The 'Defund the BBC' campaign has been picking up serious traction in recent weeks, so we spoke to the campaign's founder, James Yucel, to learn more.
Mario Laghos: Recently the BBC came under fire, including from yourselves, for asking on its BBC Sounds show how ‘White women can stop being Karens’. The three commentators all agreed the phenomena of ’Karen’s’ was something of a scourge, and one eventually went on to suggest white women ought to ‘just leave’.
In your view, who exactly is this type of programming trying to appeal to, and what is the thinking that underpins the publishing of this kind of content?
James Yucel: The BBC appear to have got very lost when it comes to understanding who their audience actually is. They seem to be intent on making content for younger viewers with a particular political bent – unfortunately for the BBC, their target audience is neither watching, nor paying for a TV licence.
[ML] The public attitude to the BBC has worsened dramatically over the past 20 years. Just 28% of the public reported being dissatisfied with the BBC in the year 2000, compared to 61% who want to see the license fee abolished today, including Seventy-eight per cent of those aged 18 to 24. To what would you attribute this apparent collapse in support for the BBC to?
[JY] The biggest change in the last 20 years has undoubtedly been the stratospheric rise in powerful personal technology. In 2000, the big development was that you could send emails from a mobile phone, social media didn’t yet exist and Freeview was yet to be invented. TV audiences were really very restricted in their choices in the UK compared with 2020 especially if they weren’t paying for satellite TV services.
Today’s 18-24 year olds have grown up in a world of smartphones and on-demand media. They’re very savvy when it comes to different platforms and how and when they access content. Their viewing habits are very different from those of older generations, both in their choice of programmes and in the amount of time they spend watching. The BBC’s core audience is the over-50s and from what we are hearing from our supporters, the BBC just isn’t making the kind of programmes that appeal to them. They want gardening programmes, nature documentaries, period dramas, feel-good comedies and classic programmes like Dr Who. And they want drama programmes in particular to tell a good story, not deliver a worthy lecture or virtue signal. They want news programmes that inform without editorialising, and certainly without the bias or the gotcha moments we see today. They want to watch programmes that celebrate Britain, not nit-pick and tear the country down as they have increasingly done since 2015.
The BBC seem to be intent on making programmes for an audience who frankly aren’t watching, and are alienating the audience who are.
[ML] Your campaign wants to defund the BBC, with an aim to decriminalise non-payment by the end of 2020. Do you think that defunding the BBC, rather than reforming it, could pave the way for the emergence of US style infotainment, wherein audiences become increasingly consolidated around overtly partisan news channels (online or off)? Would this necessarily be a bad thing?
[JY] This is already happening – the alienation of much of the core audience means that people are seeking out other channels online and getting their news from them. Reform of the BBC is a huge topic and everyone will have their own personal take it this. It’s not an avenue that this campaign wants to get drawn down. Our focus is on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee and reducing the scope of the BBC Charter to cover only BBC content. That way people are free to make their own viewing choices and if that doesn’t include BBC content they can opt out of the licence fee without the fear of prosecution, threatening letters or enforcement officers on the doorstep.
[ML] Many consider programmes like the BBC World Service to be exemplary, and an expression of British soft power which is trusted around the globe. Do you share this view, and if so, would you like to see the World Service continue to be funded via an alternative model, for example by way of general taxation, going forward?
[JY] The BBC World Service is a public corporation of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and until 2014 it was funded by them via a grant-in-aid. Currently it’s funded by a combination of government grants, advertising revenue, the commercial activities of BBC studios and UK licence fee payers. It might be interesting to ask the FCO why they decided to stop funding such a so called exemplary expression of British soft power, but again it isn’t really a focus of DefundTheBBC’s campaign aims. Interestingly, we are receiving an increasing number of complaints from overseas about the content of the BBC World Service and World News, especially from Arabic-speaking countries.
[ML] Criticism of the BBC seems to derive mainly from the pro-Brexit Right, and the ‘Corbynite’ Left. While in the past many have pointed to the fact both sides of the political spectrum complain about the BBC as evidence of its neutrality, do you have any truck with the idea the BBC has a fundamentally pro-establishment bias?
[JY] We receive considerable correspondence from our supporters both in the UK and overseas and the overwhelming consensus from them is that the BBC has a left-leaning, anti-Brexit, anti-British bias.
[ML] Many have suggested that Kier Starmer is treated with kid gloves vis a vis the coverage of Corbyn during his tenure as Labour Leader. Do you agree with that characterisation, and is there an extent to which you think the alleged double standards come down to their differing views on Brexit?
[JY] Most new leaders, regardless of Party, benefit from a honeymoon period. Kier Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn are two very different personalities. It will be interesting to see how the relationship develops.
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