Dave O’Brien reflects on the controversies which have afflicted the BBC in recent months and their implications for its role and status within public life. The BBC Trust had already sought to address its critics through the articulation of the public value framework. However important questions have been raised about the practical role of ‘public value’ and these could be productively addressed through research.

The recent scandals associated with the BBC and the resignations in the wake of these events have brought longstanding questions about the role of the BBC back to the forefront of public discussion. Indeed, projects such as Our Beeb at Open Democracy illustrate the problematic position of the BBC, as it is criticised from both the left and the right.

Critics of the BBC adopt a whole range of positions, including that the licence fee is highly regressive, its status as a (very well) state funded broadcaster distorts the competition in the media market (particularly as the newspaper industry is in crisis), that its output  contains tensions between the populism of chasing audience figures and a potential elitism within the Reithian ethos, alongside a metropolitan bias towards London. Defences of the BBC follow similar lines. Barnett and Seaton offer a useful summary, including how the BBC is essential to British democracy because it informs the population of key issues. The BBC has a global status with a unique kind of trust within both the British population, as well as more broadly and more globally through institutions like the World Service. It is important to British national identity as it creates and sustains a sense of British community by mediating key events like sport or royal weddings. It has a function within the broader creative economy underpinning much of the creative activity that the market may not provide, particularly its role as broadcaster and commissioner of classical music. Finally, notwithstanding the clearly commercial aspects of the BBC’s work, Barnett and Seaton argue that the BBC’s status as a public service provider is, like the example of love or trust discussed in economics, something that market transactions simply cannot buy.

As part of the response to the issues raised by critics, the BBC Trust, which oversees the BBC, developed the public value framework to assist its assessment of major decisions. Public value, for the BBC, was a way to move beyond a narrow conception of the function of public organizations and to assert the BBC’s unique status as a public service broadcaster, much like the public service ethos of the civil servant.

Public value for the BBC took three forms and generated significant debate. In its current guise public value has evolved to become a ‘test’ to inform the BBC Trust’s scrutiny of the Corporation’s decisions. However recent work, by scholars at the University of Leeds, has questioned the extent to which public value is more than a rhetorical device. In the first instance it was associated with a broad programme of market research on consumers’ relationships with the BBC. Second it was mobilized to make an economic argument about the necessity of licence fee funding for the BBC, an economic argument which seemed in tension with the forms of public value associated with the first use of the term by the BBC. A combination of the two uses suggested a focus on those benefits, or value, which were not reducible to the economic, in keeping with the way public value has been received in the UK. This research seems to argue that the primary use of public value has been rhetorical, constructing a narrative of the worth, importance and status of the BBC whilst making an economic case to Whitehall. However, BBC Trust policy documents indicate that public value has become embedded as a formal part of their decision making.

It is here that research can play a useful role in clarifying the use of ideas like public value. The BBC’s use of Public Value seems to be far from how academics have understood the term’s role within the corporation, meaning that it is important to get a sense of how public value is used in practice. This research is currently ongoing, lead by academics at City University London, exploring how public value is used by the BBC Trust to navigate between the world of audits and measurements, which are the hallmark of modernity within cultural organizations, and the judgements of programme makers, managers and trustees concerned with the public role of the BBC.

In order to explore the complexities of these positions, whilst relating back to broader advocacy and criticism of the BBC, City University London is hosting a seminar on 9th May 2013. As well as discussing public value, other papers on the day consider the value of the BBC from the point of view of research collaborators (on the Great British Class Survey), science communication (for example the recent work of the BBC trust on science reporting) and as a public service broadcaster. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author
Dave O’Brien is a Lecturer in Cultural Industries at City University London. His work on cultural value includes a recent secondment and report to the UK’s Department for Culture Media and Sport. His work on urban cultural policy can be found in his PhD from the University of Liverpool, which explored the governance of the European Capital of Culture programme and cultural policy in Liverpool and Newcastle Gateshead. He has published several papers on this topic and is currently developing a book on the subject.

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