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Episode
173

The BBC

Jul 6, 2021
Arts & Culture
-
22
minutes
Life in the UK
TV
Great Britain
Technology
UK politics
Politics

It's the world's oldest broadcaster and is trusted by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Discover how the BBC works, the criticisms it faces in the UK, and what might happen to it in the future.

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Alastair Budge: [00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about something that is close to almost every Brit’s heart, and that is the BBC.

[00:00:32] I’m sure you have heard of it, you have probably watched it, listened to it, or read articles by the BBC.

[00:00:41] But I imagine that you might not know a huge amount about it - about how it works, how it is funded, the mission it has, and what the future might hold for it.

[00:00:53] So, in 20 minutes time I hope that some of these questions will be answered, and you will know a little bit more about something that is a British cultural institution, and is in fact the oldest national broadcasting organisation in the entire world.

[00:01:13] OK then, let’s talk about the BBC.

[00:01:17] Just in case you weren’t aware of what the letters BBC stand for, it’s the British Broadcasting Corporation. 

[00:01:25] It’s the world’s oldest national broadcaster, and the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees.

[00:01:34] Its mission is, and I'm quoting directly here, ‘to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive outputs and services which inform, educate and entertain’.

[00:01:52] The key words there for me are ‘inform, educate, and entertain’. 

[00:01:58] This is at the core of everything the BBC aims to do.

[00:02:03] Provide information. Educate people, and entertain them. 

[00:02:07] I wouldn’t like to make any comparison between this humble podcast and the gigantic BBC, but at least, I think we have these three goals in common.

[00:02:19] So, what does the BBC actually do then to achieve its mission?

[00:02:24] Well, it produces and broadcasts shows on tv, radio, and online. 

[00:02:30] From news to drama, sports to language learning, nature documentaries to children's shows, almost anything you can imagine hearing, seeing, or reading, it’s probably done by the BBC. 

[00:02:46] Since it was founded in 1922, almost 100 years ago now, it has faithfully and diligently broadcast news and entertainment to the British public, and I should also say, to the world.

[00:02:59] It has what’s called a Royal Charter, a special licence from the government.

[00:03:06] This makes it, essentially, a state media company.

[00:03:10] Although unlike let’s say in North Korea, you won’t find newsreaders on the BBC constantly praising the leaders of the country.

[00:03:19] The BBC has editorial independence - it has the right, the obligation even, to report impartially, and to present multiple arguments, multiple points of view.

[00:03:33] This actually is easier said than done, as we’ll talk about shortly.

[00:03:39] So, the BBC is a state media broadcaster, a state media company, and it is funded, it gets its money, from the people, from British taxpayers.

[00:03:50] How this works is that if you watch live TV, or if you watch ‘catch-up’ BBC tv, on their service called ‘iPlayer’, you are required to pay a TV licence fee, which is currently £154.50, so that’s around €180 or $200, per year.

[00:04:12] This is paid by 23 million households in the UK, about 83% of the population.

[00:04:20] The fact that everyone who has a TV is required to pay this fee to the BBC, is the subject of not a small amount of controversy, and indeed in the era when we are increasingly not tuning in to watch a film or programme at a fixed time on a TV in a living room, it is far harder to actually police, to enforce the collection of this licence fee.

[00:04:47] The other effect of this licence fee is that, because everyone who watches TV is essentially a paying customer of the BBC, there is a greater feeling of entitlement over what the BBC should and shouldn’t do.

[00:05:04] Rightly so, as a paying customer of something, you feel like you have a greater right to speak your opinion than if you were getting something for free.

[00:05:14] Now, the end result of this is that the BBC is subject to constant complaints - people complaining that something was offensive to them, or that a political opinion was expressed that they disagreed with.

[00:05:30] Although many businesses would be very envious of the BBC’s 23 million customers who are in effect forced by law to buy a subscription to the BBC, it does mean that you have 23 million households to potentially offend.

[00:05:48] We’ll talk about a few implications of this in a minute.

[00:05:52] But the BBC isn’t completely funded by the British people.

[00:05:56] The majority of the rest of its income comes from selling programmes to foreign TV networks. If you have watched Sherlock, or Downton Abbey, or Call The Midwife on TV outside the UK, then the BBC will have sold the rights to show that programme.

[00:06:16] And it makes a lot of money from that, around £1.4 billion, which is around 1.6 billion Euros.

[00:06:25] It also gets a grant from the British government to make things like English learning resources, which is all part of British soft power, of trying to help people learn English and be attracted to life in the UK.

[00:06:41] If you have listened to one of the very early episodes on soft power then you will know all about that.

[00:06:49] Now, we have covered some introductory information about the BBC, and how it is funded.

[00:06:55] Let’s move on to discussing what this actually means in terms of the content that it produces.

[00:07:02] As a reminder, its mission is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.

[00:07:19] So, on a practical level, what does this actually mean?

[00:07:23] Let’s dissect each part, and start with “the public interest”.

[00:07:28] If you look in the dictionary, you’ll find “the public interest” defined as something like “the welfare or well-being of the general public”. So, if something is in the public interest, it is a good thing for people to be aware of.

[00:07:44] Informing people about the news in their country could be in the public interest. So could informing them about changes to laws, or bad behaviour of politicians.

[00:07:56] But the distinction between something that is in the public interest and something that isn’t in the public interest is, of course, not always clear.

