100 years of the BBC: Future of British broadcasting


With the BBC's centenary on the horizon, the future of the corporation looks uncertain in an evolving media industry

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Image by Ben Sutherland

By Josh Rutland

Next month marks the centenary of the BBC, a cornerstone of the United Kingdom and one of the biggest household names across the globe. It represents a service which has covered every major moment this country has faced, from the Second World War to the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Yet long-running debates around its funding, impartiality and most importantly its role in modern Britain have marred the organisation with doubt over its future.

We can trace the BBC back to 1922, when the British Broadcasting Company was founded; a single broadcasting licence was issued to a consortium of radio manufacturers and headed by John Reith with the goal to “inform, educate and entertain”. Recommendations from a parliamentary committee saw the company liquidated and replaced by a British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927, acting as a non-commercial, Crown-chartered public service.

The BBC quickly established a monopoly over British radio, launching regional and national services by the 1930s. This decade also marked the birth of BBC television, with the first experimental programme broadcast in August 1932. Today, it remains the largest broadcaster in the world with 22,000 employees, available in more than 200 countries.

Despite this illustrious success, however, the BBC is somewhat struggling to adapt to the changing world of media. Most prominent is its contentious funding model - a mandatory licence fee applicable to all UK households with very few exceptions - which some argue is outdated. The current fee stands at £159 a year, generating £3.8 billion of revenue for the corporation and accounting for nearly three quarters of their total income.

Many question whether the BBC needs to modernise given there are few other media organisations which enjoy such obligatory flows of revenue. Indeed, the former culture secretary Nadine Dorries announced the government would freeze the current fee until 2024, perhaps to limit public discontent, but it is most interesting that licence fee evasion has risen in the past decade while numerous campaigns demanding an end to the fee have launched.

Another issue the BBC has struggled to dodge is impartiality, with defenders and critics of the BBC arguing over where the corporation’s allegiances lie. Former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis criticised the broadcaster earlier this year, accusing it of self-censorship to “pacify” the government. This critique comes after the BBC’s hasty apology for her monologue about Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham, while he was an adviser to the Prime Minister, which Maitlis argues was a fair reflection of events. She also accused BBC board member Sir Robbie Gibb, who was previously Theresa May’s director of communications before he helped found GB News, of being an “active agent of the Conservative Party”. The BBC have since rejected this claim.

This incident draws incredible parallels to the early days of the BBC nearly a century ago, when the broadcaster became the primary source of information during the 1926 General Strike as newspapers were impeded. The company was aware that the government was fully within their rights to commandeer the BBC at any time. However, in an effort to maintain trust, Reith was granted leeway to pursue the government’s objectives more covertly in a way which better suited the BBC. Part of this strategy included a ban on broadcasts from the Labour Party, resulting in supporters of the strike nicknaming the BBC the BFC for British Falsehood Company. It seems remarkable that similar allegations are still made today.

A broader issue looms over the corporation though, as the BBC finds its place in an evolving media industry. Radio and television could plausibly face extinction as media services shift towards digital platforms, enabling viewers to watch shows of their preference on demand. Younger viewers in particular have become accustomed to such convenience and variety, with the likes of Netflix seeing their share of the market boom.

The BBC does host digital content, namely through their iPlayer service which launched in 2007, yet the corporation is increasingly shifting its services online. Director-General Tim Davie announced in May that BBC Four and CBBC would only be available on iPlayer, suffering a similar fate to BBC Three in 2016 before the channel was revived in February. Yet this demonstrates how external competition (alongside frozen revenues) is driving many well-established channels off our TV screens.

As the BBC celebrates its centenary and we consider its uniquely monopolistic position, one must also ask whether the idea of a state broadcaster is an outdated concept in modern Britain. The current royal charter runs until 2027, guaranteeing its existence until then. But with little appetite to continue its funding stream combined with dwindling demand for its content, the next 100 years look incredibly uncertain for the BBC.