When you type the three letters ‘BBC’ into Google, the website description encapsulates the vision of the BBC today: “Breaking news, sport, TV, radio and a whole lot more. The BBC informs, educates and entertains – wherever you are, whatever your age”. This mission has a history, it has grown with us, outlived many of us, and has become part of the fabric of a now hugely multicultural British society. So how did it all begin, when did it become so iconic, and does ‘it’ do what it’s supposed to do?
This essay aims to address the role of the BBC in the past, at the beginning, and see how this contrasts with its position in our society today. Defining the BBC, it stands for the British Broadcasting Corporation; a public service broadcaster that has allowed the viewing pleasure to millions of British, events around the world since the first television news broadcast in 1936; events like the 1953 coronation, the famine in Ethiopia, to nightly viewings of the horrific and devastating conflict in Vietnam. It is the largest public servicing broadcaster in the world.
In an annual review published for the year 2000-2001: “The BBC exists by Royal Charter as an independent broadcaster producing high quality, advertising- free programmes for the full range of licence payers. To safeguard its independence from commercial or political influence, it is funded by the licence fee and overseen by a board of directors” On January 1st 1927, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) took over the works of an amalgamation of companies which had initially formed the 4year old British Broadcasting Company.
The charter of this new corporation gave definition to public service. Initially, according to Scannell ; Cardiff (1991) the concept of public service was fixed onto “an initial pragmatic set of arrangements between the Post Office and the British radio industry to establish a broadcasting service that would create a market for radio receiving apparatuses” The funding for this public service broadcaster was guaranteed through broadcast receiving licenses, and the sale of wireless’ through the Post Office. Public service is not an easy service to define, or to put into practise.
The Broadcasting research unit talked about 8 principals of public service broadcasting in 1985, as they still held relevance and similarities to those of 1945: “Broadcast programmes should be available to everybody (geographic universality), should cater for all interests and tastes, and should make particular provision for minorities (especially the disadvantaged). Broadcasters should ‘recognize their special relationship to the sense of national identity and community’, should be distanced from all vested interests, particularly the government, and should be liberated rather than restricted by the public guidelines for broadcasting.
One main broadcasting organization should continue to be funded by ‘the corpus of users’ (that is to say, the licence fee, or something like it) and broadcasting should be structured so as to encourage competition in good programming rather than for audience numbers” (BRU: 1985) The BBC, alongside any Public service broadcaster, has always needed to be as impartial as possible, in order to allow for an opinion to be formed within the public sphere. Thornham et al.
talk about the public sphere as being a “layer located within civil society that sits between government and the people” (1999) This public sphere is a space where information is disseminated, and issues and ideas of public interest are advertised, shared concerns are debated, and public opinion can be formed objectively. In order to maintain a hearty democracy, this notion contributes (then and now) greatly to allow for the development of an informed constituency. “The early BBC’s sense of the role of public broadcaster, encapsulated in the famous mission to inform and entertain, clearly reflects this general position” (Thornham et al: 1999)