[00:08:07] For example, there was a famous interview that was broadcast on the BBC between a young journalist called Martin Bashir and Lady Diana, the then wife of Prince Charles, the Queen’s son.

[00:08:21] During this interview, Princess Diana admitted to her and Charles’ extra-marital affairs, and it was ultimately an interview that led to their divorce.

[00:08:33] Although it was over 25 years ago now, it has come under renewed scrutiny, as it was alleged that the BBC journalist had tricked Lady Diana into giving him the interview.

[00:08:46] Now, to go back to the BBC’s mission, it is certainly less clear whether this kind of interview was in the public interest. 

[00:08:56] If the news story is about a member of the Royal family, sure it might make for entertaining viewing, but is it by default in the public interest? 

[00:09:08] Certainly, there isn’t an easy answer.

[00:09:11] Now, let’s dissect the second part of the BBC’s mission, “serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output”

[00:09:24] The most important word here is “impartial”, meaning without bias, objective, without a strong opinion either way.

[00:09:34] Being impartial is a lot harder than some people think.

[00:09:38] It means not expressing opinions, it means concealing what you actually think about something, even if you might have a very strong opinion, you are not allowed to show it.

[00:09:50] It also means allowing different opinions to be aired, different opinions to be shown from the entire political spectrum, left to right.

[00:10:00] Despite pledging to be politically neutral, the BBC is forever criticised by both right and left.

[00:10:08] On the political right, it is criticised for being too liberal, too left, and too full of the metropolitan elite. 

[00:10:16] This is particularly true at the moment, when there is a Conservative government, and the BBC asks hard questions of the government.

[00:10:26] But when there is a Labour government, a centre-left government, the BBC tends to get criticised for being too conservative-leaning, for being too right wing.

[00:10:39] During the 2016 Brexit referendum it was criticised by both sides at the same time. The Leave side, the side for Brexit, criticised the BBC for being anti-Brexit, and the Remain side, the side that supported remaining in the EU, criticised it for being pro-Brexit.

[00:11:01] So, if both sides are saying that the BBC is biased, that is normally a pretty good sign that it is doing a decent job at remaining objective, of remaining impartial.

[00:11:14] This balance of opinion is generally given not through the newsreaders or through the interviews, but the choice of guests, the choice of interviewees that are invited to join a BBC programme.

[00:11:29] The debate shows will generally invite people from a range of different opinions, to ensure that there is some balanced discussion.

[00:11:38] Finding that balance of opinions is, of course, hard, but the BBC does generally do this quite well.

[00:11:46] It does beg the question, though, of what is ‘balanced’. 

[00:11:50] And how much ‘airtime’ should be given to different opinions?

[00:11:55] There are evidently some views that are so niche, some that are so ridiculous, or some that are so extreme that they are offensive, that probably don’t deserve any kind of airtime.

[00:12:08] But, especially in recent years where there has been a growth in extremism, of people having more ‘extreme’ views, the BBC has been accused of providing a platform for these opinions that are considered to be more dangerous and more radical.

[00:12:26] Now, going back to its mission again, the BBC has the duty to “serve all audiences”, and just because an audience might have a different opinion to you, does this mean that it shouldn't be served?

[00:12:42] Whatever the BBC does, it will always have critics - on the one hand people who say that too much airtime is given to extremist views, and on the other hand, people who hold those views will say that the BBC is too liberal, is too ‘left wing’, or that it tries to make everything too neutral.

[00:13:02] So the BBC has a hard time pleasing everyone.

[00:13:08] The result of this is that the BBC has gained a reputation in the UK for extreme caution, and for trying to represent every single interest group or demographic, equally.

[00:13:21] No matter your skin colour, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other factor, the BBC tries to represent you.

[00:13:31] That is, in my view at least, a pretty great thing, and a noble development, but it has meant that it is often the object of ridicule, that people make fun of it.

[00:13:44] There’s actually a really good, what's called ‘mockumentary’, a kind of comedy documentary, called W1A, which is a BBC series that makes fun of how politically correct the BBC is, and how everyone is so afraid of offending a particular group that nothing ever gets done. 

[00:14:04] It’s definitely worth a watch, and is a great example of this extreme caution that the BBC exercises. Again it's called W1A.

[00:14:15] In terms of what the BBC actually does, in terms of the programmes it actually produces, it would take us hours, days, weeks, to talk about all of them, so I want to just give you an overview.

[00:14:28] The BBC both makes its own programmes, and buys programmes from other production companies.

[00:14:34] I guess you will have probably watched quite a few BBC programmes yourself, as they are often exported all over the world, and shown on other, non-bbc, tv channels.

[00:14:47] To list some that I imagine you might have come across, there are the amazing ‘nature documentary’ series, things like The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Walking with Dinosaurs.

[00:15:00] There was the longest running weekly music show in history, called Top of The Pops, which hosted everything from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Madonna and The Spice Girls.

[00:15:12] Of course the classic comedies, things like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers.

[00:15:17] And the most recent hit success from the BBC - and I have to confess, I don’t really understand the appeal of this, I don’t really see why it was so popular, was The Great British Bake Off, the show where people make cakes.

[00:15:35] Now, the BBC will celebrate its 100th birthday next year, but it hasn’t actually been broadcasting non-stop for a hundred years.

[00:15:44] All TV broadcasting was stopped during the Second World War. 

