Do we really need state-funded news entities like the BBC any more?

The BBC is embroiled in what its own government overseer has called — with typical British reserve — a “ghastly mess” as a result of two sex-related scandals: one involving a long-time presenter who has been accused of child abuse, and the other sparked by a news story that accused a former British MP politician of similar offences and turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Everyone from the chairman of the BBC Trust to independent media-industry observers are calling for the broadcaster to be re-organized or somehow reformed, but no one (so far) is attacking the larger question: Is there a purpose for state-funded news outlets like the BBC any more, and if so what is it — and is the BBC capable of fulfilling that purpose?

To put things in perspective, the British Broadcasting Corp. isn’t just a government-financed news outlet. It also happens to be one of the largest broadcasters and news agencies in the world, with almost 25,000 employees, and an annual budget — financed primarily by the “TV tax” that the British government levies on every television set owning household in the country — of more than $5 billion. Do we really need that kind of state-financed news entity in an age when journalism is everywhere? Couldn’t that amount of money be used in better ways, either to fund independent news entities or for some other purpose?


Does the BBC need to be restructured or dismantled?

The first bombshell to hit what Brits call “The Beeb” came when Jimmy Savile, host of a long-running entertainment show, was accused of having engaged in sexual abuse of children over a span of several decades. The state broadcaster’s show Newsnight had a piece prepared that detailed these allegations, but someone at the organization spiked the story. The director-general of the agency, Mark Thompson — who just became the new CEO of the New York Times Co. — has said he had no knowledge of the incident, but the decision has sparked a loss of confidence in the BBC’s ability to monitor itself.

Just weeks after this crisis, the broadcaster aired a Newsnight documentary about a separate case of sexual-abuse allegations, and identified a prominent MP Conservative, Lord McAlpine, as the perpetrator. Unfortunately for the BBC and everyone involved in the program, the victim later said that his attacker was not Lord McAlpine — and it turned out that the broadcaster had not actually confirmed that McAlpine was involved, nor had it approached the MP about the allegations. The BBC’s new director-general has stepped down after just 2 months in the job, and the agency’s director of news and the deputy director for news have also stepped aside. (Update: As a number of readers have pointed out, the program didn’t name Lord McAlpine but referred to a senior Conservative from the Thatcher era. At least one of the journalists who worked on the documentary identified the subject as McAlpine, however, and that information then spread through Twitter).

Much of the response to these events has focused on how the BBC needs to be restructured in some way: how the head of the news or editorial division should be separate from the head of the business side or the director-general’s office, etc. Former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell, now at Columbia University running the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, does a good job of retracing the steps that may have led to the BBC’s recent journalistic failures. And almost everyone notes that the Beeb is still trusted and in some cases even revered by the British people — but there are those who suggest otherwise:


Do we need a single state-funded source of journalism?

But while the BBC’s decisions in both of these cases deserve all the investigation they are getting both from within the agency and from outside it, it’s worth asking whether the British government — and by extension the British populace — need to be financing a $5-billion organization to produce journalism. And if they do, what should that entity’s purpose be? A similar question could be asked in Australia and Canada, both of which have their own national versions of the BBC (the U.S. also helps subsidize National Public Radio and other public entities, although the majority of their revenue comes from donations).

As even a former chairman of the British broadcaster has pointed out, one of the biggest criticisms that can be made of a state-funded news outlet like the BBC is that it is being paid to compete with private broadcasters and news companies, many of which can barely afford to continue doing business at all, let alone match the vast revenue and resources of the Beeb. Along with its counterparts in Australia and Canada, the BBC has become a powerful force in online news, ranking just below outlets like the New York Times and CNN when it comes to overall audience.

Supporters argue that there is a place for an (allegedly) impartial source of journalism, one that will undertake the kinds of investigative projects that other outlets do not — and that would be a great rationale for the existence of a state-funded news entity, if that’s all the BBC and its counterparts did. But the reality is that they also produce a vast quantity of regular news and entertainment as well. Is that really something that residents of Britain need to subsidize with their taxes?

If governments want to fund the creation of news and journalism, maybe they would be better off finding some way to do that by financing independent entities, the way the Knight Foundation and other non-profit trusts do, instead of propping up anachronistic players like the BBC.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users zawtowers and R/DV/RS