The future broadcasting landscape is likely to see a continuation of the trends of the past decade, which together pose major challenges for the media and communications ecology as a whole. However, if a government were to recommit to core principles of a universal service which supports independent journalism, active citizenship and mutual understanding, there is no reason that changes in technology or consumer habits should undermine the long-term viability of public service media (PSM).
The BBC plays an essential role in the UK’s media landscape. Yet we cannot simply defend the institution as it currently exists. We have to recognise the extent to which government interference, funding cuts and commercialisation has undermined its public mission. In terms of the BBC’s funding mechanism, we have long made it clear that we do not believe that the status quo is satisfactory. The licence fee system has the advantage that all the BBC’s domestic audience is in economic terms equally important, in contrast to market-based funding models. However, it has a number of problems, including a lack of independence from government, not reflecting the ability to pay, and being an outdated ‘television’ licence fee at a time when audio visual content is increasingly delivered online. We therefore propose the introduction of a new digital licence fee.
In order for a new digital licence fee to ensure equity and universal access, it would have to be underpinned by universal public digital infrastructure. With the shift towards digital delivery, it is vital that high quality broadband is made available to maintain universality in PSM and to guarantee citizens’ equal rights to access information. A public guarantee of affordable full-fibre broadband to all households should therefore underpin a new public digital media system.
We believe that alongside this shift towards a new public digital media system there is untapped potential to transform the BBC by devolving decision-making and using digital technologies to make it far more democratic and participatory. This is a more holistic transformation than just a list of policy demands – it is about fundamentally reimagining the relationship between the BBC and its audience. We have outlined comprehensive plans for building a ‘People’s BBC’ which would be independent, accountable, democratic and for everyone. This transformed BBC would be widely trusted and embedded in people’s lives, providing content which is seen as distinctive and valuable, and which commands widespread support for a collective funding model.
A People’s BBC would have a different kind of relationship with the wider public. Rather than just interacting with it as passive audiences, many people would participate in making decisions about how it was run. Rather than being a distant, abstract institution, the relationship would be much more local and immediate, with most decisions being made regionally, and the workforce being representative of all the communities of the UK.
A People’s BBC would also have a collaborative relationship with independent media, distributing news and cultural content from smaller producers to wider audiences. All these measures would mean that the news and information coming from these institutions would be widely trusted to be accurate and to hold powerful interests in wider society to account; the data they produce would be used for the public good; and the cultural content would be innovative, representative of diverse lives, and foster creativity all across the UK.