[00:15:48] The BBC was partly moved out of London, and of course, the nation had bigger concerns than producing great documentaries. 

[00:15:58] So the BBC was taken off air, the TVs were turned off from September 1939, allegedly in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

[00:16:08] And the TVs were switched off until 1946 - there was no TV for 7 years.

[00:16:15] The story goes that when service resumed, after 7 years of pause, they started again at the same point from the same Mickey Mouse cartoon but only after the announcer said “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.”

[00:16:31] For those of you familiar with the British sense of humour, that probably makes a lot of sense. It is a very British thing to say, to play down the fact that there has been a long and tragic war, and instead refer to being rudely interrupted.

[00:16:47] Even though it makes for a great story, unfortunately it is an urban myth, it’s not true.

[00:16:55] The real story is actually just as endearing, just as sweet and funny.

[00:17:01] The first person to appear when the TVs were turned back on and service resumed was a lady called Jasmine Bligh and her first words were "Good afternoon, everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh... ?"

[00:17:16] Here’s a clip of her.

[00:17:18] Jasmine Bligh: [00:17:18] "Hi, how are you?, do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh...". 

[00:17:22] Alastair Budge: [00:17:22] Now, given that the BBC is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, this has led to renewed debate over the purpose it serves, how it is funded, and how it competes in a world full of Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and other well-oiled businesses that also offer compelling TV.

[00:17:44] There have been petitions to abolish the licence fee, arguing that it is a tax on anyone who wants to watch television, and that it just isn’t an effective way to fund a national broadcaster.

[00:17:57] There is also debate over the existence of a national broadcaster

[00:18:02] Should there be a state media company that tries to please everyone? 

[00:18:07] With something like the “public interest” so hard to define, who and how should decide what qualifies as “in the public interest”?

[00:18:17] If it is indeed a service that exists for the benefit of the country, wouldn’t it make more sense for the fee to be paid directly as a tax, rather than households paying the same amount for it? 

[00:18:31] Several countries have already gone this route, Sweden, for example, and wouldn’t this be a more sensible way of funding the organisation?

[00:18:40] The debate over funding the BBC has been going on since the 1980s, and nobody has yet come up with a better way to do it. Something surely has to change, but whether that is a national tax, a subscription system, or the breaking up of different parts of the BBC, it seems unlikely that there will be agreement at any time in the near future.

[00:19:05] And in terms of how the BBC competes in a world dominated by tech giants that have started to move in on its territory, this is obviously an important question not just for the BBC itself, but for the people in the UK who pay for it.

[00:19:23] Especially for the younger generation, let’s say those aged between 16-25, the amount of time they spend sitting in front of a TV and watching traditional television programmes is dropping every year. 

[00:19:38] Whether it’s YouTube, Netflix, or other forms of social media, the BBC has had to accept that the days of a family gathering around at a fixed time to catch a programme on BBC One will not be around forever.

[00:19:54] And there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer for what the BBC could, or should, do about it.

[00:20:01] Now, despite all its faults and imperfections, it’s hard to deny that it is an amazing and enduring institution, and it has a pretty special place in almost every Brit’s heart. 

[00:20:14] Especially in the era of fake news, and of private companies encroaching on the media industry, the BBC's long history of public service, and of impartiality, or reporting events fairly and objectively is more important than ever before. 

[00:20:33] So, it is certainly my hope that the BBC is going to continue to inform, educate, and entertain for quite some time to come.

[00:20:45] OK, then, that is it for today’s episode on the British institution that is the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation.

[00:20:54] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:20:59] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:03] Is there a national broadcaster in your country? If so, who pays for it, and how?

[00:21:09] What do you think organisations like the BBC should do in the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime?

[00:21:15] And finally, perhaps most importantly, are you a fan of The Great British Bake Off, and if so, can you please explain to me why?

[00:21:24] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


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Alastair Budge: [00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about something that is close to almost every Brit’s heart, and that is the BBC.

[00:00:32] I’m sure you have heard of it, you have probably watched it, listened to it, or read articles by the BBC.

[00:00:41] But I imagine that you might not know a huge amount about it - about how it works, how it is funded, the mission it has, and what the future might hold for it.

[00:00:53] So, in 20 minutes time I hope that some of these questions will be answered, and you will know a little bit more about something that is a British cultural institution, and is in fact the oldest national broadcasting organisation in the entire world.

[00:01:13] OK then, let’s talk about the BBC.

[00:01:17] Just in case you weren’t aware of what the letters BBC stand for, it’s the British Broadcasting Corporation. 

[00:01:25] It’s the world’s oldest national broadcaster, and the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees.

[00:01:34] Its mission is, and I'm quoting directly here, ‘to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive outputs and services which inform, educate and entertain’.

[00:01:52] The key words there for me are ‘inform, educate, and entertain’. 

[00:01:58] This is at the core of everything the BBC aims to do.

[00:02:03] Provide information. Educate people, and entertain them. 

[00:02:07] I wouldn’t like to make any comparison between this humble podcast and the gigantic BBC, but at least, I think we have these three goals in common.

[00:02:19] So, what does the BBC actually do then to achieve its mission?

[00:02:24] Well, it produces and broadcasts shows on tv, radio, and online. 

[00:02:30] From news to drama, sports to language learning, nature documentaries to children's shows, almost anything you can imagine hearing, seeing, or reading, it’s probably done by the BBC. 

