British Broadcasting Corporation

Michael Tracey. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is one of the world’s most prominent and successful broadcasting organizations, and is viewed by many as the premier national public service broadcaster. It has gained a reputation for high levels of creativity across a range of programming formats. None has been more prominent than its journalistic output, whether at the local, regional, national, or international level. Throughout the twentieth century the prevailing form of broadcasting globally, with the prominent exception of the United States, was that of public service broadcasting. There is perhaps no greater testimony to the importance of the BBC and its principles and values than the fact that many countries, when they were establishing broadcasting in the early decades of the twentieth century, chose the BBC as the model to emulate (with, it has to be said, varying degrees of success). This was particularly the case with its journalistic output, where the BBC was seen to set the gold standard for independence, impartiality, balance, and comprehensiveness in its output. In the twenty-first century, however, there is a growing use of market values to determine the output of electronic media.


The BBC began life as the British Broadcasting Company on October 18, 1922. It was formed by a group of radio manufacturers, including radiotelegraph inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who were eager for an organization to provide programming for their product. Daily broadcasts began on November 14, 1922. The general manager was a dour 33-year-old Scottish engineer, John Reith. In these fledgling years some news was broadcast, but never before 7 p.m. so that newspaper sales would not be affected. In 1926 the BBC faced the first major crisis over what, even then, was taken to be absolutely axiomatic to its founding principles: its editorial independence. During the general strike of that year the biggest and most intense conflict between the trade union movement and the government in modern British history took place and the public turned to the BBC for news because no newspapers were being published. The BBC sought, with a modicum of success, to represent the news of the strike as seen from both sides. This infuriated the then chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill, who wanted the BBC to be taken over by the government. Reith and then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin resisted, and the BBC maintained its independence. The incident would be the first of many conflicts between the BBC and the government of the day. Yet the 1926 conflict demonstrated just how effectively the BBC was fulfilling its commitment to independent journalism on the grounds that if the government is disturbed about news coverage then the corporation must be doing something right.

At the beginning of 1927 the BBC became the British Broadcasting Corporation, established by a Royal Charter. This would be crucial to its continued efforts to maintain its independence since the charter meant that the BBC was an institution of the monarchy and not the state. The charter also established a board of governors, appointed by the monarch, who were deemed to be trustees of the public interest. The significance of this for the BBC’s independence in general, and its journalism in particular, was that the only way the government could seek to control the BBC would be, ultimately, by getting the monarch to remove the governors. Since this would inevitably be extremely controversial, and since under the terms of the (unwritten) British constitution the monarch cannot be seen to be involved in political controversy, the possibility of the governors being removed was remote in the extreme. It was also determined that the BBC would be funded by a license fee, paid by anyone who owned a radio receiver and, later, a television. The purpose here was to provide financial independence for the corporation, so that it was reliant neither on advertising nor state subvention. The thinking behind this was very much that of Reith who looked west to the unregulated radio of America and east to the rigidly controlled radio of the Soviet system and did not like what he saw in either direction.

In January 2007, the BBC’s latest Royal Charter came into force and will continue through 2016. From that date the BBC was to be governed by the BBC Trust, rather than a board of governors. The trust’s function is to set the strategic direction of the corporation, leaving operational responsibility to an executive board, chaired by the director general. The charter also reasserts the BBC’s editorial independence.

Journalism and the BBC’s Basic Values

The BBC’s purpose through its history has been to “inform, educate and entertain.” Drawing from a number of sources, such as the Broadcasting Research Unit’s “Public Service Broadcasting: Main Principles,” it is possible to suggest the intellectual framework that defines the BBC and that, therefore, provides the framework within which it practices its journalism:

  • Universality of Availability:Public broadcasting historically sought to ensure that its signals were available to all, wherever they might live. The imperative that guided this principle was not that of maximizing customers in a market but of serving citizens in a democracy, on the basis that if one defines one’s audience as all the citizens of a country, then logically one has to reach them all.
  • Universality of Appeal:Public broadcasting sought to provide programs that catered to the many different tastes and interests that constitute a society’s life, understanding that each of us, at different moments, is part of a majority and a minority. The rather optimistic premise was that well-produced programs can please a lot of the people a lot of the time, and everybody some of the time, driven by the desire, to use an aphorism coined by a senior BBC executive Hugh Wheldon, to make good programs popular and popular programs good. This goal, however, set its face against giving people what they want. This was a vital principle for the BBC’s journalistic output since the corporation understood its role as one of providing the citizenry of the United Kingdom with the information they needed to exercise that citizenship, rather than what they, the public, wanted, which was assumed would be trivial and not healthy for democratic culture.
  • Provision for Minorities, Especially Those Disadvantaged by Physical or Social Circumstance:Public broadcasting saw the public as a rich tapestry of tastes and interests each of which, insofar as possible, should be served. Journalistically this meant that the BBC undertook to provide news and information for specific groups and interests, as well as for the general citizenry.
  • Serving the Public Sphere:Public broadcasting recognized its special relationship to a sense of national identity and broad community. Any nation is a patchwork of localities and regions, but it also is a nation, heterogeneous and homogeneous at one and the same time. Public broadcasting’s very nature was then to nurture the public sphere as a means of serving the public good, since it is within the public sphere that individuals function as citizens. The corporation’s journalistic output was key to this commitment.
  • A Commitment to the Education of the Public:The most outstanding example of public broadcasting’s commitment to the audience-as-citizen is the longtime provision, in almost all public broadcasting systems, of educational programming at every level. The basic premise was that political and social literacy, as well as literal literacy, are an essential prerequisite to the healthy working of a democratic order. Above all else, the commitment to this principle required that it treat its audience as mature, rational beings capable of learning, growing, and demanding information.
  • Distance From All Vested Interests:It is a simple but key principle of public broadcasting that its programs can best serve the public with excellence and diversity when they are produced from within a structure of independence.
  • Competition for Good Programming Rather Than Competition for Numbers:This principle was central to public service broadcasting and essentially involves a commitment to making programs that are of high quality, whatever their intended audience. Hence the BBC’s commitment to “quality” news and current affairs.
  • Liberal Broadcasting Rules for Program Makers:While it was understood that all broadcasting will inevitably be governed by certain prescriptions—“educate,” “inform,” “entertain,” “balance,” “fairness”—the essence of the legislative foundation empowering it should sustain a liberal function for the program maker.

These principles, articulated by an independent think tank, were echoed in the BBC’s own 2007 “statement of purpose” when it declared that it creates “public value” in six ways: sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the United Kingdom and its nations, regions, and communities; bringing the United Kingdom to the world and world to the UK; and delivering the benefit of emerging communications technologies. From the standpoint of its journalistic practices all these values are clearly present: it supports civic and cultural life by providing news and information “that helps citizens make sense of the world and encourages them to engage it”; it seeks “to broaden the national conversation”; it provides news at the national, regional, and local level, as well as having a growing international role; and it defines itself as “the world’s most trusted provider of international news and information.”

The Royal Charter identifies another purpose, one that is and will continue to be of enormous importance in the BBC’s proffering of news and current affairs programming: in promoting its other purposes the BBC will deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, take a leading role in the switchover to digital television. The anchoring of the BBC to the monarchy, historically a key part of sustaining its independence, is maintained, and defined in article 12(3): “The Chairman, Vice-Chairman and ordinary members of the Trust shall be appointed by Order in Council.” The “Council” is the constitutional body overseen by the monarch.

An “agreement” complements the 2007 charter, and was made between the BBC and the Secretary of State for culture, Media and Society following a debate in Parliament in July 2006. The agreement goes into more detail than the charter in relation to the obligations of the BBC and how they will be pursued. With regard to news and current affairs, the agreement declares that the public “can trust the BBC to provide high-quality news, current affairs and factual programming that keeps you informed and supports debate about important issues and political developments in an engaging way.”

The agreement also declared that the BBC’s journalism would encourage conversation and debate about news, current affairs, and topical issues among friends, family, and wider groups through forums for debate such as phone-ins and online discussion areas. It also declared its intent to build a greater understanding of the parliamentary process and political institutions governing Britain, including those of the European Union.

The BBC also defines a number of values that it uses to guide its journalistic practices and that it demands of its journalists: news and current affairs programs that are balanced and unbiased; reporting that strives for accuracy and truth; commitment to fairness and privacy; respect for the audience through production and broadcast of “dignified programming”; and the maintaining of its independence from all vested interests, be they economic or political.

