Cultural figures tackle some difficult questions about the corporation’s prospects to mark its centenary
David Hare, Ali Smith, Steve McQueen, Russell T Davies, Meera Syal, Melvyn Bragg and others tackle some difficult questions about the corporation’s prospects to mark its centenary – and pick the shows they’d like to take to a desert island.
What does the BBC mean to you?
David Hare, playwright
Alongside the NHS and the welfare state, it’s the finest expression of mid-20th-century public idealism. And it’s also the insane bureaucracy that George Orwell satirised in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Yanis Varoufakis, co-founder of DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) and former Greek finance minister
During the dictatorship in which I grew up in Greece, the BBC (along with Deutsche Welle) offered a window on to a happier world where one could think and speak without being crushed. Later, from my late teens till now, BBC World Service and Radio 4 became the soundtrack of my days and (especially) nights. As for BBC TV, its occasional flourishes kept me hopeful that screens do not have to be filled with trash all of the time – that the tyranny of the spectacle can, occasionally, give way to visual enlightenment.
Meera Syal, comedian and writer
The BBC gave me a home to take my work to when other broadcasters were too nervous about ratings/audience reactions/commercial value. That’s what so many of us with new or unheard voices held so precious – its commitment to being a public broadcaster serving the whole of the nation.
Jimmy McGovern, screenwriter and producer
At the BBC I’m given the opportunity to write a drama in the way I think best. I’ll listen to ideas, yes, and if they’re good, I’ll use them (and claim them as my own). If they’re not good, I’ll ignore them. I will then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and when it’s as good as I can possibly make it the BBC will film it and transmit it – with not one single interruption. You do not get that anywhere else. It has its downside. A BBC hour is about 30% longer than an ITV hour so you work harder but get paid less. You get less to make it with as well. But it’s worth it.
Riley Carter Millington, actor
I will always be so grateful to the BBC for creating a landmark moment in history by casting me as the first trans actor to play a transgender role in UK soap history [as Kyle Slater in EastEnders]. It’s pretty special, right? The BBC not only gave me a chance, and hope for my career, it provided the UK and the world a symbol of hope by representing more people from our diverse culture. It also opened up the possibilities for many others.
Simon Schama, historian
Living as I do much of the time in the US I know for sure that the BBC is the absolute best of Britain. By comparison public service broadcasting in America is an undernourished, earnestly conventional thing. Only the BBC would have commissioned me to make a 15-part history of Britain or an eight-part Power of Art. That creative confidence must be part of the country’s future.
Victorian Coren Mitchell, writer and TV presenter
Whenever I hear “BBC”, I immediately picture Terry Wogan hosting a Christmas Blankety Blank. I know I should think of the news or natural history documentaries. But truthfully it’s that. I could as soon hear “BBC” and not think of Terry, embodying clever light entertainment, as I could hear the word “horse” and not think of a horse.
Melvyn Bragg, broadcaster and author
It means the finest and most democratic cultural and entertainment medium in this country and arguably the world. Over 100 years, its numerous, often niche, often quirky programmes have dug themselves into the daily lives of millions, and they still do. Alongside the monarchy and parliament, it is the most defining institution we have.
David Mitchell, author
A lighthouse in the dark.
Tony Parsons, author
Teacher. Friend. An only child’s most constant companion. Kenneth Wolstenholme on the football. Harry Carpenter on boxing. Watching Top of the Pops every Thursday night, my dad eating his dinner on his lap and staring aghast at David Bowie doing Starman.
Lolita Chakrabarti, actor and writer
It’s where I discovered stories – Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV, Roots. It’s where I got my first TV job 30 years ago, saying one line as Bill Nighy’s secretary. It’s where I sometimes work in radio, TV drama and occasionally, documentary. It has been an inspiration, a possibility and a closed door.
Dreda Say Mitchell, writer and broadcaster
It means getting all cosy on a Sunday at nine at night with a cup of hot chocolate watching edge-of-your-seat drama. It means children having access to a range of high-quality educational material in a variety of media. It means producing and supporting programmes and projects that are aimed at specific communities.
George Monbiot, writer and environmental activist
While the BBC does excellent work in many areas, its news and current affairs have caused immeasurable harm. It platforms any far-right blowhard who can generate noise on social media, while excluding almost everyone to the left of Keir Starmer. It bears much of the responsibility for the rise of both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
Clara Amfo, Radio 1 presenter
The BBC to me is a trusted constant. When I look back on my childhood, there isn’t a single year where I don’t remember a TV or radio programme to instantly transport me back.
David Nicholls, novelist and screenwriter
There were three branches to my education: school, the public library and the BBC. I was raised on that unique mix of documentaries and sitcoms and cinema too. David Attenborough and Morecambe and Wise, Play for Today and the Nine O’Clock News. This isn’t just nostalgia. I’ve watched my own kids progress from Teletubbies to Horrible Histories to the latest Adam Curtis. There’s wonderful TV out there from all over the world but no one else is making this rich, wild combination. It would be a terrible act of cultural self-sabotage to let it fade out.
Alan Bennett, playwright
For a start, no commercials. Inexpensive (astonishingly so). Sober. Truth telling. Various. And, like the NHS, close to the public’s heart. Embodied by David Attenborough and on radio by Sue MacGregor (The Reunion). On TV David Olusoga’s A House Through Time is a recent treasure.
Ken Loach, film-maker
The BBC has produced brilliant and original work, helped to define how we see ourselves, and attracted dedicated and talented people. But at its heart is a contradiction. It is the embodiment of public service broadcasting, and should reflect the interests of us all. It is also controlled, through appointments and funding, by the government. The BBC resolves this by speaking for the establishment, defending it from those on the left who threaten its power and privileges, and those on the right whose recklessness and extremism are dangerous. Fiction or documentaries may promote critical, even subversive, ideas, but writing the news can only be entrusted to those who toe the line. In short, the BBC is the voice of the ruling class, urbane and benign when confident, ruthless when threatened. Defend public service broadcasting, democratise the BBC!
