Who owns BBC? The broadcaster faces an uncertain future

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The British Broadcasting Corporation prides itself on being a public service free from political or commercial manipulation. It is the world’s oldest national broadcaster and the largest broadcaster globally by the number of employees. The BBC has played a central role in British life and culture since its inception in 1920.

It helped galvanize the British people during the worst times of the Second World War. After the war, it popularized television and, in the early 21st century, ushered in the age of news broadcasting via the internet. In the UK, people affectionately refer to the BBC as Auntie Beeb.

Key Takeaways

  • No one owns the BBC as it’s established by a Royal Charter.
  • The government may abolish the license fee when the Royal Charter expires in 2027.
  • The BBC’s Director General Tim Davie has vowed to restore impartiality.

The BBC is established by a Royal Charter and is neither publicly owned nor Government-controlled

The BBC’s first broadcast in 1920 was well received by the people but not by the government – senior officials opined that radio broadcasts interfered with important military and civil communications. It led to a ban on further broadcasts from Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company. 

However, after a couple of years, pressure to provide broadcast license requests grew. The General Post Office, the licensing authority, lifted the ban but agreed to offer one license to a company owned by a consortium of leading wireless receiver manufacturers. 

The move created the British Broadcasting Company Ltd., with John Reith serving as its first general manager. From 1923 onwards, the BBC struggled to remain operational: its commercial model failed to generate enough revenue to run the company. 

The first Director-General of the BBC, John Reith | BBC

The 1926 general strike gave the BBC a lifeline. Its coverage of the crisis, which it claimed to be unbiased, cemented a national audience for its broadcasting. 

Following a recommendation by the Crawford Committee, the British Broadcasting Company was replaced by the British Broadcasting Corporation, a non-commercial, Crown-chartered organization. 

To date, the BBC is established by a Royal Charter renewable every ten years. The current charter runs up to 31st December 2027. It establishes the BBC as an independent body corporate committed to promoting public purposes. 

The BBC’s funding primarily comes from an annual television fee charged to British entities with equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts or iPlayer catch-up. 

In January 2022, Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, announced a freeze of the annual television fee, preventing the BBC from adjusting it according to inflation. The freeze forces the BBC to make substantial budget cuts to keep up with fast inflation. 

The UK’s Conservative wing has long called for a review of the BBC’s funding. Abolishing the funding would constitute a significant blow to the broadcaster, which draws 75% of its income from the British people. 

Thanks to the Royal Charter, the fee will remain until the end of 2027, when it expires. Before then, there’ll be another general election, whose outcome will determine the fate of the license fee. 

Tim Davie, the BBC’s Director-General, has vowed to restore impartiality to the BBC

Tim Davie
Tim Davie, The BBC’s Director-General | Photo by Daniel Jones/Financial Times

Per the Royal Charter, the BBC’s mission is ‘to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services.’

Following Tim Davie’s appointment as the BBC’s Director-General in September 2020, he vowed to restore the BBC’s impartiality. He promised to tackle the BBC’s perceived ‘left wing bias’ and asked opinionated staff to change or quit. 

“If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC,” Davie told staff at the BBC’s office in Cardiff. 

As part of his radical campaign, Davie banned posting political views on social media by the BBC staff. Davie announced that ‘opinionated columnists’ had no place in the BBC. Davie said:

“To be clear, this is not about abandoning democratic values such as championing fair debate or an abhorrence of racism. But it is about being free from political bias, guided by the pursuit of truth, not a particular agenda.”

In October 2021, a little over a year after his appointment, Davie reiterated his stand by unveiling a 10-point plan ‘focused on impartiality, editorial standards and whistleblowing.’ Under the plan, the BBC would review its content to ensure it meets impartiality standards. 

“In this country we have been justifiably proud of the standards of our national debate,” Davie wrote on The Daily Telegraph. “We must not allow fear to corrode those standards and the BBC has an important role to play. It is fundamental to our public service duty to ensure all voices and views across every part of the UK are heard.”

Davie’s measures have received criticism for allegedly being too extreme. For instance, LGBTQ+ and racial minority staff expressed concerns that the guidelines would prevent them from attending events, including Pride marches and Black Lives Matter protests. 

Richard Sharp’s appointment as BBC chair met resistance from left-wing politicians

The BBC Chairman, Richard Sharp | Photo by Bank of England

The BBC’s position in British life and culture exposes every appointment to debate; Richard Sharp’s appointment as BBC chair was no different. 

Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, succeeded Sir David Clementi as chair in February 2021. The word ‘impartiality’ came up again as Oliver Dowden, the then culture secretary, issued a statement regarding Richard’s appointment. Dowden’s statement read:

“I’m confident he will drive forward reforms to the BBC to ensure it impartially reflects and serves the needs of all parts of the UK, and evolves to remain a global success that is central to British national life in the decades ahead.”

Sharp released a statement, saying: “The BBC is at the heart of British cultural life and I’m honoured to be offered the chance to help guide it through the next chapter in its history.”

Richard Sharp’s appointment ruffled the feathers of some left-wing politicians who perceived Sharp as a right-wing appointment. Sharp was once Rishi Sunak’s boss and had been a major donor to the Conservative party, as Labour MP Richard Burgon tweeted:

“The government has appointed as chair of the BBC a multimillionaire former Goldman Sachs banker who was once Rishi Sunak’s boss and has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. The whole system is rotten.”

However, a recent colleague of Sharp’s defended his appointment, telling The Guardian: “He will be more interested in protecting the institution than pleasing Boris Johnson.”

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