Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

BBC Needs a Level Playing Field

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast February 19, 2020

The corporation’s social media rivals should be regulated and taxed too, says Kate Bulkley

As disruption of UK media business models go, the potential axing of the BBC licence fee is a big one.

At the moment, this is an idea being ‘floated’ by certain unnamed parties in the government as part of a ‘pruning back’ of the market domination and distorting power of the BBC. What that pruning might look like remains to be seen.

We’ve been here before. The power of the BBC is a meme that gets re-versioned and amplified depending on the prevailing political winds. This time around, however, there is the added stick of the plan to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee.

Decriminalisation is seen by some as the thin end of the wedge, the thing that softens the terrain before forcing the BBC to adopt a full-blown subscription model as its means of support.

What would that look like? Would it work? How would other media fi rms benefit? And the most important question of all: what would it deliver to us, its viewers and listeners, that would be better or different than what we are getting now for our £154.50 a year?

The fact is, consumers and producers have never had more choice. Viewers can use ad-funded and subscription-based streamers, while producers have more commissioners to pitch to and more potential platforms for their creative ideas.

Given all of this, there are good reasons to rethink an all-encompassing and mandatory licence fee model for the BBC. As streaming video choices proliferate, is there less need for the BBC?

Well, the answer is both yes and no. First, the BBC is not simply an entertainment service, nor only a home of premium dramas like Gentleman Jack (pictured above). It’s also a vital source of independent news and information.

Of course, not everyone agrees that it is independent but it is not state-controlled – and it is certainly more independent than some commercially driven news services (Fox News, anyone?).

I say look at the options before you condemn what you’ve got. One could also argue BBC dramas that tackle issues like mental health and gender roles make important contributions to audience awareness.

“How these Silicon Valley giants are regulated and taxed is important for society as well as for the Treasury”

Given that social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are now the starting point for many people, how they surface content is becoming increasingly important (and that’s not to mention the revenues they extract from that content).

How these Silicon Valley giants are regulated and taxed is important for society as well as for the Treasury.

The filter bubble for information we find on Facebook is not clear and is certainly not regulated in the same way as UK broadcasters.

The consumption shift means that the idea of ‘community’ and ‘trusted sources’ of information is changing. Legacy media has put its output online with varying degrees of success but the point is the digital platforms hold huge distribution and ‘surfacing’ power.

The rise of fake news and alternative facts, not to mention the viralisation of stories that cause distress, are difficult issues that we ignore at our peril; intrusive media coverage, augmented by the internet, was condemned as a contributor to the tragic death of former Love Island presenter Caroline Flack.

With this in mind, the decision last week to empower Ofcom to police online platforms’ duty-of-care obligations was long overdue and a step in the right direction, as was the appointment of seasoned senior civil servant Melanie Dawes as the regulator’s new chief executive.

As the UK withdraws from the European Union, the country has an opportunity to be a leader in creating proper rules to keep citizens, including children, safe online.

For anyone in the content-creation business, these are important steps in support of civil discourse and trust in information – something that the BBC has been in the business of doing for as long as it has been around.

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