Adjoa Andoh, actor
Dad listening to the World Service in the night, discovering punk with John Peel, Dad’s Army, no advertising-led editorial pressure, Panorama, [Here Come the] Double Deckers, Giri/Haji, fearless reporting, Ab Fab, Boys from the Blackstuff, Strictly, dearly beloved, infuriating but accountable, Attenborough, Lenny, Newsnight, imperfection but in all the world uniquely ours.
Stephen Merchant, actor, writer and director
The BBC gave me my big break. I was a BBC trainee and I was given an exercise to direct a short documentary. Instead, I called my friend Ricky Gervais and we made a fake documentary, which became The Office. Not only did that show change our lives but it became a small part of the cultural fabric of the UK, like so many other BBC programmes before or since, whether it’s Fawlty Towers or Fleabag.
Jeffrey Boakye, author and broadcaster
The BBC, to me, has always felt like a point of contact. A meeting place. A means of exposure to places, times, ideas and cultures that I would otherwise have had little, or limited, access to. At its best, the BBC isn’t just a window to the world, but a door of invitation too.
Peter Hennessy, historian
I am ?nearly 75 now and from the days when I listened with my mum as a tiny boy to Listen With Mother the BBC has been part of the daily rhythm of my life. Key for me is the thinking and analysing aloud role the BBC plays in the life of the nation, particularly through Radio 4 – Today, The World at One, PM and The World Tonight. They handle the breaking stories, the big themes in our national life that won’t go away, providing a running commentary that is crucial for my ?now fading ?little grey cells.
Martha Kearney, Radio 4 Today presenter
There’s a reason that Auntie is a nickname for the BBC. Like any family we grumble sometimes but are secretly proud. Over three decades I’ve worked with some incredibly committed and talented people who really are dedicated to providing the best news and current affairs possible. Invaluable in an increasingly shrill world.
Sunder Katwala, director of the thinktank British Future
The BBC introduced me to the World Cup, aged eight; to comedy and pop; and to politics and world events as a teenager. In polarised times, it’s ever more important for the BBC to still invite tens of millions of us to share national moments that can bridge divides.
Agnès Poirier, journalist and writer
Those three letters will always conjure up for me the image of my grandparents Madeleine and Marcel in occupied Normandy during the war going to the cellar at night to listen on the wireless to the “voice from London”, the only one that told the truth and gave the facts. Collective memory is a strong muscle. Today, the BBC is Britain’s soft power incarnated. There is no greater tool to its influence in the world.
Carol Morley, film-maker
The BBC feels like a member of my extended family. Growing up, the telly was always on, and usually set to BBC as there were no adverts, so it was a formative part of my life – and I still love it.
Tanya Moodie, actor
Familiarity, comfort, quality.
Emma Rice, theatre director
I have spent a life on tour; a life filled with surprise and instability. The BBC tours with me. It is consistent, infuriating, entertaining and comforting – just like family! I fall asleep to Newscast and wake to Today. The Archers keeps me close to my mum, even when I am on the other side of the planet. The BBC glues my life together.
Gina Miller, entrepreneur and campaigner
In a healthy democracy there is no freedom more sacred than freedom of expression. In peace and war, in booms and recessions, irrespective of the party in government, the BBC has stood up for that right like a shining beacon. As a child of the Commonwealth listening to the BBC World Service, it gave me an important sense of the world, Britain and how connected we all are.
Abi Morgan, playwright and screenwriter
I left my waitressing job on a £500 commission for the BBC. On paper this was a project that never got made, but what it gave me was priceless. The process of development, the producers, directors and script editors I worked with along the way, offered a masterclass in screenwriting, much of which I still draw on today.
Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director of the Kiln theatre
The BBC is more than an institution. It is the backbone of our cultural identity, which unites and divides. We admire, respect and reject it in equal measures as we do a close family member, because we take it for granted. But like the NHS, its erosion and the potential for it being dismantled is to our peril.
Adrian Lester, actor
For me, the BBC sets the gold standard for documentaries, children’s programming, situation comedies, dramas and especially news coverage that has been emulated all over the world.
James Naughtie, special correspondent for BBC News
Integrity, imagination and adventure. Trustworthy news and a commitment to discovery in the arts, entertainment and sport. The knowledge that it is a relentlessly self-critical broadcaster and never in thrall to commercial interests nor to any government that tries to sap its strength.
Gavin Turk, artist
To me the BBC means British culture, the state of the nation collected, collated and shared. It means no adverts, 6music, the News, the World Service, David Attenborough. The BBC means television to me, an education, an inspiration and sometimes a distraction.
Sonia Friedman, theatre impresario
The BBC is our constant. It makes me feel safe. It ensures an uninterrupted, essential thread runs through our media, news, culture, keeping us interconnected, across space and around the clock. It’s at its best when it puts storytellers at its centre, and if it remains committed to and captivated by this country’s unique creative culture, it will be with us for another 100 years.
Sathnam Sanghera, journalist and author
My life would have been very different if the BBC hadn’t adapted my memoir, The Boy With the Topknot, if it wasn’t around as a platform on which to discuss books, and if, as a child, it hadn’t opened my mind up to worlds beyond mine.
Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman
If there’s still such a thing as the national conversation it is facilitated by the BBC, which throughout the pandemic performed an invaluable public service. In this period of intense polarisation and fragmentation, the corporation is trusted. I accept that in the age of Netflix, the licence fee seems anachronistic. Yet it may be the worst funding model apart from all the others. So cherish the BBC rather than traduce or break it up. We will miss when it has gone.
Malorie Blackman, children’s writer
A great British institution, admired, revered and trusted around the world. An institution that is owned by all of us via the TV licence.
Steve McQueen, film-maker and artist
Well, it’s always been there, like the sky is blue and the grass is green. In the working-class house where I grew up, the TV was always on and the BBC was a constant. It’s part of my DNA. I never had books in my house, apart from the Bible and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so to have ideas coming through the screen that were engaging and entertaining and challenging was fantastic for a young person.
