A salute (for once) to the BBC

In its approach to the COVID-19 epidemic, the BBC is having a good pandemic, and is reminding the nation and its politicians of the immense value delivered by a high-quality public service broadcaster.

From its raising awareness of the symptoms of the infection, to its constant reminders from the outset of how to wash our hands; from repeated advice on social distancing and self-isolation to promotion of the NHS volunteer programme (to which a staggering 750,000 people have already signed up); and from its live broadcast of the daily Downing Street briefings and its regular repetition of their key messages to highlighting, in the early days of lockdown, the extent to which people were not complying, the BBC has served the viewing, listening and digitally browsing public, and the nation as a whole, well.

Its question and answer sessions with real experts have provided clarity not only about the virus and its epidemiology, but also about everything from student loans, to VAT regulations; from furlough to business rates; from universal credit to the new social distancing and working arrangements.

Local radio stations and dedicated regional pages on its encyclopaedic website, provide more local news and information; and the recent announcement, that it will launch the biggest educational push in its history to support children who are unable to attend school, will be a relief to worried parents and a real support for those children who engage with the offer.

Lock-down would simply be unendurable for many of us, whose compliance is vital if it is to succeed in delivering its intended results, if the BBC’s entertainment offer from music to drama, from current affairs to cooking, from reality shows to children’s programmes, didn’t contain something for everyone.

Indeed, it’s almost as if the history of the BBC since its launch on 2nd November 1936 has been a rehearsal and a product development programme to get its ubiquitous output, in all parts of the United Kingdom (and globally), on all platforms, through all media, and at all times, to be something that can meet the nations’ needs in this crisis.

Writing recently, Rob Roberts MP (Conservative, Delyn) challenged the BBC’s leadership on a number of issues: its competition with commercial broadcasters for popular genres, its decision not to continue to provide the licence fee to the elderly aged over 75, and the salaries of some of its presenters.

Those are all valid questions responses to which the BBC Director General, Tony Hall, and his board will have to develop acceptable answers in dialogue with government ministers and other policy-makers must find answers in due course. But the purpose of this article is limited to enabling one formerly sceptical of the BBC’s role in the new media ecology, unreservedly to salute its contribution to dealing with this plague for its mishandling of which, as Michael Gove recently said, there must be a reckoning by the international community with China.

Cometh the hour, cometh the vision of the man. Lord Reith can be proud that the BBC continues to fulfil the mission that he set for it: to educate, to inform and to entertain, not only when launched, but also now, in the nation’s and the world’s hour of need.

Chris Whitehouse leads The Whitehouse Consultancy and, whilst writing in a personal capacity, is Clerk to the All-Party Parliamentary Media Group and Director of the Westminster Media Forum.

The Whitehouse team are experts in the impact of global crises, providing crisis communications, risk management and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at chris.whitehouse@whitehousecomms.com.