What is the BBC?

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is an independent, publicly-funded television and radio broadcasting organisation, with extensive interests in programme production, news gathering and commercial publishing.

Until 1955 the BBC was the only TV broadcaster in the UK, and it was the only legal radio broadcaster until 1973 (although it competed with many "pirate" radio stations during the 1960s).

Since its launch, the BBC has been funded by licence fees – originally for both TV and radio, but since 1971, only for TV.  The cost of the licence fee has been frozen at £145.50 until 2017. The level of the licence fee is set by the Government. This method of funding means that the BBC's activities are not influenced by the interests of shareholders or of advertisers.

An autonomous corporation under Royal Charter, the BBC is headed by an Executive Board which is responsible for the operational management of the Corporation and for the delivery of BBC services according to plans agreed with the BBC Trust.

The Board is chaired by the Director-General and comprises executive directors from within the BBC and 5 non-executive directors from outside. The Director-General is chief executive and editor-in-chief of the BBC and is appointed by the BBC Trust. The incumbent DG (2012) is Mark Thompson, formerly chief executive of Channel 4.

The BBC Trust is the governing body of the BBC and is made up of a chairman, vice-chairman and 10 other Trustees, four of whom have special responsibility for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The 12 Trustees are all appointed by the Queen on advice from ministers following an open selection process. The current chairman of the BBC Trust is Lord (Chris) Patten, whose previous posts have included Conservative party chairman and (the last) Governor of Hong Kong.

The BBC Trust is supported by the Trust Unit which is charged with providing objective and independent advice to the Trust. The Unit is led by Nicholas Kroll, former chief operating officer at the DCMS.

The BBC is subject to Public Service Broadcasting requirements under its Charter, which is reviewed every ten years. Its Board of Governors exercise many of the regulatory functions that Ofcom performs in respect of other broadcasters. The current Charter runs until the end of 2016.


The BBC began life as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922, as an initiative of a consortium of companies including Marconi, GEC, British Thomson Houston, Metropolitan Vickers, Western Electric and the Radio Communication Company, intended to encourage public take-up of radio technology. By 1925, most of the UK was covered by BBC radio transmissions.

At this time, the BBC was dominated by the vision of its general manager, John Reith, who saw the Company as a model for an independent broadcaster with a mission to educate, inform and entertain the whole nation, free from political interference and commercial pressures.

In its earliest days, the newspaper industry successfully ensured that the BBC could not compete with its monopoly of news services. The Company was forbidden from broadcasting news until 7pm each day. When newspapers ceased to be published during the General Strike of 1926, the public turned to their radios for news. John Reith successfully convinced the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to reject calls from Winston Churchill and others to take the BBC into state control during the strike.

In 1927, the BBC changed its name to the British Broadcasting Corporation, on receipt of its Royal Charter.

In 1936, the BBC began to broadcast television pictures, with services and technology improving dramatically between 1936 and 1939. Television was closed down for the duration of the Second World War, but the public soon became highly dependent on the BBC's radio services. By the end of the war, nearly half the population was listening to the Nine O'Clock News each evening, and the BBC was broadcasting in 40 languages. Josef Goebbels himself admitted that the BBC had won the "intellectual invasion" of Europe.

However, radio's dominance was eclipsed in June 1953, with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. 22 million people watched the coronation, and it was a critical event in generating public enthusiasm for the technology. Nonetheless, the weakness of the BBC's output was exposed in 1955, with the launch of ITV, which saw the BBC's share of TV viewers sink to just 27 per cent in 1957.

Other key events in the history of the BBC were the launch of BBC 2 in 1964, BBC Radio 1 and colour television in 1967, CEEFAX in 1974, the launch of commercial radio in 1973, and the consolidation of the BBC's now diverse commercial activities as BBC Enterprises Ltd (now BBC Worldwide) in 1979.

The 1980s was a time of critical changes for the BBC, with the launch of Channel 4 in 1982, the proliferation of commercial radio stations and the development of multi-channel satellite TV. A 1985 demand by the Governors that changes be made to the documentary "Real Lives" about Northern Irish paramilitaries, at the request of the Home Secretary Leon Brittan, was the culmination of a long series of run-ins with the Thatcher government, and led to a strike by news staff, who feared that political impartiality had been compromised. The decade also saw the introduction of an internal market, again under pressure from the Government, which was further developed in sweeping organisational changes under director general John Birt in the 1990s. The changes saw programme commissioners obliged to choose between in-house producers and facilities and external companies. The BBC also sold its transmitter network in the early 1990s.

The Charter review of 1996 saw the BBC undertake a programme of "Extending Choice", by offering programming that commercial broadcasters would not produce.

The early 21st Century saw the BBC moving into digital services, rolling out a range of new television and radio services.

BBC North, an initiative to provide more broadcasting from outside London, began in May 2011. A new world-class base at MediaCityUK, Salford, aims to create a centre of excellence for production, technology development, training and digital media.