BBC Journalism: Organization and Output

There are three main organizational elements to the BBC’s journalistic activities:

  • The Journalism Group consists of the BBC’s journalism at the international, national, regional, and local levels across radio, television, and online interactive media. Within the group, BBC News provides all the UK-wide news and current affairs content and news gathering. The BBC News website is one of the fastest growing areas of the BBC. In 2007, 80 percent of all adults in the United Kingdom accessed the BBC each week, either through radio, television, or the Internet.
  • BBC Global News includes BBC World Service Radio, BBC World Television, and online services. In 2006, the different services reached an estimated 233 million people globally and outperformed CNN International (CNNI) and other international competitors. In 2006-07, BBC World was available in 280 million homes around the world, and the BBC World Service Radio reached 183 million homes across its 33 language services. In 2006-07, through its national television services (BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC24, and BBC Parliament) the corporation produced 20,287 hours of news and weather reports inside the UK. It also produced 821 hours of current affairs programming. Through its national radio services (Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, 1Extra, BBC Music, and BBC Asian Network) the corporation produced 12,642 hours of news and weather reports, and 3,470 hours of current affairs programming. While figures were not available for the journalistic output of BBC Global News, BBC World Services produced 1,258 hours each week, in 33 languages, which is 65,400 hours a year. In addition, there are tens of thousands of hours of news and current affairs broadcast by the BBC’s affiliate stations at BBC Scotland, BBC Wales, and BBC Northern Ireland, and in its English Regions and its large network of local radio stations.
  • In 2007 the BBC established a web-based College of Journalism, open to the BBC’s 7,500 journalistic staff, with the purpose of promoting “the BBC’s values and the highest ethical and editorial standards, as well as developing the strongest craft skills and knowledge base across the BBC.” The website contains modules, practical guides to journalism, and blogs, all provided by BBC journalists. There are also sections on values, ethical dilemmas, law, writing, audiences, and craft skills.

BBC Journalism and Credibility

The essence of the BBC’s commitment to journalism has historically been its declared editorial independence and its commitment to impartiality. This means that it is axiomatic that no other institution, in public or private life, can tell it what to do or how to do it, and the BBC does not take sides on issues when covering the news and public life in general. However, audience research in the first decade of the twenty-first century suggested that there was a growing sense among the public that the BBC is failing in these areas. The BBC, in its annual report in 2007, declared that 76 percent of respondents in a survey said that they trusted BBC news programs “the most to give a fair, informed and balanced view on important issues and events. Overall, 53 percent rate the BBC as fair and impartial, against 18 percent who believe it is biased.” However, in a survey conducted on behalf of the BBC World Service, as part of a global report into perceptions of media freedom, and reported in the press in December 2007, only 29 percent of 1,003 Britons polled said they rated the BBC positively. Forty-three percent percent said the BBC’s performance was “average” in reporting news, and 26 percent said it was poor. In fact, British respondents thought less of their publicly funded news organization than those in countries such as Venezuela, Russia, Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria. Britain, much to the embarrassment of the corporation, came eleventh out of 14 countries polled in levels of trust toward that national public broadcaster. One of the other revealing findings was that many Britons were critical of the accuracy of the BBC’s news reporting.

A possible explanation for this negative public opinion might have been that the survey was conducted at a time when the whole of British broadcasting, including the BBC, was rocked by a number of scandals. These included fraudulent call-in programs, where the results of what were supposed to be open contests in which the public could vote by telephone or text message were found to rigged. While these didn’t originate within the BBC news and current affairs departments, the general sense of a lack of honesty seemed, to some observers, to wash over public judgments about the BBC’s news output.

There were, however, specific instances in 2007 in which BBC news and current affairs programs engaged in what can only be described as deceptive practices. One such became known as “Queengate.” The BBC was making a documentary of a year in the life of the Queen. In one sequence, the Queen seemed irritated by a particular question. In the promotional film for the documentary the question and her irritated response are shown and then she is seen walking away in some haste, as if she had stormed out of the set where she was being filmed. In fact, the sequence of her walking was shot before the question had been posed and she was in fact walking toward the set. This caused a huge furor, particularly on the grounds that if footage of the monarch could be manipulated in order to garner attention for the program, what else in news and current affairs could be manipulated? The head of BBC One, which had commissioned the documentary, was forced to resign. In a similar vein a current affairs program edited footage of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer (later Prime Minister) Gordon Brown in reverse chronological order simply to obtain a more dramatic effect. The BBC was forced to apologize.