[00:02:46] Since it was founded in 1922, almost 100 years ago now, it has faithfully and diligently broadcast news and entertainment to the British public, and I should also say, to the world.

[00:02:59] It has what’s called a Royal Charter, a special licence from the government.

[00:03:06] This makes it, essentially, a state media company.

[00:03:10] Although unlike let’s say in North Korea, you won’t find newsreaders on the BBC constantly praising the leaders of the country.

[00:03:19] The BBC has editorial independence - it has the right, the obligation even, to report impartially, and to present multiple arguments, multiple points of view.

[00:03:33] This actually is easier said than done, as we’ll talk about shortly.

[00:03:39] So, the BBC is a state media broadcaster, a state media company, and it is funded, it gets its money, from the people, from British taxpayers.

[00:03:50] How this works is that if you watch live TV, or if you watch ‘catch-up’ BBC tv, on their service called ‘iPlayer’, you are required to pay a TV licence fee, which is currently £154.50, so that’s around €180 or $200, per year.

[00:04:12] This is paid by 23 million households in the UK, about 83% of the population.

[00:04:20] The fact that everyone who has a TV is required to pay this fee to the BBC, is the subject of not a small amount of controversy, and indeed in the era when we are increasingly not tuning in to watch a film or programme at a fixed time on a TV in a living room, it is far harder to actually police, to enforce the collection of this licence fee.

[00:04:47] The other effect of this licence fee is that, because everyone who watches TV is essentially a paying customer of the BBC, there is a greater feeling of entitlement over what the BBC should and shouldn’t do.

[00:05:04] Rightly so, as a paying customer of something, you feel like you have a greater right to speak your opinion than if you were getting something for free.

[00:05:14] Now, the end result of this is that the BBC is subject to constant complaints - people complaining that something was offensive to them, or that a political opinion was expressed that they disagreed with.

[00:05:30] Although many businesses would be very envious of the BBC’s 23 million customers who are in effect forced by law to buy a subscription to the BBC, it does mean that you have 23 million households to potentially offend.

[00:05:48] We’ll talk about a few implications of this in a minute.

[00:05:52] But the BBC isn’t completely funded by the British people.

[00:05:56] The majority of the rest of its income comes from selling programmes to foreign TV networks. If you have watched Sherlock, or Downton Abbey, or Call The Midwife on TV outside the UK, then the BBC will have sold the rights to show that programme.

[00:06:16] And it makes a lot of money from that, around £1.4 billion, which is around 1.6 billion Euros.

[00:06:25] It also gets a grant from the British government to make things like English learning resources, which is all part of British soft power, of trying to help people learn English and be attracted to life in the UK.

[00:06:41] If you have listened to one of the very early episodes on soft power then you will know all about that.

[00:06:49] Now, we have covered some introductory information about the BBC, and how it is funded.

[00:06:55] Let’s move on to discussing what this actually means in terms of the content that it produces.

[00:07:02] As a reminder, its mission is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.

[00:07:19] So, on a practical level, what does this actually mean?

[00:07:23] Let’s dissect each part, and start with “the public interest”.

[00:07:28] If you look in the dictionary, you’ll find “the public interest” defined as something like “the welfare or well-being of the general public”. So, if something is in the public interest, it is a good thing for people to be aware of.

[00:07:44] Informing people about the news in their country could be in the public interest. So could informing them about changes to laws, or bad behaviour of politicians.

[00:07:56] But the distinction between something that is in the public interest and something that isn’t in the public interest is, of course, not always clear.

[00:08:07] For example, there was a famous interview that was broadcast on the BBC between a young journalist called Martin Bashir and Lady Diana, the then wife of Prince Charles, the Queen’s son.

[00:08:21] During this interview, Princess Diana admitted to her and Charles’ extra-marital affairs, and it was ultimately an interview that led to their divorce.

[00:08:33] Although it was over 25 years ago now, it has come under renewed scrutiny, as it was alleged that the BBC journalist had tricked Lady Diana into giving him the interview.

[00:08:46] Now, to go back to the BBC’s mission, it is certainly less clear whether this kind of interview was in the public interest. 

[00:08:56] If the news story is about a member of the Royal family, sure it might make for entertaining viewing, but is it by default in the public interest? 

[00:09:08] Certainly, there isn’t an easy answer.

[00:09:11] Now, let’s dissect the second part of the BBC’s mission, “serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output”

[00:09:24] The most important word here is “impartial”, meaning without bias, objective, without a strong opinion either way.

[00:09:34] Being impartial is a lot harder than some people think.

[00:09:38] It means not expressing opinions, it means concealing what you actually think about something, even if you might have a very strong opinion, you are not allowed to show it.

[00:09:50] It also means allowing different opinions to be aired, different opinions to be shown from the entire political spectrum, left to right.

[00:10:00] Despite pledging to be politically neutral, the BBC is forever criticised by both right and left.

[00:10:08] On the political right, it is criticised for being too liberal, too left, and too full of the metropolitan elite. 

[00:10:16] This is particularly true at the moment, when there is a Conservative government, and the BBC asks hard questions of the government.

[00:10:26] But when there is a Labour government, a centre-left government, the BBC tends to get criticised for being too conservative-leaning, for being too right wing.

[00:10:39] During the 2016 Brexit referendum it was criticised by both sides at the same time. The Leave side, the side for Brexit, criticised the BBC for being anti-Brexit, and the Remain side, the side that supported remaining in the EU, criticised it for being pro-Brexit.

