Will Christians miss the BBC when it's gone?

(Photo: Reuters)

The BBC is under attack from all sides. Its director-general is stepping down, it has had to make cuts in its numbers of journalists, its funding is under the spotlight and protests are mounting over the move to means-test free TV licences for the over-75s from June.

The newly-announced increase in the licence fee by £3 per year, from £154.50 to £157.50, in April will do little to boost the Corporation's prospects.

Many people now watch TV via platforms rather than channels – or do not watch broadcast TV at all – and YouGov research shows that less than half the people polled believe BBC news journalists are honest and impartial.

After a divisive general election and the prolonged wrangling about Brexit in Parliament, the Corporation has been criticised from all sides for being biased for or against various political parties and factions.

The Economist magazine put it concisely: "In the past the Corporation could count on allies on both sides of politics. Just now it is looking rather friendless."

So where is the Church and the nation's Christians in all this? Should we be joining those attacking the Corporation and seeking its dismantling or cutting back?

Or should Christians be rallying to the defence of the BBC, established as a Corporation in 1927 with the motto 'Nation shall speak peace unto Nation.'

The BBC's commitment to religion includes its faithful broadcasting of the radio Daily Service since 1928, and TV's 'Songs of Praise' for more than 50 years.

But maybe there's a middle way, where Christians and Church groups seek to play a clear-eyed and positive role in the BBC's future development, but acknowledge a need for change? Because if we don't step forward as a critical friend of the beleaguered BBC, we will surely miss it when it's gone.

Here are four reasons why Christians, and other people of faith, should stand alongside the BBC as it seeks to steer a positive course into the future. The main one is the Corporation's commitment to seek for truth in a world of disinformation and fake news (and yes, I know it doesn't always get it right).

The BBC carries an aspiration towards truth

Guardian journalist – and BBC contributor - Jonathan Freedland put it this way: "For all its flaws, the BBC still serves to hold the ring, to demarcate a clearing in the forest of claim and counter-claim, where certain facts can be established."

This 'clearing in the forest' is vital in our post-truth world. It's the need for a place where arguments can be hammered out, and truth arrived at. The alternative is partisan media channels where the faithful from both sides speak only to each other and reinforce their own views, much like the broadcast media landscape in the United States, or the way social media operates around the world. Echo chambers reign supreme.

One of the 'radio moments of the year' – currently being voted on by Radio Times readers – came when BBC Five Live journalist Emma Barnett questioned a claim made to her by Conservative politician Rory Stewart. He said that "80 per cent" of British people supported the latest version of a Brexit deal. When challenged, Stewart almost immediately withdrew the statistic and apologised for making the claim.

This 'holding power to account' – of all political parties and pressure groups – must surely be a key role of any media organisation, and especially one funded by public money.

The reluctance of leading politicians to undertake challenging media interviews, both during and since the last election, undermines our democracy.

Last month BBC2 broadcast two hour-long programmes about serial abuser Bishop Peter Ball and reported a cover-up by the Church of England. This was uncomfortable viewing for many in the Church, but an essential and thorough piece of journalism.

Christians need to ensure that the BBC continues to carry out this role of challenging authority – and when the Corporation gets things wrong, is quick to admit its mistake, or any inherent bias, and rectify its error.

The BBC is largely non-commercial

The BBC's funding mechanism means it belongs to us all and is freed from direct government oversight or involvement. This gives the Corporation a freedom – and a responsibility – to innovate and develop projects that may not otherwise be viable.

In a global media market, commercial platforms like Netflix and Amazon and the big US tech companies are increasingly dominant. Providing services like news and investigative documentaries are expensive and the BBC's funding model needs to ensure they are safeguarded.

The BBC is British

Travel the world and you find the BBC is held in high esteem overseas, including by people in leadership positions.
The World Service projects a global image of the UK and helps build understanding and respect for the nation. This influence will be even more important as, post-Brexit, the UK seeks to play a wider role in the world.

The middle way would ensure that the World Service continues to thrive but is kept independent from the UK Government. Only then will its voice continue to have influence across the globe.

The BBC has strong local roots

Churches across the country are rooted in their local areas or parishes, and often have in-depth knowledge of their neighbourhood.

The BBC's grassroots network of local stations reports the work of local organisations, including churches and other faith groups, and holds local politicians and office-holders to account. The stations are, sadly, often the most over-looked part of the Corporation.

A positive way forward would ensure the local stations continue to operate but without dominating the local media scene, putting hard-pressed newspaper titles in jeopardy. The sharing of resources in some areas is a positive move.

The outlook for the BBC looks stormy and possibly bleak. The Corporation's next director general will need to steer a course that ensures the BBC's long-term future.

Churches and Christians could have an important part to play in reshaping the Corporation for the 21st century.

Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, UK and a former communications director for the CofE.