What’s the biggest threat to the BBC?
That it becomes a political football, with the consequence that its creative oxygen, integrity of reporting, the fearlessness of debate are all suffocated by the partisan sabotage of funding. The capacity of the BBC to take us out of the parochial and connect us with the rest of the world has never been more indispensable.
Clive Myrie, BBC journalist and Mastermind presenter
Without doubt, the biggest threat is a society that no longer cares for objectivity and impartiality. An unbiased, fair representation of all sides in an argument, given due weight, is not what a growing number of people and, increasingly, our political class want. They would like their own views affirmed, their beliefs given primacy. To dare to put the other side makes you the enemy. Too many in our increasingly polarised world want propaganda. That is not what the BBC is about and never should be.
Jean Seaton, historian and director of the Orwell Foundation
In 1922, “press barons” would have strangled the BBC at birth if they had understood how important it was going to be. Now, vast groups with a direct financial interest in a smaller BBC and not a wisp of concern for British citizens are in coalition with malignant forces that wish to reshape UK politics by stealth.
The same as the Church of England and the Labour party’s biggest problem. It alienates – often seems to openly despise – the very people who love it the most. The BBC self-evidently must be a broadcaster for the entire nation and yet it reveals a naked political bias that you see everywhere, from BBC Two’s Newsnight to Radio 4’s Today show.
Ali Smith, author
The current inhabitants of Downing Street. It doesn’t surprise me that, determined to rewrite “British values” while they have us do as they say, not as they do, they would have the BBC in their sights, an institution whose massive, interconnected and layered resource of thought and history and art and knowledge and analysis has presented us over the century with the like of 1,000 libraries in the home and whose attempts at remaining unbiased in a partisan time like this are crucial.
Peter Kosminsky, director and producer of film and TV
The creative industries are a massive revenue-generator for this country. And the BBC is the jewel in that crown, an instantly recognisable brand all over the world. In the time of “fake news”, as truth itself is increasingly derided and devalued, the BBC is more valuable, here and overseas, than ever. The greatest threat to the organisation comes from successive governments, blinded by narrow political self-interest, which starve it of funds rather than nurturing and protecting it.
Russell T Davies, screenwriter and producer
Rupert Murdoch. He’s just an exemplar of the forces at play, but look at what’s he’s done. Take, say, just two months in 2020. On 8 August, Murdoch had dinner with Michael Gove; 26 August, lunch with Rishi Sunak; 14 September, he met Priti Patel; 18 September, Boris Johnson; 25 September, Jacob Rees-Mogg (officially listed as “an informal lunch with friends”). Good work. Well played. We’re the stupid ones, letting this happen.
Stupidity. The BBC is one of the few things we have in this country that binds people together. And if you want to destroy that, then you want to destroy the community. This is not to say that the BBC is always right, but how do we make it better? We need to build on success, not dismantle success. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.
John Humphrys, broadcaster
The loss of young listeners and viewers. They don’t want (or need) its news or its entertainment. Everything they do need is on their phones or tablets. If they can get it when they want it, why should they wait for the BBC to schedule it?
Kit de Waal, author
The biggest threat to the BBC comes from anyone and anything that seeks to control narrative, from those who want to shape – politically – what we hear, see, learn, what is examined, dramatised and reported and, most importantly, what is not reported, particularly factual and news.
Stephen Lambert, chief executive of Studio Lambert, producer of Gogglebox
Hostile politicians who rarely watch television and are ideologically opposed to a well-resourced, impartial, trusted and critical force, funded outside the free market system.
A government that seems wilfully blind to the value of the BBC, here in the UK and worldwide.
Iain Dale, publisher and political commentator
The BBC itself. Rather than continually defending an out-of-date funding system, it should get on the front foot and come up with its own proposals. Threats are also opportunities. The BBC also needs to work out what it is for in 2022, rather than 1972.
Jack Thorne, screenwriter
I think it’s facing two threats: first, a belief that it can copy an international streamer model. That we have the market and possibility here to replicate how Netflix, Disney and Amazon operate (all currently with operating losses). Second, a Tory government in search of something to kick. And if you look back in history, that’s always been the case. Churchill wasn’t too nice to the BBC in 1926.
Bernardine Evaristo, author
The Conservative party, which makes false claims about the broadcaster’s leftwing political bias, and rightwing media barons who want to demolish the competition.
Mark Gatiss, actor, screenwriter, director and producer
Rupert Murdoch. It’s not like it’s a secret agenda. He means to destroy the BBC and has been waging his tabloid war against it for decades. Now it’s bearing rotten fruit.
David Hare, playwright and director
Ingratiation. Instead of standing up for its own independence, the BBC has chosen the path of sucking up to government by neutering its drama department and censoring all mention of Brexit. Unsurprisingly, the government has rewarded the current BBC management with contempt.
Stuart Murphy, chief executive of English National Opera
Its centre of gravity still feels old, white, conservative, male, southern. Plus, it needs to limit its sprawl.
Zeb Soanes, Radio 4 announcer and the voice of the Shipping Forecast
Esther Rantzen, television presenter and campaigner
Desperation, which could cause them to lose the confidence they need to commission the most innovative new programmes or recommission the best loved old ones. They must stay strong and withstand politically motivated attacks, and those inspired by the malicious envy of competitors, while prioritising the needs and tastes of the British public.
Bonnie Greer, playwright, critic and broadcaster
People’s misunderstanding of the reason for its existence. Having lived in this country almost half my life, it still astounds me how so many people don’t understand what is unique about the BBC. It is our superpower.
Hugh Bonneville, actor
1) The culture secretary.
2) Politicians and their dependence on the handful of proprietors who run the majority of UK media.
Monica Dolan, actor
Not realising its own worth. That and the fact that the number of subscription channels has given us, the public, an illusion of choice that creates a false impression that [not having] the BBC might not be a loss.
