new Charter period of ten to 11 years would allow sufficient time to consider different funding models with a view to phasing in the chosen approach before the end of this period. Irrespective of which method of funding is decided upon, the principle of allocated public money being used for the public good should remain. The BBC also has a duty to ensure that any future models of funding do not lessen its commitment to produce less popular or more demanding programming, nor deny access to its services to individuals on low incomes. The BBC must remain available to all.
The Charter Review similarly presents the BBC with an opportunity to address its current governance arrangements, which appear unsustainable. The Trust model has not succeeded in keeping pace with the changing devolutionary settlement across the United Kingdom. A new model which provides stronger governance and a greater level of accountability must be found. Such a model would need to simultaneously strengthen arrangements in the different parts of the UK while ensuring that the BBC’s scale, scope and relevance are not diminished. Additionally, greater accountability and transparency are needed about the scale of the resources invested in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament maintains a clear interest in public service broadcasting and thus the BBC should make itself available to scrutiny at Holyrood.
It would also be prudent for the BBC to reevaluate the findings of Professor Anthony King’s 2008 report which addressed the failure of BBC News to respond appropriately to the changing constitutional arrangements of the UK. The recommendations of the King Report are yet to be fully implemented seven years later and unfortunately his findings that the tone of BBC news coverage is too London-centric still ring true. The BBC has largely failed to report adequately on the major devolved issues. BBC network news has not met the challenge of covering these areas in a more textured and sophisticated way that would be meaningful for audiences across the UK.
In relation specifically to Scotland, a stronger news service is required. The time for the provision of an integrated international and national television news service, edited in Scotland, is long overdue. Strengthening the news service not only for Scotland, but the entire UK must be a priority for the next Charter period.
The BBC as an organisation is peerless in its scale, scope and purpose. For almost a century it has informed, educated and entertained the British public.
This Charter Review process takes place against a background of great technological change. It is important that the opportunity is taken to ensure that the BBC is able to fulfil, for the next generation, the role that the public has come to expect of it.
• Dr John McCormick is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) and a former Controller of BBC Scotland. He chaired the RSE working group that responded to the recent BBC Charter Review.