The BBC is in the middle of not one but two huge sex scandals, with the BBC’s top boss forced to resign over the weekend.
First, it a former BBC star was posthumously accused of a long history of sexual abuse, and the BBC was accused of refusing investigate its own star. Then, just as the first scandal was dying down, the BBC mistakenly aired accusations that a senior politician was a pedophile.
That both these scandals involved accusations of child abuse was perhaps what made the situation spin so wildly out of control. But there is another key factor that cannot be overlooked in any scandal about the BBC: Socialism.
Since 1946 the BBC has largely been funded by a licence fee paid by every Brit with a TV set. In 2012 the fee was £145.50 ($231) for colour and £49.00 ($77) for black and white. This amounts to 70 per cent of its income, according to Businessweek. This licence fee system was set up by Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government — the same government that began to create a “state socialism” system by nationalizing heavy industry and creating the National Health Service.
For decades, this state-run news organisation ran with little controversy, even when the government slowly allowed commercial competitors on television and radio. This was partly because of what many felt were the BBC’s high-standards (the broadcaster is affectionately referred to as “Auntie” in the British media). The resources at its disposal gave the BBC scope and a mandate that leaned towards quality — even today, it is the largest broadcaster in the world (with 23,000 employees), and one of the largest journalism entities.
There has been a growing backlash against the BBC in recent years, however, coinciding with the rise of cable news and the internet, which makes the licence fee in particular feel antiquated. Leading the charge against the BBC is the UK’s print press, long angered by the unfair access to resources they believe the BBC has, and the belief that the corporation has a a liberal (or, even socialist) bias. The UK’s tabloids (notably, those owned by Rupert Murdoch) have most recently been riled by the tough stance the BBC took on the phone-hacking scandal.
The most serious complaints against the BBC are leveled at the quality of its news-gathering — a point of pride for those who work at the organisation. The biggest scandal before this year was probably the series of events that led to the Hutton Inquiry in 2004 (in that case, a BBC journalist quoted a source who reportedly said Tony Blair’s government had “sexed up” the case for war in Iraq. After claims became public, the source killed himself). The Hutton Inquiry led to the resignation of a number of senior BBC employees, including then-director general Greg Dyke.
What’s striking about the current scandals surrounding the BBC is that they both really revolve around the quality of the BBC’s reporting. The allegations that a BBC star abused children appear to be less important to critics than the BBC’s decision to cancel an investigation into the subject. When other news agencies make mistakes, the scandal dies quickly. For the BBC, it’s an existential crisis.
This existential crisis exists because there’s no longer any ideological reason to keep the BBC around, so every argument about its power has to focus on its practical ability to do good. If the BBC can’t keep to the extraordinarily high standards the British public has for it, it may be beginning a slow and painful journey to privatization like other nationalized British industries before it.
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