The BBC and many of its supporters argue that the Corporation is the most widely-respected broadcaster in the world. However, recent events and trends – combined with the BBC's position at the heart of the British media – have made it a particularly controversial subject.

Throughout its history, the BBC has clashed with the Government of the day over its news reporting. During the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Eden Government considered taking control of the BBC because of perceived bias. The BBC has long been accused by those on the right of having an institutional bias towards Labour, but 2003 and 2004 saw it clash with the Blair Government in one of the most bitter and damaging rows of recent times, over the war in Iraq, the death of MoD scientist Dr David Kelly, and the BBC's alleged anti-war agenda.

The refusal of the BBC to give an apology, demanded by the Prime Minister, Alistair Campbell and other Ministers, for a report claiming that the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been "sexed up" (the source for which had been Dr Kelly, who later killed himself), led to the establishment of the Hutton Inquiry to investigate the matter. The Hutton report, published in January 2004, virtually exonerated the Government of any wrongdoing and laid much of the blame on the BBC's editorial processes – causing Director General Greg Dyke and Chairman Gavyn Davies, both former Labour donors, to resign.

The BBC attracted criticism again in 2007 when a trailer for the documentary 'A Year with the Queen' was edited out of sequence and claimed – incorrectly – that Her Majesty had walked out of a photo session 'in a huff'. The BBC apologised, an investigation was carried out and the controller of BBC One, Peter Fincham, subsequently resigned.

At the same time, the BBC has frequently been accused of "dumbing down" its programming, in order to compete with commercial broadcasters for ratings. Critics of the BBC frequently allege that programming quality is in decline, and accuse the Corporation of seeking only to entertain at the expense of education.

These claims were given further credence recently when the Russell Brand show on BBC Radio 2 featured Brand and TV presenter Jonathan Ross leaving a series of offensive messages on the answer phone of veteran Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs. The incident provoked a huge public outcry and was condemned by both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. Consequently Brand left the show, Ross was suspended for three months without pay and BBC Radio 2 Controller, Lesley Douglas, resigned.

The BBC's response to modern trends in broadcasting has also been widely debated.

The wisdom and fairness of the BBC pumping large sums of money into developing digital TV and radio services, and a substantial presence on the Internet, is frequently questioned. Accessing many of the services launched since the 1990s requires a subscription of the purchase of special equipment. It is claimed that this is exclusive, and an unreasonable use of licence payers' money, if many licence payers are unable to use the services.

The BBC's defenders argue that a digital presence is essential to the long-term future of the Corporation and the need to retain audience share in order to justify the licence fee. They point to the insignificance of Public Service Broadcasters elsewhere in the world, such as the CBC in Canada, as demonstrating the necessity of the BBC remaining relevant to the widest possible section of the public.

Many debates about the BBC boil down to the licence fee. Everyone who owns a TV set is liable, with criminal penalties for non-payment, whatever use they make of BBC services. Opponents condemn this as a regressive tax, which is deeply prejudicial to competition in broadcasting and simply unfair on other broadcasters. The BBC strongly defends the licence fee – even broadcasting adverts in its defence – arguing that it is only its reliance on funding that comes neither from private sponsors nor from the Government that enables it to produce the sort of programming that it does.


Twenty-five per cent of licence fee payers live in the North – from Liverpool to Newcastle – yet currently only 8% of network programmes are made in the region.
There will be up to 2,300 BBC jobs in MediaCityUK including hundreds of new vacancies. 

Source: BBC; the move to Media City, Salford – 2011

Mark Thompson Director-General BBC receives:

Salary: £613,000
Total remuneration: £671,000
Salary includes a 1 month pay surrender and total remuneration represents the annual salary, estimated taxable benefits and other remuneration as at 1 May 2011. This also includes the removal of pension supplements for individual directors.

Source: BBC – 2011

The annual cost of a TV licence as from 1 April 2010 was £145.50 for colour and £49 for black and white. In October 2010, a new licence fee settlement was agreed which will deliver stable funding until 2016/17.

As part of the Spending Review 2010 the Government agreed with the BBC that the cost of the TV licence fee will be frozen until 2016-17 and that the BBC will take on additional funding responsibilities.

Under the current licence fee settlement, the fee will remain at £145.50 in 2011/12 and 2012/13. This level will then be maintained in a new four-year settlement to 2016/2017.

Source: DCMS – 2012


"As one of the few institutions that genuinely connect people across divides, the BBC is an essential part of our social fabric. I buy into a vision of the BBC offering value to everyone without compromising its high standards."

Nicholas Kroll, Director, BBC Trust – 2012

"The BBC is the best broadcasting organisation in the world…..It is the best not simply because it makes wonderful programmes, but because it has placed itself technologically at the cutting edge, not something one would usually associate with public sector bodies."

BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten – 2012