[00:11:01] So, if both sides are saying that the BBC is biased, that is normally a pretty good sign that it is doing a decent job at remaining objective, of remaining impartial.

[00:11:14] This balance of opinion is generally given not through the newsreaders or through the interviews, but the choice of guests, the choice of interviewees that are invited to join a BBC programme.

[00:11:29] The debate shows will generally invite people from a range of different opinions, to ensure that there is some balanced discussion.

[00:11:38] Finding that balance of opinions is, of course, hard, but the BBC does generally do this quite well.

[00:11:46] It does beg the question, though, of what is ‘balanced’. 

[00:11:50] And how much ‘airtime’ should be given to different opinions?

[00:11:55] There are evidently some views that are so niche, some that are so ridiculous, or some that are so extreme that they are offensive, that probably don’t deserve any kind of airtime.

[00:12:08] But, especially in recent years where there has been a growth in extremism, of people having more ‘extreme’ views, the BBC has been accused of providing a platform for these opinions that are considered to be more dangerous and more radical.

[00:12:26] Now, going back to its mission again, the BBC has the duty to “serve all audiences”, and just because an audience might have a different opinion to you, does this mean that it shouldn't be served?

[00:12:42] Whatever the BBC does, it will always have critics - on the one hand people who say that too much airtime is given to extremist views, and on the other hand, people who hold those views will say that the BBC is too liberal, is too ‘left wing’, or that it tries to make everything too neutral.

[00:13:02] So the BBC has a hard time pleasing everyone.

[00:13:08] The result of this is that the BBC has gained a reputation in the UK for extreme caution, and for trying to represent every single interest group or demographic, equally.

[00:13:21] No matter your skin colour, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other factor, the BBC tries to represent you.

[00:13:31] That is, in my view at least, a pretty great thing, and a noble development, but it has meant that it is often the object of ridicule, that people make fun of it.

[00:13:44] There’s actually a really good, what's called ‘mockumentary’, a kind of comedy documentary, called W1A, which is a BBC series that makes fun of how politically correct the BBC is, and how everyone is so afraid of offending a particular group that nothing ever gets done. 

[00:14:04] It’s definitely worth a watch, and is a great example of this extreme caution that the BBC exercises. Again it's called W1A.

[00:14:15] In terms of what the BBC actually does, in terms of the programmes it actually produces, it would take us hours, days, weeks, to talk about all of them, so I want to just give you an overview.

[00:14:28] The BBC both makes its own programmes, and buys programmes from other production companies.

[00:14:34] I guess you will have probably watched quite a few BBC programmes yourself, as they are often exported all over the world, and shown on other, non-bbc, tv channels.

[00:14:47] To list some that I imagine you might have come across, there are the amazing ‘nature documentary’ series, things like The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Walking with Dinosaurs.

[00:15:00] There was the longest running weekly music show in history, called Top of The Pops, which hosted everything from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Madonna and The Spice Girls.

[00:15:12] Of course the classic comedies, things like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers.

[00:15:17] And the most recent hit success from the BBC - and I have to confess, I don’t really understand the appeal of this, I don’t really see why it was so popular, was The Great British Bake Off, the show where people make cakes.

[00:15:35] Now, the BBC will celebrate its 100th birthday next year, but it hasn’t actually been broadcasting non-stop for a hundred years.

[00:15:44] All TV broadcasting was stopped during the Second World War. 

[00:15:48] The BBC was partly moved out of London, and of course, the nation had bigger concerns than producing great documentaries. 

[00:15:58] So the BBC was taken off air, the TVs were turned off from September 1939, allegedly in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

[00:16:08] And the TVs were switched off until 1946 - there was no TV for 7 years.

[00:16:15] The story goes that when service resumed, after 7 years of pause, they started again at the same point from the same Mickey Mouse cartoon but only after the announcer said “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.”

[00:16:31] For those of you familiar with the British sense of humour, that probably makes a lot of sense. It is a very British thing to say, to play down the fact that there has been a long and tragic war, and instead refer to being rudely interrupted.

[00:16:47] Even though it makes for a great story, unfortunately it is an urban myth, it’s not true.

[00:16:55] The real story is actually just as endearing, just as sweet and funny.

[00:17:01] The first person to appear when the TVs were turned back on and service resumed was a lady called Jasmine Bligh and her first words were "Good afternoon, everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh... ?"

[00:17:16] Here’s a clip of her.

[00:17:18] Jasmine Bligh: [00:17:18] "Hi, how are you?, do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh...". 

[00:17:22] Alastair Budge: [00:17:22] Now, given that the BBC is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, this has led to renewed debate over the purpose it serves, how it is funded, and how it competes in a world full of Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and other well-oiled businesses that also offer compelling TV.

[00:17:44] There have been petitions to abolish the licence fee, arguing that it is a tax on anyone who wants to watch television, and that it just isn’t an effective way to fund a national broadcaster.

[00:17:57] There is also debate over the existence of a national broadcaster

[00:18:02] Should there be a state media company that tries to please everyone? 

[00:18:07] With something like the “public interest” so hard to define, who and how should decide what qualifies as “in the public interest”?

[00:18:17] If it is indeed a service that exists for the benefit of the country, wouldn’t it make more sense for the fee to be paid directly as a tax, rather than households paying the same amount for it? 

