In 1904 the United Kingdom’s Wireless Telegraphy Act put the Royal Post Office in control of issuing broadcast licenses. In 1919, after complaints that new broadcasters were interfering with military communications, the Post Office stopped issuing these licenses, and by 1922 new stations were permitted to begin broadcasting only as part of a monopoly called the British Broadcasting Company. In 1927 a royal charter converted this company into the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC.
Today this nominally autonomous corporation is run by a Board of Governors whose members are appointed to four-year (formerly five-year) terms by the elected government in Parliament. The BBC is managed by a Director General appointed by the Governors.
BBC airs no advertising. Its broadcasts are funded by a “licence fee” levied on every household that owns a television set. The poor and other favored groups are exempted from this tax, and those with black-and-white TVs pay less than those with color. This annual tax of approximately $195 per color-television household gives BBC its own earmarked revenue of approximately $5.2 billion each year, which it uses to produce and broadcast programs and to maintain the largest news-gathering operation in the world.
BBC Radio broadcasts what Americans would call five distinct networks or channels — news and sports (BBC Radio 5); what used to be called its Home Service (Radio 4); cultural programming (Radio 3); easy listening jazz and folk music (Radio 2); and contemporary music (Radio 1).
BBC Television launched the world’s first regular television service in 1936 from the Alexandra Palace in London. It has aired ever since, except during World War II when it temporarily went dark lest its signal be detected by German bombers over London. That channel, now known as BBC One, broadcasts mostly dramas, comedies, game shows and soap operas. BBC Two was launched in 1964 and today it features more eclectic, cultural and news-oriented programs than BBC One.
BBC has long exported its programs and documentaries, many of which air in the United States on PBS. It also broadcasts a few imported foreign programs. BBC Radio shows and news stories are broadcast in the U.S. by the stations of Pacifica Radio and National Public Radio.
BBC airs its own noncommercial UK news channel (BBC News 24) to compete with Cable News Network (CNN) and the Rupert Murdoch sister operation to Fox, Sky News in Europe. BBC also produces BBC World, a commercial news network broadcast worldwide outside the UK, that shares reporters and stories with BBC News 24. Many of its stories also air on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). A half-hour version of BBC World News is available to PBS stations via WLIW in New York and it can presently be viewed by 80 to 90 percent of U.S. residents.
BBC today, by some measures, has only 28 percent of the audience “share” it once commanded. Unlike a capitalist enterprise, the corporation needs neither profits nor high audience ratings to survive — but it does need political support. That support has eroded in recent years for a variety of reasons, among them the hard-left political bias evident in its programs and public statements.
When Conservative Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister (1979-90) and hinted that she might privatize BBC, the Corporation preemptively attacked her with its comedy series “Yes, Minister” to portray the government as laughably incompetent. BBC reporters are widely perceived as favoring the political left, and as being inclined to criticize conservatives while supporting the socialist Labour Party. In 1997 the ascent of “New Labour” leader Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister was greeted enthusiastically by BBC, as were his political appointees to run BBC, Gavyn Davies as Chairman and Greg Dyke as Director General.
By contrast, when Prime Minister Blair and President George W. Bush worked as allies to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, BBC responded by slanting its reporting heavily against the military effort, focusing mostly on British casualties and giving much airtime to politicians and anti-war activists who criticized Mr. Blair. This slanted presentation was referenced by BBC’s own defense correspondent in Qatar, Paul Adams, who filed an internal BBC memo that was leaked and reported in the Labourite newspaper The Guardian: “I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering ‘significant casualties.’ This is simply not true,” wrote Adams. “… Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving ‘small victories at a very high price?’” The truth, wrote Adams, “is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and costs still relatively low.” BBC reporting so heavily played on the theme of British soldiers wounded and killed in Iraq that in March 2003 it felt compelled to promise more sensitivity to the feelings of soldier family members back home, and that it would show no more footage of seriously injured soldiers.
The crew members of the HMS Ark Royal, the flagship of the Royal Navy stationed in the Persian Gulf, became so disgusted with the one-sided anti-war slant of the BBC that they tuned their television sets to Sky News. “The BBC always takes the Iraqis’ side,” said one British sailor in the Persian Gulf. “It reports what they say as gospel but when it comes to us it questions and doubts everything the British and Americans are reporting.”
In July 2003 a report on BBC Radio 4 quoted an anonymous government official suggesting that the Blair government had “sexed up” its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, contrary to the wishes of the intelligence services. An investigation that followed found that the reporter’s charges were inaccurate.
The London Telegraph obtained numerous internal BBC memos and emails. In them, one of BBC’s “most senior news managers,” Hugh Berlyn, criticized BBC’s news reports as untrustworthy, inaccurate, and potentially libelous because the Corporation’s journalists frequently fail to check their facts, and because BBC often broadcasts these stories without oversight by an editor.
“The BBC is no longer relied on in the way it was,” admitted Labour member of Parliament Gerald Kaufman, Chair of the Commons Committee on Culture and the Media. “It’s placed itself in a situation where its word isn’t accepted automatically anymore. It’s gone from being an institution to just another broadcaster, and a shoddy one at that.”
Detailed analyses of BBC bias, with many examples from its news coverage of the Iraq War and the Arab-Israeli conflict, can be found at bbcwatch.com and biased-bbc.blogspot.com. BBC reporting about the Middle East is usually critical of Israel and sympathetic towards Palestinians.
BBC’s choice of commentators for its coverage of the American election in 2004 included former Bill Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal; former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; billionaire financier of leftist causes George Soros; and filmmaker Michael Moore.