Political pressure on the media: what the BBC is protecting from Johnson


Status: 01/28/2022 12:57 p.m

British Prime Minister Johnson would like to abolish the BBC in its current form. The transmitter is protected against this. Still, the government can make life difficult for the BBC.

By Imke Köhler, ARD Studio London

The tweet by British culture minister Nadine Dorries caused a great deal of excitement: “This broadcast fee announcement will be the last,” she wrote in mid-January – which would have meant that this form of funding for the public service BBC would no longer exist after 2027.

Imke Koehler
ARD-Studio London

Dorries has no longer repeated this statement – ​​and probably for good reason. Media historian and BBC expert Jean Seaton from Westminister University says: “She had no right to do that – it was a shameless attempt to distract attention from the prime minister’s problems. She can not do that, and she has been officially reprimanded for it by the Speaker of the House of Commons. She can herald a debate, but she cannot lead it alone.”

Influence on financing and the board of directors

The British Parliament decides on the broadcasting fee. First the BBC and the government negotiate, then the result is presented to MPs. Unlike in Germany, there is no commission for determining the financial needs of broadcasters (KEF) in Great Britain, no independent commission of experts that examines the financial needs of broadcasters before the state parliaments vote on it. It is at this point that the influence of politics in Britain is more immediate. There are other ways of influencing the BBC Board, a kind of supervisory board of the broadcaster: “The government has the right to appoint some members of the board. This is always negotiated very intensively with the BBC,” explains Seaton.

The government can also exercise power by ignoring the BBC. The broadcaster has already experienced this with the Johnson government: in autumn 2019, hardly any cabinet members appeared on the radio show “BBC4Today”, a political morning magazine that conducts tough interviews. According to media reports, they had been more or less banned from speaking to the program – it was obviously not pro-government enough 10 Downing Street. However, politicians cannot influence the content.

The Royal Charter: British Interstate Media Treaty

The BBC works on the basis of the Royal Charter, which is comparable to the German media state treaty. Since the 1960s, the Royal Charter has been renewed every eleven years in order to further separate it from the political election cycle. Seaton explains that the intention of the rule is to place the BBC’s licensing above the government: “It is granted by the head of state. The idea right from the start was that the charter would give the BBC constitutional independence from the incumbent government.”

That a government like that of Prime Minister Boris Johnson can still put a lot of pressure on the BBC is currently being shown. It is considered certain that the BBC will shrink. All households that have a television and all Brits who want to use the iPlayer for live streams and media library services have to pay the radio license fee, which is currently £159 a year.

Switching the BBC to a subscription model?

When it comes to possible financing alternatives, a subscription model is often discussed, as known from Netflix, for example. Joey Jones, who was an adviser to the media committee under Prime Minister Theresa May, has long supported the idea. He wondered why the BBC wasn’t brave and self-confident enough to switch to a subscription model, he said in an interview.

He’s since changed his mind: “What I’ve learned is that we don’t have the infrastructure to do that. One of the BBC’s key principles has to be universality – and if you’re going with a subscription model, you’re going to get people on the fringes of the world Cut off society from BBC content: people who live far away or don’t have the money or inclination to get fast internet.” After all, that was “the last thing anyone wants”.

How things will actually continue after 2027, when the new Royal Charter comes into force, is still completely open. The government and the BBC must now negotiate this.


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