[00:18:31] Several countries have already gone this route, Sweden, for example, and wouldn’t this be a more sensible way of funding the organisation?

[00:18:40] The debate over funding the BBC has been going on since the 1980s, and nobody has yet come up with a better way to do it. Something surely has to change, but whether that is a national tax, a subscription system, or the breaking up of different parts of the BBC, it seems unlikely that there will be agreement at any time in the near future.

[00:19:05] And in terms of how the BBC competes in a world dominated by tech giants that have started to move in on its territory, this is obviously an important question not just for the BBC itself, but for the people in the UK who pay for it.

[00:19:23] Especially for the younger generation, let’s say those aged between 16-25, the amount of time they spend sitting in front of a TV and watching traditional television programmes is dropping every year. 

[00:19:38] Whether it’s YouTube, Netflix, or other forms of social media, the BBC has had to accept that the days of a family gathering around at a fixed time to catch a programme on BBC One will not be around forever.

[00:19:54] And there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer for what the BBC could, or should, do about it.

[00:20:01] Now, despite all its faults and imperfections, it’s hard to deny that it is an amazing and enduring institution, and it has a pretty special place in almost every Brit’s heart. 

[00:20:14] Especially in the era of fake news, and of private companies encroaching on the media industry, the BBC's long history of public service, and of impartiality, or reporting events fairly and objectively is more important than ever before. 

[00:20:33] So, it is certainly my hope that the BBC is going to continue to inform, educate, and entertain for quite some time to come.

[00:20:45] OK, then, that is it for today’s episode on the British institution that is the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation.

[00:20:54] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:20:59] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:03] Is there a national broadcaster in your country? If so, who pays for it, and how?

[00:21:09] What do you think organisations like the BBC should do in the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime?

[00:21:15] And finally, perhaps most importantly, are you a fan of The Great British Bake Off, and if so, can you please explain to me why?

[00:21:24] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Alastair Budge: [00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about something that is close to almost every Brit’s heart, and that is the BBC.

[00:00:32] I’m sure you have heard of it, you have probably watched it, listened to it, or read articles by the BBC.

[00:00:41] But I imagine that you might not know a huge amount about it - about how it works, how it is funded, the mission it has, and what the future might hold for it.

[00:00:53] So, in 20 minutes time I hope that some of these questions will be answered, and you will know a little bit more about something that is a British cultural institution, and is in fact the oldest national broadcasting organisation in the entire world.

[00:01:13] OK then, let’s talk about the BBC.

[00:01:17] Just in case you weren’t aware of what the letters BBC stand for, it’s the British Broadcasting Corporation. 

[00:01:25] It’s the world’s oldest national broadcaster, and the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees.

[00:01:34] Its mission is, and I'm quoting directly here, ‘to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive outputs and services which inform, educate and entertain’.

[00:01:52] The key words there for me are ‘inform, educate, and entertain’. 

[00:01:58] This is at the core of everything the BBC aims to do.

[00:02:03] Provide information. Educate people, and entertain them. 

[00:02:07] I wouldn’t like to make any comparison between this humble podcast and the gigantic BBC, but at least, I think we have these three goals in common.

[00:02:19] So, what does the BBC actually do then to achieve its mission?

[00:02:24] Well, it produces and broadcasts shows on tv, radio, and online. 

[00:02:30] From news to drama, sports to language learning, nature documentaries to children's shows, almost anything you can imagine hearing, seeing, or reading, it’s probably done by the BBC. 

[00:02:46] Since it was founded in 1922, almost 100 years ago now, it has faithfully and diligently broadcast news and entertainment to the British public, and I should also say, to the world.

[00:02:59] It has what’s called a Royal Charter, a special licence from the government.

[00:03:06] This makes it, essentially, a state media company.

[00:03:10] Although unlike let’s say in North Korea, you won’t find newsreaders on the BBC constantly praising the leaders of the country.

[00:03:19] The BBC has editorial independence - it has the right, the obligation even, to report impartially, and to present multiple arguments, multiple points of view.

[00:03:33] This actually is easier said than done, as we’ll talk about shortly.

[00:03:39] So, the BBC is a state media broadcaster, a state media company, and it is funded, it gets its money, from the people, from British taxpayers.

[00:03:50] How this works is that if you watch live TV, or if you watch ‘catch-up’ BBC tv, on their service called ‘iPlayer’, you are required to pay a TV licence fee, which is currently £154.50, so that’s around €180 or $200, per year.

[00:04:12] This is paid by 23 million households in the UK, about 83% of the population.

[00:04:20] The fact that everyone who has a TV is required to pay this fee to the BBC, is the subject of not a small amount of controversy, and indeed in the era when we are increasingly not tuning in to watch a film or programme at a fixed time on a TV in a living room, it is far harder to actually police, to enforce the collection of this licence fee.

[00:04:47] The other effect of this licence fee is that, because everyone who watches TV is essentially a paying customer of the BBC, there is a greater feeling of entitlement over what the BBC should and shouldn’t do.

[00:05:04] Rightly so, as a paying customer of something, you feel like you have a greater right to speak your opinion than if you were getting something for free.

[00:05:14] Now, the end result of this is that the BBC is subject to constant complaints - people complaining that something was offensive to them, or that a political opinion was expressed that they disagreed with.

