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U.K. Opposition Leader Wants to ‘Democratize’ BBC, Make FAANGs Help Subsidize It

Jeremy Corbyn Brexit
Ian Hinchliffe/REX/Shutterstock

British political opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has proposed a number of changes to the BBC aimed at reducing government influence and increasing public accountability. The Labour Party leader said the world’s most prestigious pubcaster should be more representative of the country it served and should be transparent about the diversity and composition of its workforce.

“The BBC could lead the way by setting best practice with complete transparency on the makeup of its workforce by publishing equality data, including for social class, for all creators of BBC content, whether in-house or external,” Corbyn said Thursday at the Edinburgh Television Festival, where he delivered the annual Alternative MacTaggart lecture.

Corbyn said that while he considered the BBC “a great institution which rightly commands a special place in our country’s story and national life,” he believed it was necessary to look at ways to “democratize” the service. “Some powerful private corporate interests have long wanted to break up and cannibalize the BBC,” said Corbyn. “I think that would be a disaster. But the BBC should be freed of government control, democratized and made representative of the country it serves to help.”

He suggested giving the broadcaster permanent legal standing to break its dependence on the government of the day to renew its charter – and its funding level – every decade or so. The latest charter went into effect at the beginning of 2017.

Corbyn also proposed that tech giants or Internet providers should pay a digital license fee to supplement Britain’s current television license fee and help reduce costs for low-income households. He argued that this would allow a “democratized BBC to compete far more effectively with the private multinational digital giants like Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook….In the digital age, we should consider whether a digital license fee could be a fairer and more effective way to fund the BBC.”

The current license fee costs £150.50 ($194.40) and is required of all households that watch television, regardless of whether programming is consumed on a television, laptop, tablet or other device, or via streaming or smart TV services, including the broadcaster’s own iPlayer VOD service. Homeowners over 75 are entitled to a free license.

Corbyn backed a proposal to set up a sister organization to the BBC: the British Digital Corporation. “A BDC could use all of our best minds, the latest technology and our existing public assets not only to deliver information and entertainment to rival Netflix and Amazon but also to harness data for the public good,” he said.

Speaking about the U.K. broadcasting sector more generally, Corbyn criticized the media’s news and current affairs coverage, citing statistics suggesting that Britons don’t trust their news media. “While we produce some fantastic drama, entertainment, documentaries and films, when it comes to news and current affairs, so vital for a democratic society – our media is failing,” said Corbyn.

Corbyn said Britain needed “bold, radical thinking on the future” of its media, contending that low levels of public trust and the impact of the digital revolution could result in a “few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires” controlling “huge swaths of our public space and discourse.”

Corbyn also suggested that BBC staff and the public should be able to elect members to the BBC’s board, with a reduction or removal of the British government’s powers of appointment. “One proposal would simultaneously reduce government political influence on the BBC while empowering its workforce and license-fee payers,” said Corbyn. “That would see the election of some BBC board members – for example, of executive directors by staff and non-executive directors by licence-fee payers.”

He said that, “to help decentralize the BBC, national and regional boards could be expanded.” Also, all of the BBC’s boards should be representative of the whole country, with a minimum representation for women and minority groups, Corbyn said. He added that the broadcaster should be applauded for “already trying to become more representative of the country it serves” but that “more can be done to devolve program making and editorial decisions to regional or national level.”