Sarah Gavron, film director
If steps are taken that undermine the BBC’s ability to make content without a commercial imperative, I worry a precious element of British life will be undone. We’ve got to ensure the BBC is able to keep relevant and maintain its global reach.
James Graham, playwright and screenwriter
In this age of greater factionalism, where the left believe the BBC is aggressively right wing and the right think it’s unquestionably left wing, where it once felt like all things to all people, it might now be seen as not enough for anyone. We can all find our own news, drama and art that reflect the world back to us as we’d like to see it, rather than be surprised or provoked. Forgetting, in fact, what public service broadcasting is.
Huw Edwards, News at Ten anchor
The biggest threat to the BBC would be failing to make an assertive case for public service broadcasting. The media landscape is crowded with big commercial and political interests. So the BBC, with its commitment to fair, impartial journalism, is more important than ever.
Aside from rival media organisations, the biggest threat are the craven politicians who drone on about bias, even though when I was a BBC trainee it was drummed into us that shows had to be balanced. More worryingly, they don’t seem to care that the BBC is a cornerstone of the relatively level-headed TV news coverage in this country. By removing the Beeb, we’ll undoubtedly slide into American-style partisan news. I spend a lot of time in the US and I’ve yet to find a trustworthy news outlet over there. I always end up turning back to the BBC.
Ayesha Hazarika, journalist and political commentator
Rightwing zealots and its own failure fight back and make its case with confidence. It also needs to recognise that it must attract new viewers who are not just older, white conservatives obsessed with culture wars.
That we underestimate the value of its brand. In an age of prolific new media and a world of fake news, the BBC still garners global respect, for its impartiality and ability to bring the great and the good to account. Yes, it has its critics, yes, it doesn’t always get it right, but take it away and we lose a vital vertebra in our cultural backbone.
Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs
The world has changed since the BBC’s halcyon days and the biggest threat is that the corporation itself clings on to a “better yesterday” type of approach. The BBC is now a much smaller part of our cultural life and this is, overall, a good thing. But it does mean the BBC needs to seriously consider its future as a niche producer, not a general one. Thirty years ago, the BBC might have been considered a world leader in comedy and drama, but this is no longer the case. If the corporation doesn’t realise that and then adapt accordingly, it will go the same way as Kodak.
Samira Ahmed, journalist and broadcaster
The failure by those in positions of power to live by BBC values – whether in standing up for honesty, transparency, audience representation, and equality in pay and treatment, or in appreciating the dedicated professional public service of the vast majority of its rank and file, who genuinely get what the BBC is about.
Richard Sambrook, emeritus professor of journalism at Cardiff University and former director of BBC News
If the public want it, the BBC will survive. But as support erodes under ideological attack, changing media habits and technology, it must redefine the need for public service media – in a polarised era riddled with disinformation, discord and inequality, it’s badly needed.
Nicola Shindler, producer of Queer as Folk, Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax
I think the political threat is the most worrying, that politicians don’t want an independent, probing national media company. The threats from streaming and the changing nature of how content is consumed can all be managed.
Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4
The draining of resources, by which I mean the real value of the licence fee, together with the political pressure constantly placed on the BBC, will mean that it will no longer be able to attract the talent to be able to continue making the kinds of programmes it has been making for 100 years. People have always worked for the BBC because of its special resonance and purpose in our national life, getting paid less than they would do working for other organisations. It’s a potent brand, a kind of alchemy. But if it continues to be squeezed politically and financially, the point will come where they stop doing that and its prestige will therefore be eroded.
Mel Giedroyc, actor, comedian and television presenter
The people within it being afraid. I don’t want it to be the Beige Boring Corporation. To keep producing extraordinary output such as Time [Jimmy McGovern’s prison drama], I May Destroy You and This Country – you have to have fearless people in there.
Shaun Keaveny, radio presenter
This government’s longstanding antipathy. Plus the historically unwieldy nature of its management. As a 100-year-old institution the BBC sometimes struggles to be, and be seen as, cutting-edge.
Martha Lane Fox, philanthropist and campaigner
If it were unable to innovate and stay as high quality and relevant as it has been.
Armando Iannucci, writer, director and producer
Currently, the government and politicians who see the BBC as just an item on their political agenda, as a sop to their supporters and financial backers. If the BBC was a weapons manufacturer, cabinet ministers would be fanning out across the world saying how great it was and trying to sell it. But instead they seek to criticise and curtail.
Ash Atalla, producer of The Office and The IT Crowd
The rightwing press are a huge threat and I’m staggered by the blatant nature of their sustained attack, which is clearly in business interests. The other week, the front page of the Sun had an actor who was in Only Fools and Horses saying “BBC plonkers” wouldn’t make the show now. It’s entirely spurious, yet makes the front page. And you get that from multiple newspapers. Imagine the BBC running a programme called Don’t Buy the Times, They’re Cunts. It’s as bold as that and yet we wave it through.
Should we ditch the licence fee?
Russell T Davies
Wrong question. It’s gone.
If we do, we will never replicate the beauty of what the BBC does.
The government has just written off billions of pounds of Covid-related fraud. The Treasury has announced it does not intend to pursue the fraudsters it empowered. It can afford to pay for the BBC directly.
The alternative is subscription, advertising, or direct taxation. The subscription model won’t support current affairs, children’s, schools and local programmes or the World Service. Advertising would decimate ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Direct taxation gives the government undue influence. The licence fee costs about 40p a day… I rest my case.
The licence fee has served the BBC and the public well for almost a century. Although many moan about it, few dispute that it represents fantastic value for money, at a fraction of the cost of the streaming services. An imaginative solution needs to be sought, appropriate to the new landscape, which will match and enhance the corporation’s current level of funding. Ideas need to be canvassed from industry, consumers and academics by a body that sincerely wishes to protect and grow the organisation, not gut it for narrow political reasons. We will miss it when it’s gone.
