The last few years have been immensely challenging for the BBC as charter renewal, licence fee debates and the soaring Netflix business model have turned the corporation into a national punchbag. As a public service broadcaster, its obligations and responsibilities are far greater than its rivals, but likewise criticism is all the more vehement, especially on social media.
But tweets about perceived ‘BBC bias’, ‘licence payer money’ and presenter pay packets are suddenly being replaced with a swell of praise and gratitude for an institution responding to an international crisis in a way that very few can.
Of course, news coverage is a huge part of that. BBC News is now getting extraordinary ratings of more than 10 million people, and indeed all channels are seeing more viewers tune into their bulletins to find out more about the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the chips are down and fake news stories are swirling round the internet, we want a news source we can trust, and many are turning to the BBC News website for impartial, non-sensationalist updates. The Beeb is doing everything it can to keep us informed with streamlined news, special programming (and podcasting) and journalists ignoring advice to stay at home in order to do their bit. While guests call in on Facetime, the likes of Louise Minchin and Huw Edwards are pressing on regardless, not to mention countless reporters, producers and TV crews.
But the BBC is going further than that. Its mandate is to inform, educate and entertain and that’s exactly what it’s doing at the time we need it most. An undervalued national and local radio network is providing a personal touch, offering company to those in self-isolation and reaching out to communities who feel a long way away from London lockdowns and Downing Street briefings. Virtual church services aired on Sunday mornings are helping those struggling to worship, and planned educational resources are about to become invaluable as schools close.
Plus, at a time when escapism is vital, the BBC is doing its best to give us some much-needed respite, refreshing box set content on the iPlayer even if its new dramas are being forced to pause production. Luckily for all of us, there’s an extensive back catalogue to draw upon.
Of course the BBC has been doing most of this for a long time, while also trying to compete with the budgets of the big streaming services. But we’ve taken it for granted, complained at having to pay for it, rolled our eyes at the repeats in its Christmas TV schedule. Netflix is sexier, Amazon Prime is cooler, and the BBC is the annoying old auntie in the corner. We are in different times now though. Love is Blind is great telly, but streaming platforms feel disconnected, out of touch and, quite honestly, unhelpful right now.
Suddenly people are starting to wonder if what media types have been self-righteously tweeting about for ages might actually be true. Perhaps spending less than 50p per day on such an incredible national resource might be worthwhile. And as we experience such great change there is real comfort in leaning on something so familiar, with broadcasters we trust.
Maybe, like the NHS, we are realising the BBC is something we rely on, a service we expect to be there in our time of need and something worth fighting for. Who knows when this period of uncertainty will end, or what life might look like on the other side. But you can’t help but feel the BBC might be in a stronger position than it was before the crisis, certainly when it comes to public opinion.
Emma Bullimore is a freelance journalist who works with BBC radio