[00:05:30] Although many businesses would be very envious of the BBC’s 23 million customers who are in effect forced by law to buy a subscription to the BBC, it does mean that you have 23 million households to potentially offend.

[00:05:48] We’ll talk about a few implications of this in a minute.

[00:05:52] But the BBC isn’t completely funded by the British people.

[00:05:56] The majority of the rest of its income comes from selling programmes to foreign TV networks. If you have watched Sherlock, or Downton Abbey, or Call The Midwife on TV outside the UK, then the BBC will have sold the rights to show that programme.

[00:06:16] And it makes a lot of money from that, around £1.4 billion, which is around 1.6 billion Euros.

[00:06:25] It also gets a grant from the British government to make things like English learning resources, which is all part of British soft power, of trying to help people learn English and be attracted to life in the UK.

[00:06:41] If you have listened to one of the very early episodes on soft power then you will know all about that.

[00:06:49] Now, we have covered some introductory information about the BBC, and how it is funded.

[00:06:55] Let’s move on to discussing what this actually means in terms of the content that it produces.

[00:07:02] As a reminder, its mission is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.

[00:07:19] So, on a practical level, what does this actually mean?

[00:07:23] Let’s dissect each part, and start with “the public interest”.

[00:07:28] If you look in the dictionary, you’ll find “the public interest” defined as something like “the welfare or well-being of the general public”. So, if something is in the public interest, it is a good thing for people to be aware of.

[00:07:44] Informing people about the news in their country could be in the public interest. So could informing them about changes to laws, or bad behaviour of politicians.

[00:07:56] But the distinction between something that is in the public interest and something that isn’t in the public interest is, of course, not always clear.

[00:08:07] For example, there was a famous interview that was broadcast on the BBC between a young journalist called Martin Bashir and Lady Diana, the then wife of Prince Charles, the Queen’s son.

[00:08:21] During this interview, Princess Diana admitted to her and Charles’ extra-marital affairs, and it was ultimately an interview that led to their divorce.

[00:08:33] Although it was over 25 years ago now, it has come under renewed scrutiny, as it was alleged that the BBC journalist had tricked Lady Diana into giving him the interview.

[00:08:46] Now, to go back to the BBC’s mission, it is certainly less clear whether this kind of interview was in the public interest. 

[00:08:56] If the news story is about a member of the Royal family, sure it might make for entertaining viewing, but is it by default in the public interest? 

[00:09:08] Certainly, there isn’t an easy answer.

[00:09:11] Now, let’s dissect the second part of the BBC’s mission, “serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output”

[00:09:24] The most important word here is “impartial”, meaning without bias, objective, without a strong opinion either way.

[00:09:34] Being impartial is a lot harder than some people think.

[00:09:38] It means not expressing opinions, it means concealing what you actually think about something, even if you might have a very strong opinion, you are not allowed to show it.

[00:09:50] It also means allowing different opinions to be aired, different opinions to be shown from the entire political spectrum, left to right.

[00:10:00] Despite pledging to be politically neutral, the BBC is forever criticised by both right and left.

[00:10:08] On the political right, it is criticised for being too liberal, too left, and too full of the metropolitan elite. 

[00:10:16] This is particularly true at the moment, when there is a Conservative government, and the BBC asks hard questions of the government.

[00:10:26] But when there is a Labour government, a centre-left government, the BBC tends to get criticised for being too conservative-leaning, for being too right wing.

[00:10:39] During the 2016 Brexit referendum it was criticised by both sides at the same time. The Leave side, the side for Brexit, criticised the BBC for being anti-Brexit, and the Remain side, the side that supported remaining in the EU, criticised it for being pro-Brexit.

[00:11:01] So, if both sides are saying that the BBC is biased, that is normally a pretty good sign that it is doing a decent job at remaining objective, of remaining impartial.

[00:11:14] This balance of opinion is generally given not through the newsreaders or through the interviews, but the choice of guests, the choice of interviewees that are invited to join a BBC programme.

[00:11:29] The debate shows will generally invite people from a range of different opinions, to ensure that there is some balanced discussion.

[00:11:38] Finding that balance of opinions is, of course, hard, but the BBC does generally do this quite well.

[00:11:46] It does beg the question, though, of what is ‘balanced’. 

[00:11:50] And how much ‘airtime’ should be given to different opinions?

[00:11:55] There are evidently some views that are so niche, some that are so ridiculous, or some that are so extreme that they are offensive, that probably don’t deserve any kind of airtime.

[00:12:08] But, especially in recent years where there has been a growth in extremism, of people having more ‘extreme’ views, the BBC has been accused of providing a platform for these opinions that are considered to be more dangerous and more radical.

[00:12:26] Now, going back to its mission again, the BBC has the duty to “serve all audiences”, and just because an audience might have a different opinion to you, does this mean that it shouldn't be served?

[00:12:42] Whatever the BBC does, it will always have critics - on the one hand people who say that too much airtime is given to extremist views, and on the other hand, people who hold those views will say that the BBC is too liberal, is too ‘left wing’, or that it tries to make everything too neutral.

[00:13:02] So the BBC has a hard time pleasing everyone.

[00:13:08] The result of this is that the BBC has gained a reputation in the UK for extreme caution, and for trying to represent every single interest group or demographic, equally.

[00:13:21] No matter your skin colour, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other factor, the BBC tries to represent you.

[00:13:31] That is, in my view at least, a pretty great thing, and a noble development, but it has meant that it is often the object of ridicule, that people make fun of it.

