The BBC, like many established institutions is experiencing a moment of existential crisis. This may well be of its own making, both in terms of its content and its strategies. Nevertheless, its position as a publicly funded broadcaster allows it to portray visions of the future that other networks cannot or do not want to touch upon. This post positions the BBC within its founding principles of inform, educate and entertain and argues that its unique location in public discourse encourages debate about utopian visions that would otherwise be disavowed.
Dr Alex Wade
Senior Research Fellow.
Posted 26 March 2021
The Principle of the BBC
Inform, educate, entertain. These are the values John Reith used as the foundation for the BBC’s inception in 1922. During the present situation of the pandemic, where entire systems of education, work and leisure are defined through and by the screen, the BBC’s pursuit of these principles has rarely been more salient. From its initial broadcast of Wuhan in Lockdown ten days before the UK’s own lockdown, to the trusted reporting of an unprecedented year, interrogation of politicians’ response to COVID-19, through to the provision of resources for children’s learning throughout varying degrees of lockdown, the BBC has maintained and excelled in its Reithian remit.
As a public service broadcaster, ongoing questions remain about the utility of its funding stream through the licence fee, especially given the demographics of its audience. Younger people accessing content asynchronously are arguably more familiar with the licence fee model which acts in similar manner to subscriptions to streamed content such as Netflix than traditional viewers who, at over the age of 75, have recently been asked to pay for licence fees for the first time. The net results of these disconnections range from the radical, such as the ‘Defund the BBC’ movement, to the predictable, such as declining audience figures for BBC3, an Internet-only channel aimed at a young people.
End of History
One of BBC3’s latest productions (in conjunction with BBC Film) is symptomatic of the dilemma facing the public service broadcaster and wider social challenges. Adam Curtis’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is an ambitious attempt to define the current situation where entire societies are run at the behest of international finance, see the resultant capitalism as burning through the nuance of culture and have lost faith in politicians to regulate the economic systems that permit this ruination, sold as a dreamworld, to take place.
There is, Curtis argues as early as 1993, a lack of any of the grand theories which moulded the past, including imperialism, fascism, socialism and individualism to address such contemporary problems. Instead, the networks that substitute for politics including economics, pharmaceuticals, military and the Internet become dominant, yet barely understood by the technocrats that run them, let alone the people who are subject to their abstract norms and proclivity for appearing benign while functioning in their own self-interest.
In many ways, Adam Curtis embodies the concept of the public intellectual, customary to continental thinkers, but less widely embraced in the UK. Themes such as moving beyond traditional - and increasingly unhelpful - notions of left and right as politicians from both sides have ceded control of the economy to financiers, through culture substituting for politics, seen in Curtis’s recent series in the tragic cases of Afeni Shakur and her son Tupac, to the belief that humans themselves carry the potential for change within them – quite separate from the technological and technical systems they are part of – are at once deeply critical and yet deeply humanistic in offering hope for the future.
In this way his thought is closest to one of the most famous - and many would say infamous - continental public intellectuals of the past 40 years, Jean Baudrillard. Positing in 1968 that humans had already reached the limits of their development, it is only through scientific advances that we are able, in Nietzsche’s aphorism, to move the world beyond what is possible to that which is impossible. For those of us lucky enough to be working from home, the quotidian technological wonder of being able to view and talk to someone on the other side of the world is as indistinguishable from magic as it is impossible to understand.
On the Desperate Edge of Now
The BBC has been at the forefront of using science and technology in fulfilling its Reithian objectives including the first teletext broadcast in 1974 and the multimedia Computer Literacy Programme which aimed, and largely succeeded, in bringing the BBC Model ‘B’ microcomputer into every school classroom in the UK by the end of the 1980s. Seen in the framework of this post, in spreading the popularity of the very techniques and machines that push our worlds beyond what is possible, the BBC is as responsible for the negative outcomes as it is an agent for change. Therefore perhaps it deserves its status as pariah for those who are not interested or not willing to pay for its protected status as a publicly funded broadcaster.
Yet the question remains, if there is no medium offered for individuals and collectives to convey their theories and dreams, ideals and ideas, how is it possible for the human race to navigate its way towards a better tomorrow? The Internet has unfortunately silhouetted that diffuse identity politics leads to identically intransigent positions. Curtis and Baudrillard offer possible alternative directions for debate and discourse for humanistic utopias to be borne within the BBC’s century old, but profoundly relevant, principles of inform, educate and entertain.