Yes, and replace it with a household levy that is proportional to its electricity bill. A household levy allows for universal provision within every household (independently of type or number of devices) while maintaining the BBC’s autonomy from general government revenues. Last, by making the levy proportional to electricity bills (which are highly correlated with household income/wealth), the levy becomes progressive and simple to administer.
Mark Cousins, film-maker
If we want shite TV and radio like many other countries, yes.
Paul Mason, former economics editor, Newsnight
No, but we should top-slice it, opening maybe 20% of the money to bids from other broadcasters prepared to meet public service standards. The BBC’s commissioning methods kill originality and risk-taking. Public service broadcasting needs new entrants, not better gatekeeping by the BBC.
Fintan O’Toole, Irish journalist and author
There’s a lot to be said for having a levy on the big corporate media giants to create a fund for public service broadcasting across all channels. But the licence fee is still very good value for money.
Stephen Lambert, chief executive of Studio Lambert, producer of Gogglebox
Forcing people to pay the licence fee (more than 100,000 convictions a year) is not sustainable in a digital world with so much choice. The 2016 requirement to have a licence fee for iPlayer video-on-demand was a significant step towards changing it into a voluntary subscription payment. But with so many, mostly older, people watching the BBC free-to-air on Freeview, a move to subscription cannot happen any faster than the government’s broadband roll out to all households. It probably won’t be possible for the next Charter, but it will be for the one after next.
No. The BBC (and the NHS) are the envy of the world, and both required vision and unique funding models to bring them to life. We should refocus the BBC, and have it change shape and adapt as the society around it changes.
The passing of time will ditch the licence fee because nobody born in the 21st century has any kind of sentimental attachment to the BBC. Within the next 10 years, those young men and women will be asked to fork out for a telly tax for a service that they did not grow up with, that they don’t use and have never been taught to love. There will come a point when the licence fee goes the way of banana rationing, the mullet and smoking on planes.
No, I have never objected to paying a small fee for the BBC’s outstanding services.
Adam Kay, author of This Is Going to Hurt, currently on BBC One starring Ben Whishaw
Ditching the licence fee would be an act of cultural arson for which future generations would rightly never forgive us. For me, it’s 6 Music, Line of Duty and the BBC news website. For my parents, it’s The Archers, Match of the Day and the Concert Orchestra. For my niece and nephews, it’s Bitesize and CBeebies. There’s genuinely something for everyone, and that extraordinary breadth of programming is only possible with the current funding model. It ain’t broke: don’t fuck it.
For a long time I defended the licence fee. But I now wonder whether the power it grants the government does more harm than good. Switching to a subscription service might allow the BBC to escape from political control and recover its courage.
The BBC needs independent funding, not a subscription only affordable by the rich, not set by politicians but by an independent body. And in return the BBC must recognise that this gives its employees unique creative freedom, and that they should limit their pay, not attempt to compete with commercial fees and salaries.
No other form of funding ensures ownership by the nation, independent – largely – of government. Align the fee with income tax. Subscription and/or advertising would stop it being a public service broadcaster.
Jo Brand, comedian, actor and presenter
Nope, because the BBC doesn’t pander to populism. It makes programmes that are not necessarily high-raters and we’ve seen the way that can go when broadcasters are only interested in big audiences. At the risk of sounding jingoistic, I like homemade programmes about British lives. America is taking over the world culturally and the BBC can help us to hang on to ourselves a bit. You know lots of people round the world think The Crown is a documentary, don’t you?
David Kynaston, social historian and author
No. Being British includes taking a pride in our public service broadcaster. Paying the licence fee is – irrespective of individual use – an expression of that pride.
Gemma Cairney, radio presenter
No! In an ever-individualised and divided society, an organisation built for all and on the foundations of neutrality is a model we must not let disappear.
Bad information believed by good people kills more effectively than any virus. Malignly propagated bad information is wrecking democracies everywhere. The BBC remains one of the only tools nationally and internationally to respond. Of course, the licence fee may need reforming, but only in order to create a new way of funding the bigger, better, ballsier BBC everyone wants.
Not if we want to retain one of our most important institutions. Some people say, “The licence fee is a tax. I only watch the sport or the comedy, why should I pay for all the stuff I don’t use?” Well, I don’t use most of the roads or streetlights in this country but I’m still happy to pay for them.
Of course we should. Facebook should run news; Piers Morgan should front all chatshows on behalf of Rupert Murdoch; the market should set the standard; and US private media companies should decide what we need to watch. What could possibly go wrong?
Obviously not. There’s no alternative that gives the same incredible value for money, and every time any government tries to come up with an alternative, they fail. Sadly, the licence fee has now become such a pawn in the culture wars that it’s impossible to convince a lot of people of its extraordinary worth. In their eyes it’s simply a poll tax. And no amount of reminding – no lists of wonderful radio stations, superb wildlife documentaries or game-changing drama or comedy – will make any difference.
Bob Harris, music presenter
No. The range of BBC programming still represents phenomenal value for money. And BBC Studios and the commercial arm of the BBC are doing a tremendous job generating revenue to cushion the licence fee shortfall. The corporation is the home of hugely creative and driven people whose vision, along with the work of our universities and scientists, helps support the perception that the UK is still a global force for excellence. Instead of trying to diminish the status of the BBC, the government should truly back it as a worldwide brand.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce, screenwriter and novelist
There’s a generation coming up that is not used to paying directly for music and entertainment. I think it’s going to be difficult to persuade them to do so. Maybe this disastrous libertarian fad we’re living through will swing the pendulum back.
David Elstein, executive producer at Portobello Films and former chief executive of Channel 5
Hanging on to the licence fee while the streamers, Sky and Virgin Media continue to thrive in the subscription market is the greatest danger to the BBC. It needs to acknowledge that only its public service output – news, current affairs, children’s, regional, arts, religion, education and some documentaries – needs funding from central taxation. Its entertainment output – drama, shiny floor shows, comedy, premium sport etc – can readily be paid for by voluntary subscribers. That dynamic funding mechanism can draw in revenue from all over the world for BBC subscription services, allowing the BBC to control its own financial fate, reinvest in high-quality content and fly the flag internationally for UK creativity. No more licence fee means no more negotiations with hostile governments over the funding levels, and no more prosecutions of licence fee evaders. Win-win.