Another more profound explanation for the decline of public trust might have been that, as with every other news broadcaster, the BBC was functioning in a global and national political environment that was ever more fractious and polarized, and in which its reportage was much more susceptible to accusations of bias. One stark example of this was when the Israeli government banned the BBC from press conferences because of what it took to be the BBC’s anti-Israel agenda in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was an enormous collision between the BBC and the British government after a news report from the corporation claimed that the government had manipulated intelligence in the run up to the Iraq war. An official inquiry, headed by Lord (Brian) Hutton, severely criticized the BBC for offering misleading information, and both the chairman and director general were forced to resign.

The BBC recognized that serious and threatening questions about its impartiality were afoot and that they were propelled by a number of different forces. In June 2007, a report titled From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel from an internal Impartiality Steering Group was published. It is a particularly important statement about the issues swirling around the BBC’s journalistic practices since it examined not just the politics within which it now had to function, but also the ways in which its practices were being drastically affected by a radically changed media ecology:

Impartiality in broadcasting has long been assumed to apply mainly to party politics and industrial disputes. It involved keeping a balance to ensure the seesaw did not tip too far to one side or the other. Those days are over. In today’s multi-polar Britain, with its range of cultures, beliefs and identities, impartiality involves many more than two sides to an argument. Party politics is in decline, and industrial disputes are only rarely central to national debate.

From its foundation, the BBC developed an impartial approach which distinguished it from the largely partisan world of print. Other broadcasters followed this lead, and impartiality became a central feature of public service broadcasting. Now, in the early 21st century, with digital switchover only a few years away, impartiality is under increasing pressure, whether from shock-jocks, opinionated news channels, or unregulated broadband broadcasters.

The BBC is not isolated from these developments. Thanks to the revolution in communications technology, its programs swim in the same sea. The convergence of platforms, services, and technical devices is blurring the boundaries between television, radio, and print, and creating a single media market. People no longer need to go to fixed points to watch or listen: they can now access BBC material almost anywhere, by wireless connections and handheld devices and often via portals which have no interest in or understanding of impartiality. The public can tailor content to suit themselves, and are increasingly able to view or listen on demand.

The significance of this statement lies in its recognition that the issues confronting the BBC’s journalism, as the twenty-first century unfolded, lay not just in the relationship between good and bad practice, but rather in underlying structural change and disruption. The corporation could not escape the fundamental reality that it was one part of a larger media environment, and that just as global warming could drastically affect the physical environment, so could the developing conjunction of technology and new patterns of audience choice drastically influence the character of even the most famous and renowned of broadcasters.


Perhaps the greatest challenge to the BBC’s journalistic mission in the twenty-first century will not be issues of its professionalism, nor the ever-present collisions with the government over political content. Rather it will be—indeed already was in the century’s first decade—the growing indifference of a public, particularly a young public, distracted by the myriad new ways of being entertained and informed, not to mention a continuing decline in its revenue stream from the license fee. The decisive development that enjoined these two processes began in the Thatcher years (1979-90) when repeated collisions with Conservative governments over such issues as civil war in Northern Ireland and industrial disputes did not endear the corporation to the Conservatives. This also coincided with the effort by government to implement neoliberal social, economic, and cultural policies throughout British society such as reducing the value of the license fee, creating greater competition among different broadcasters for the audience, and removing all public service commitments from ITV, the BBC’s main competitor for the mass audience. This translated into the ever-greater desire to employ market forces to guide the destiny of the nation. That trend of conflict and the pursuit of market economics continued, with even greater animus and energy, under the Labour government, which came to power in 1997, along with the escalating migration of audiences to the web for entertainment and information, particularly among the young. The result will be a shift from the provision of news and information by a large organization to citizens, to a culture of consumers who will choose what they do or do not want of the news and information being offered. It is a profound inversion of that original Reithian conception of the role of the public broadcaster (demonstrated by the BBC’s own growing use of multiple platforms, and branding and marketing of its news and current affairs output) alongside a serious reduction in resources for its journalistic output.

As the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century approached it seemed that the BBC was in what professor Georgina Born of the University of Cambridge had called the “post-impartial era.” In reality, the shift was deeper than that and the BBC was to all intents and purposes starting to live within the post-public service broadcasting era. In that sense the BBC was coming full circle, back to a time when it was the British Broadcasting Company, that is, a commercial enterprise. The implications of this for the BBC, its journalism, and its role within the democratic culture of the United Kingdom are likely to be enormous and, if one believes in the democratic process, deeply negative as news and current affairs programming become mere commodities in the vast markets of a new media universe.