Growing up in the US with two British parents, I have learned there are several things that many Americans mistakenly assume all Britons do: talk in posh accents and/or Cockney rhyming slang, consume tea and scones off of fine china at four o’ clock, and don Burberry trench coats and Savile Row suits as a matter of routine.
Of course, these assumptions are as true as the ideas that all Americans own guns and enjoy super-size portions three times daily. To be sure, it’s hard to find a commonality among all citizens of any nation. However, my time living in the UK has led to believe that perhaps there is one thing that all Brits can call their own: the BBC.
The BBC is so very British for a concrete reason—every Brit pays for it. Unlike in the US—where radio stations and TV networks are either privately owned or financially supported by charities, individual donors, and local governments—the British government mandates that each citizen pay a yearly licensing fee, which supports the BBC’s radio, TV, and online services.
Like most fees, this £145.50 annual tax has its critics. However, it would be hard to argue that Britons aren’t reaping the benefits of what they pay for: a BBC audience information report from 2011 reported that “97 per cent of UK adults (47 million people) consume at least 15 minutes of a BBC service in an average week, and they spend over 19 hours a week on average with the BBC.” When it comes to radio, the same study found the 67.9 percent of Britons listen to BBC programming each week. In addition, all this programming and web content is commercial and advertisement free as long as you’re viewing it in the UK.
The BBC’s wide reach is at least partially due to the fact that—unlike commercial or public networks which must court advertisers or underwriters—the network can tailor its content to fit the broad and varied needs of its audience. Statements in the BBC’s self-imposed remit such as “to represent the different nations, regions, and communities to the rest of the UK” and to “bring people together for shared experiences” sound almost in direct contrast to the role that media organizations in the US play.
The BBC’s influence in Britain is still the most trusted among major news outlets (in a November 2012 poll, 39 percent put it at the top of a list of other outlets including ITV News, Sky News, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail). Among these other sources, there certainly are ones that have political leanings. However unlike in the US—where the phrase “I heard it on NPR” is generally interpreted as a political statement—political bias and sources of news aren’t so blithely accepted as being linked.
It’s hard to think of anything that 97 percent of people come into contact with, much less a source of media, news, and entertainment. And while there are some empirical reasons for the more fragmented nature of American public opinion—a bigger population and geography and a much shorter history as a nation—the absence of any media that manages to transcend politics certainly doesn’t seem to help.
Ultimately, having a news source that almost everyone watches or interacts with in some way fosters a national dialogue that has been stifled in the MSNBC versus Fox media landscape of the US. It’s hard to discuss current events or politics when differing sources of news can’t agree on the basic facts of such matters.
While the US is unlikely to ever have anything akin to a national broadcaster like the BBC, the more citizens—liberals, conservatives, and independents alike—that have a stake in their media, the better. Supporting a public radio station allows those outlets to do what the BBC holds as their main purpose: responding to the needs and wants of their audience.