Yes. The idea that TV should be paid for by an effective poll tax on owning a particular (and increasingly outdated) piece of equipment is absurd. It wasn’t quite as ludicrous 30 or 40 years ago, but technology now means that people can – and expect to – select their viewing options from a voluntary menu, with prices attached. There is no sensible reason to force people to buy BBC content any more than there is to force them to subscribe to Netflix or to have to buy a particular newspaper.
Ditching the licence fee would be folly. The government is looking for savings? Ditch the monarchy instead.
Dorothy Byrne, president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, and former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4
Not yet. You don’t destroy an imperfect system in the hope you will create the perfect system. I thought that was a fundamental principle of conservatism. So until Nadine Dorries has a come up with a better idea than the licence fee, she should leave it in place. Mind you, what are the chances of Nadine Dorries coming up with a good idea?
I don’t see how we can have a truly public service, where we have a voice in the corporation and it is answerable to us, unless we are contributing. And look at all the information, entertainment and culture it pays for. How will these programmes be made otherwise? The BBC’s remit from the outset was to “inform, educate and entertain”. We must not lose those things that we need in a quest for what we want. It sickens me that this idea of doing away with the licence fee is being sold to us as some kind of a favour. It really isn’t.
An annual fee attached to one piece of technology feels increasingly anachronistic. But subscription won’t work – there has to be universal funding. I’d favour a household levy if it can be managed by an intermediary body to protect the BBC from political pressure.
I haven’t yet heard an alternative that would keep the integrity of the BBC intact or is practical. And I think it is remarkably good value for money in comparison to other services.
Lionel Shriver, author
Yes. It’s antiquated and illiberal. Jailing licence-fee deadbeats, mostly poor women, is itself criminal.
I might be seen as naive but I don’t think we should. It is clear that would effectively end the corporation and that is too much of a cultural price to bear.
Ben Bradshaw MP, former secretary of state for culture, media and sport
The licence fee costs less than a pint of beer a week. Objectivity and impartiality matter more in a post-truth world. Reform the licence fee (the link to a specific device is obsolete), as recommended by the DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] committee in 2015, but protect its universal funding model.
I think it’s inevitable. But you ought to have a plan in place first, rather than announce it’s ending without any idea what’s going to succeed it. We ought to be thinking of a way that not only preserves a healthy enough income for the BBC, but also preserves the stuff that commercial equivalents wouldn’t touch – not just news, but local output, coverage of the arts, and coverage of the nation, really. If you replace it with something similar to Netflix, you then lose that sense of reflecting the country.
What will ensure that the BBC lasts another 100 years?
Russell T Davies
Nothing. This is the end. And if you thought the licence fee was expensive, I’m laughing out loud. Now the non-profit-making broadcaster is closing, they can all charge the fuck out of you. Good luck!
It has to be valued by its audience. Only the audience can protect it. If it develops not as a poor relation of Netflix or Amazon, but as an inspiring alternative, then it can thrive.
Andrew Davies, screenwriter
Sadly, I don’t think BBC will last another 100 years, or anything like it. It will be starved out of existence, and we won’t know what we had until it’s gone.
David Morrissey, actor
The government needs to see the BBC as a worldwide British success and not an institution to be attacked and brought into line with the free market. It needs reform, but the government seems hell bent on killing it. Instead, it needs to find ways to protect all the great stuff the BBC does for people who don’t feel they have a voice as well as making programmes for mainstream audiences. It’s for everyone.
An audience that fights for it.
For the BBC to last another 100 years, it must make sure that old scouse lefties like me do not defend it.
Annie Nightingale, radio broadcaster
I don’t know but I hope it does – the BBC has integrity, folks. Quite a valuable asset in any day and age.
Victoria Coren Mitchell
Remembering that we’re all ultimately on the same side. There’s no need for all this aggressive, binary, polarised public debate. That’s true of the BBC, Britain, social media and pretty much everything else.
A sensible reconfiguration of the licence fee. David Dimbleby’s recent suggestion [that it could be linked to council tax] is a strong move, I believe, in the right direction.
Kirsty Wark, radio and television presenter
Nurturing talent and invention off and on screens and airwaves will, I hope, future-proof the BBC for 100 more years.
Kit de Waal
The BBC will only last another 100 years if it better reflects all of the UK, particularly working-class life beyond soaps and poverty porn. Less royal period drama, more extraordinary ordinary lives from the underserved towns and cities outside of the M25.
British people realising that while they are being fed a lot of guff about “world-leading” things in the UK that aren’t – the BBC has a real history of leading the world in broadcasting. If I were British, I’d be very proud of it.
Miranda Hart, actor, comedian and writer
Bravery in continuing to commission unique, singular visions from writers and entertainers. This is historically where the breakthrough shows have come from to make the BBC what it is.
People being vocal about how much they love it.
If it can once again learn to be a broadcaster for the entire nation.
Inviting in new creative, diverse voices on all levels, boardroom downwards – they bring change, vitality and a hunger to succeed with them.
Dreda Say Mitchell
Audiences, interests and habits change and the BBC has to change with them. If it’s true that young people aren’t interested in sitting in front of a TV at a certain time and prefer streaming, how is the BBC going to address that and other developments as they happen?
Reinvention. Inclusion of all voices at all levels to make it relevant to who we are going to be.
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee
Great programmes, public support, political courage and the continued counterexample from the US of what happens when there is no bottom in the market, no benchmark of truth, no defence of the public realm.
Clone David Attenborough; shout out loud what it does well and with how little; make decisions swiftly and boldly; take risks.
