BBC in crisis: sex scandals, staff cuts and new consumer trends

The British broadcasting corporation is struggling to maintain its status as a benchmark of a world class service

BBC headquarters in London on July 9, 2009.Mike Kemp (In Pictures via Getty Images)

An institution that has long been synonymous with the best of Britain, the BBC is fighting to remain relevant as its very identity is threatened by internal controversies, a bleeding of talent and new consumer trends. A model of rigorous journalism and national pride for decades, the U.K. broadcasting consortium is going through a crisis that is forcing it to justify its own existence within the context of ever stiffer competition from alternative platforms, attacks from media outfits such as Rupert Murdoch’s empire and a campaign of hostility from a certain wing of the right-wing Conservative government.

The compulsory license fee that the British public pays each year to fund the corporation partially explains the BBC’s recent tribulations. A direct public subsidy entails immense liability, making scandals and mistakes a costly business. Crises are managed in the public eye, with the BBC in the roles of the accused, judge and jury regarding its coverage. The recent sex scandal of Huw Edwards, one of the corporation’s stars who has temporarily stepped down, is one of the most obvious examples of the complicated nature of the contrition with which the corporation intends to atone for its weaknesses. Edwards was not only the most recognizable face of the BBC, but the embodiment of what the BBC wants to project: rigor, stability and confidence.

After The Sun tabloid newspaper, owned by Murdoch’s media empire, published allegations about payments by an unidentified BBC star to a young man in exchange for highly sexual images, Edwards’ family put an end to days of frantic speculation and confirmed his identity. The saga is problematic because there was no established illegality as the young man was not proven to be a minor, as initially reported.

Although Edwards continues to be sidelined, the incident shows the extreme vulnerability of the corporation in the current political climate and the long shadow still cast by scandals such as that of Jimmy Saville, the eccentric DJ who sexually abused hundreds of people for decades, most of them minors. His depravity would not hit the headlines until 2012, a year after his death.

Although The Sun’s conduct could be considered more ethically suspect than the BBC’s management of the Edwards issue, the newspaper managed to hit where it hurts the most: at the BBC’s reputation. This is particularly so after complicated months of the corporation being mired in a debate on its role in the media landscape and the delicate matter of the license fee. The problem for the BBC’s management is that it is fighting for its survival on a number of fronts, since, along with the daily management of tens of thousands of employees and multiple divisions, it is accountable to both the government and the public.

What would be anecdotal elsewhere, in the BBC, it triggers a national discussion. Take the example of Gary Lineker: the sports presenter and the BBC’s highest paid star, was temporarily suspended in March from the popular Match of the Day show, for comparing Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s rhetoric on migration with that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. After complex negotiations and a tsunami of support for Lineker from other commentators, the star returned. The case flags up the pressures the BBC is under, due to the onus on it to maintain neutrality.

The chairman’s resignation

Even the BBC’s upper echelons are not immune to controversy. Last April, Richard Sharp had to resign as chairman for having violated the rules on public appointments by failing to declare his connection to Boris Johnson during the latter’s premiership with a loan of £800,000 ($1 million). The scandal made his position untenable, but, above all, exacerbated the attacks on the corporation’s alleged closeness to the Conservative government, after years of political pressure and threats to funding.

In the U.K., it is no secret that a faction of the Tories has a deep contempt for the corporation. Johnson went so far as to appoint Nadie Dorries, a politician highly critical of the BBC, as his Culture Minister. A role that is responsible for media, Dorries went on to accuse the BBC of being biased and nepotistic. During her term in office that last scarcely 12 months, she froze the £159 ($200) license fee for two years, from January 2022, which, in practical terms, means a cut of £400 million ($503 million) in funding until 2027.

The cut comes on top of a drop in revenue since 2010, which has reduced economic resources by almost a third in real terms and forced what the BBC calls “difficult decisions” in “much-loved services.” Some divisions have been merged, and internal concern about the future adds to doubts about whether the corporation will have the financial muscle to consolidate its adaptation to new consumer trends and compete with media giants exempt from editorial and economic constrictions.

As part of its cuts, the BBC launched its new news channel this year, which combines the domestic service, financed by the license, with the BBC World Service News, aimed at foreign audiences and financed by advertising and subscriptions. The merger has led to departures among some of the corporation’s veteran journalists and is a challenging experiment, as the two services were designed for very different audiences. However, given the dwindling resources and declining audience, the decision was inevitable.

One of the BBC’s main challenges is to guarantee its future in an environment where, according to the British communication regulator, Ofcom, only 17% of 17 to 24-year-olds watch the news channel, preferring Instagram, X or TikTok. But it is not merely a matter of increasing its audience, it is also about fulfilling its contract with the public, established by the license itself, to provide news of public interest.

Exodus of talent

The debate over neutrality has also led to a hemorrhage of talent among heavyweights who have migrated to other media platforms. The exodus is not so much a response to better pay as to a desire to broaden editorial scope beyond what is imposed by the BBC stylebook, especially in a climate of gradual political polarization.

When political commentator Andrew Marr, the presenter of the BBC’s flagship The Andrew Marr Show, joined Global Player, its radio station, LBC, claimed that Marr had “got his voice back.” Other popular presenters such as Jon Sopel, Emily Maitlis and Lewis Goodhall followed suit to create The News Agent, a daily podcast in which they do not have to censor themselves and which has become the most listened to podcast in the UK. The latest to announce her departure is Yalda Hakim, one of the corporation’s most promising stars, who has deepened its identity crisis with her move to Sky News, also owned by Rupert Murdoch, as one of a fresh pool of talent that was supposed to represent a new era for the BBC.

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