[00:13:44] There’s actually a really good, what's called ‘mockumentary’, a kind of comedy documentary, called W1A, which is a BBC series that makes fun of how politically correct the BBC is, and how everyone is so afraid of offending a particular group that nothing ever gets done. 

[00:14:04] It’s definitely worth a watch, and is a great example of this extreme caution that the BBC exercises. Again it's called W1A.

[00:14:15] In terms of what the BBC actually does, in terms of the programmes it actually produces, it would take us hours, days, weeks, to talk about all of them, so I want to just give you an overview.

[00:14:28] The BBC both makes its own programmes, and buys programmes from other production companies.

[00:14:34] I guess you will have probably watched quite a few BBC programmes yourself, as they are often exported all over the world, and shown on other, non-bbc, tv channels.

[00:14:47] To list some that I imagine you might have come across, there are the amazing ‘nature documentary’ series, things like The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Walking with Dinosaurs.

[00:15:00] There was the longest running weekly music show in history, called Top of The Pops, which hosted everything from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Madonna and The Spice Girls.

[00:15:12] Of course the classic comedies, things like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers.

[00:15:17] And the most recent hit success from the BBC - and I have to confess, I don’t really understand the appeal of this, I don’t really see why it was so popular, was The Great British Bake Off, the show where people make cakes.

[00:15:35] Now, the BBC will celebrate its 100th birthday next year, but it hasn’t actually been broadcasting non-stop for a hundred years.

[00:15:44] All TV broadcasting was stopped during the Second World War. 

[00:15:48] The BBC was partly moved out of London, and of course, the nation had bigger concerns than producing great documentaries. 

[00:15:58] So the BBC was taken off air, the TVs were turned off from September 1939, allegedly in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

[00:16:08] And the TVs were switched off until 1946 - there was no TV for 7 years.

[00:16:15] The story goes that when service resumed, after 7 years of pause, they started again at the same point from the same Mickey Mouse cartoon but only after the announcer said “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.”

[00:16:31] For those of you familiar with the British sense of humour, that probably makes a lot of sense. It is a very British thing to say, to play down the fact that there has been a long and tragic war, and instead refer to being rudely interrupted.

[00:16:47] Even though it makes for a great story, unfortunately it is an urban myth, it’s not true.

[00:16:55] The real story is actually just as endearing, just as sweet and funny.

[00:17:01] The first person to appear when the TVs were turned back on and service resumed was a lady called Jasmine Bligh and her first words were "Good afternoon, everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh... ?"

[00:17:16] Here’s a clip of her.

[00:17:18] Jasmine Bligh: [00:17:18] "Hi, how are you?, do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh...". 

[00:17:22] Alastair Budge: [00:17:22] Now, given that the BBC is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, this has led to renewed debate over the purpose it serves, how it is funded, and how it competes in a world full of Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and other well-oiled businesses that also offer compelling TV.

[00:17:44] There have been petitions to abolish the licence fee, arguing that it is a tax on anyone who wants to watch television, and that it just isn’t an effective way to fund a national broadcaster.

[00:17:57] There is also debate over the existence of a national broadcaster

[00:18:02] Should there be a state media company that tries to please everyone? 

[00:18:07] With something like the “public interest” so hard to define, who and how should decide what qualifies as “in the public interest”?

[00:18:17] If it is indeed a service that exists for the benefit of the country, wouldn’t it make more sense for the fee to be paid directly as a tax, rather than households paying the same amount for it? 

[00:18:31] Several countries have already gone this route, Sweden, for example, and wouldn’t this be a more sensible way of funding the organisation?

[00:18:40] The debate over funding the BBC has been going on since the 1980s, and nobody has yet come up with a better way to do it. Something surely has to change, but whether that is a national tax, a subscription system, or the breaking up of different parts of the BBC, it seems unlikely that there will be agreement at any time in the near future.

[00:19:05] And in terms of how the BBC competes in a world dominated by tech giants that have started to move in on its territory, this is obviously an important question not just for the BBC itself, but for the people in the UK who pay for it.

[00:19:23] Especially for the younger generation, let’s say those aged between 16-25, the amount of time they spend sitting in front of a TV and watching traditional television programmes is dropping every year. 

[00:19:38] Whether it’s YouTube, Netflix, or other forms of social media, the BBC has had to accept that the days of a family gathering around at a fixed time to catch a programme on BBC One will not be around forever.

[00:19:54] And there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer for what the BBC could, or should, do about it.

[00:20:01] Now, despite all its faults and imperfections, it’s hard to deny that it is an amazing and enduring institution, and it has a pretty special place in almost every Brit’s heart. 

[00:20:14] Especially in the era of fake news, and of private companies encroaching on the media industry, the BBC's long history of public service, and of impartiality, or reporting events fairly and objectively is more important than ever before. 

[00:20:33] So, it is certainly my hope that the BBC is going to continue to inform, educate, and entertain for quite some time to come.

[00:20:45] OK, then, that is it for today’s episode on the British institution that is the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation.

[00:20:54] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:20:59] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:03] Is there a national broadcaster in your country? If so, who pays for it, and how?

[00:21:09] What do you think organisations like the BBC should do in the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime?

[00:21:15] And finally, perhaps most importantly, are you a fan of The Great British Bake Off, and if so, can you please explain to me why?

[00:21:24] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]