Joe Moran, social and cultural historian
It needs to hold its nerve. It will never please hostile politicians or competitors, and should pitch over their heads to the viewers and listeners who do not necessarily know what they will like until they have seen or heard it. It should remember the literal sense of the word “broadcast”: scattering seeds over a wide surface, not always knowing which ones will take root and flower.
The virtues of the BBC are old-fashioned. Hang on to that and its future is assured.
A collective taking to heart of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about the limitations of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Victoria Derbyshire, broadcaster
Impartial journalism, and bringing the country together for those big national moments such as the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations and England in the Euros final.
Us. It doesn’t always make itself easy to defend, but we have to. The argument that, “If it’s that popular, let it survive commercially” ignores that a commercial BBC wouldn’t be the same BBC. It wouldn’t take the same risks, produce programming that is socially important rather than profit-driven. I love American streamers but they aren’t going to cover local council elections, fund orchestras, discover niche writers. The BBC is our last “public square”, where different people gather to experience the same thing. It helps maintain us as a society, rather than 70 million individuals kept algorithmically apart.
It must rouse the indifferent and hold fast to that which is right; have national ambition, farsighted technological innovation, and an understanding that institutions that take a long time to grow straight and strong can be destroyed in a careless moment. The BBC is one of the last great planks of our decency valued throughout the world, now threatened by the transient politics of vindictive ignorance. There is a battle to save it and people must not ignore it.
Brian Cox, physicist
Probably the same thing that will ensure the United Kingdom will last for another 100 years: pride in our national institutions and a depolarisation and de-escalation of political rhetoric. If you see someone on the BBC with whom you disagree, you should jump up and down with delight because that is a sign that you live in a free society. The political pendulum swings one way and the other, sometimes towards you and sometimes away, but the fact that it keeps on swinging is both a reflection of, and the guarantor of, your freedom. If we can get that simple idea into our collective head, then both the BBC and the UK will be around for many centuries to come.
When those who want to tear it down remember, to quote Joni Mitchell, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
The death of Rupert Murdoch. A culture secretary who cares about culture, or anything. A system that treats people as citizens, not consumers. And a funding model that reflects the respect and love with which the BBC is viewed abroad.
Retaining the licence fee.
If the BBC can continue to set the gold standard throughout the world with its news and current affairs coverage then its future should be secure. It is a shining cultural asset in that sense, helping the rest of the world? ?build a picture of our nation. If we lost that through the workings of an ?insouciant government it would be an act of ?monumental national folly for which that government would never be forgiven.
We will. Because if we don’t, we’ll stop being we.
A switch to a new funding model would help. Ninety-five per cent of English speakers are not residents of the UK. The BBC should be recruiting subscribers in India, the US and elsewhere. The worst strategy for the BBC, though, would be to think: how can we last another 100 years? In order to live for another century, it needs to permanently adapt to the changing market. At present, it is sluggish – even screamingly reluctant – to do so.
Crikey! Another 100 years of the BBC. I’m not sure I can face that thought. But we do need to preserve trusted and impartial public service journalism for the sake of our democracy. So lying politicians should stop undermining it to deflect attention from their own dishonesty.
The BBC will last for as long as it is valued by a majority of British households. This will depend on providing distinctive, high-quality services on all platforms. It still has a vitally important role to play in British life.
Always developing new stories from fresh voices and being the first to uplift new talent, while still providing access to the classic programmes that set the original high bars.
Integrity and flexibility.
Keep adapting, evolving and working with new talent.
Nothing can be ensured for 100 years. But with a voluntary subscription model, the Beeb’s best bet would be a return to high-quality news, comedy and drama, with genuine diversity of viewpoints and reduced obsession with regional and racial diversity in programming. Viewers know tokenism when they see it. Shore up excellence and pluralism while the sterling BBC brand still means something.
I would argue that the BBC is a fundamental public good and therefore a universal funding system is absolutely still a relevant idea. It does not have to be a licence fee. It could be a household tax, it could be that the better-off pay slightly more and the less-well off pay less. I could be persuaded to go down either route but I could not be persuaded to chop it up into subscription packages leaving a public service core. If you compare the range and breadth of programmes you get from the BBC with what you get from subscription services, it remains astounding value for money.
Jane Tranter, former controller of drama at the BBC, now an independent producer of series such as Succession and His Dark Materials
Like the NHS, the BBC’s importance won’t be fully realised until it’s gone. A major task is to drive home the wide-ranging impact it has on the UK. But it must embrace change, focus on new talent, innovation and ideas – and be prepared to sell these on to help fund the same again.
That it somehow discovers the ability to stand up for itself.
Public support. Polls consistently show huge public support for and trust in the BBC. Politicians, driven by the BBC’s powerful and loud media rivals, weaken or destroy the BBC at their peril. But, to survive, the BBC must continue to reform, while defending itself with far more confidence than it has recently.
The BBC will last if it can stay relevant, reflecting the state of our culture.
Kate Mosse, novelist and founder of the Women’s prize for fiction
Continued independence and freedom from political interference, lack of advertising, growth of digital and education services, reconnection with core viewers as well as emerging audiences.
This one is simple for me: connection with young viewers. Because everyone who wants to do away with the BBC will be dead soon. I’ve got an eight-year-old daughter, and if she’s not connected with the BBC in her generation, then that’s it.
A BBC that does not just follow trends but which also sets them when it comes to its programming content. It’s good to see BBC Three return because we definitely need more programmes made for the 16-30-plus demographic.
The BBC needs a different funding model in order to make changes that are bigger than kneejerk reactions to audience figures or different political parties discussing its funding. It needs to look hard at our country’s place in the world and reflect the truth of where we find ourselves today. Its impartiality and its journalistic integrity should be above reproach.
What is your desert island BBC programme?
I suppose it has to be Cathy Come Home. It was so blazingly original in its portrayal of the housing crisis, and still packs immense power. The line of work that followed in Wednesday Play and Play for Today is brilliant and historic. It’s the nearest this country ever came to a real film culture.
Can I have two? Greg James on the Radio 1 Breakfast show and Radio 4’s Today programme. Between them they would keep me upbeat with music and news, and hopefully broadcast reports of my imminent rescue.
David Mitchell, author
Desert Island Discs. No doubt you’re getting that answer a lot. But it’s a showcase of humanity of unparalleled depth, breadth and diversity.
I’m going to pick Liza Tarbuck on Radio 2. Her warmth, humour, unique music choices sum up a lot of the BBC to me, and its power to connect.
Kit de Waal
The Shipping Forecast. It’s a lullaby.
Play for Today. That period in the 1970s and 1980s when you had a new play every week on the BBC, from the likes of Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter, Caryl Churchill, David Hare and so on, seems like a dream now. There was ferocious social realism, but also a lot of very funny observational comedy and really innovative stuff like Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. I’m sure there was some deservedly forgotten dross, but it was extraordinary to be able to turn on the telly and know there was a decent chance you were going to see a completely new work that just might be great.
House of Cards. It epitomised BBC drama at its very best: sharply written, exquisitely acted and original. But I’d be betraying Radio 4 if I didn’t add Desert Island Discs; I’m a particular fan of the Sue Lawley years.
Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?
It would have to be Attenborough. Sadly predictable, I’m afraid, but his latest series on plants is stunning.
Dreda Say Mitchell
Line of Duty. I’ve been hooked on Jed Mercurio’s contemporary cop classic since it first broadcast on BBC Two. The twists and the turns. Who can you trust? Mother of God!
The Singing Detective. Frightening, moving, bizarre; TV drama at its most fearless and inventive.
Mine’s got to be Match of the Day. It’s ageless. When I was eight or nine I would get my dad to promise to wake me up for it. I would have plenty of time [on the island] to practise Bergkamp’s tricks. And on radio, In Our Time (plus the archive); Melvyn Bragg’s lessons would provide some solace on the island.
Shaun Keaveny’s afternoon show on Radio 6 Music – a dryly witty and gloriously daft programme that kept me sane in lockdown, and which sadly is no more. Now it’s Jo Whiley on Radio 2: lovely, consoling company in the early evening, especially after a rough day.
The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall: perfection.
Desert Island Discs makes me cry, it’s so delicately great. It would be a toss-up between that and The Reunion, which is one the best formats for fascinating conversation. Could I just have the whole of Radio 4 on my island with me, please?
Mark Kermode, Observer film critic
Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC 6 Music. The weekend wouldn’t be the weekend without these two brilliant presenters, who share a deep love and eclectic knowledge of music, treating us to a heady cocktail of stuff and nonsense. Regular features such as Crisps on the Radio (in which our hosts eat and describe… crisps on the radio) rub up against tunes that can make you laugh, cry and cheer. Sublime!
If ever a programme summed up all that is great about the BBC, it is Radio 4’s In Our Time, a 45-minute live intellectual discussion programme covering everything from Aristotle to artificial intelligence, hosted by an actual peer of the realm. I mean, come on, where else in the world would you find that except on the BBC?
Doctor Who. Inevitably! I owe it so much, from childhood love affair to grownup employment. A quintessential BBC show and a uniquely British one. Glorious, beautiful and mad. And still “the children’s own programme which adults adore”.
Micah Richards, former footballer, now TV pundit
It would have to be Match of the Day. I grew up as a football-mad kid watching Des Lynam with the likes of Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen going through all the analysis on a Saturday night. It was essential viewing for me. When I started playing for Manchester City it was unbelievable to think Alan Hansen would be analysing my performance. If he said something about your defending, you would listen. Nowadays, I feel extremely fortunate to be a pundit on such an iconic show.
I’ve always enjoyed getting everything wrong on University Challenge, but since I’ve actually been on it (and got two starters right!) I can safely say it’s my favourite quiz show of all time.
All of Desert Island Discs via BBC Sounds. It embodies the best things about the BBC – the courage to have guests who are genuinely interesting as opposed to simply famous, and to have them at the point when they’re not trying to sell you something. The archive builds up into a kind of pageant of British life. But I also want the complete works of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin – Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog and the Clangers to name just three – the delicious voices, the endlessly innovative low-tech animation, and most of all the courage to keep imagining what a better world would look like.
All the Open University programmes ever made between 1971 and 2006. The concept of higher education being accessible to all is a fine thing, and just like I did in the past, I could spend many an insomniac night caught up learning about something I had no idea existed.
Anything and everything created by and starring the team behind the BBC1 sitcom Ghosts who first met on Horrible Histories. I’d follow them to the ends of the earth.
Jade Anouka, actor
Has to be Top of the Pops circa 1994-2002… Spice Girls, Five, Destiny’s Child, Backstreet Boys, Craig David… we met them first here. We dressed like them, we fell in love, we played their albums till our CDs broke.
Steve Wright in the Afternoon on Radio 2 remains a gem; one of the funniest people on the radio, and his interview style gets the results others don’t.
Lynette Linton, playwright and artistic director of the Bush theatre
I’d say Starstruck at the moment – it’s exactly what we need in the world right now! It’s joyous and fun, but also has wonderfully relatable characters that you connect with and root for. It’s great to see the BBC backing new writing. And Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. So wonderful to see Caribbean culture on BBC One. I could watch it over and over again.
Boys from the Blackstuff! Vital, human, northern – something you doubt an American platform would or could make. Public service drama.
Martha Lane Fox
Yes Minister – should be on repeat right now….
Letter from America. I just loved the fact that it existed, I loved Alistair Cooke’s delivery, I loved the construction, and just listening to beautifully composed essays on American politics from someone who knew what he was talking about.
Andi Oliver, chef and TV host
I’m a huge fan of A Good Read on Radio 4. It is so wonderful listening to people passionately discuss the books that inspire them. I’m also going to say Line of Duty: incredible writing, acting, direction. It exemplifies all that is brilliant in BBC drama.