The world’s longest-running children’s TV show is in trouble – and, if you read newspapers, it’s all the BBC’s fault. The Daily Mail has reported that an episode of the broadcaster’s flagship children’s programme Blue Peter had no viewers when it was aired on CBBC on June 13. According to the Daily Mail, zero children these days want to make something from “sticky-back plastic and a few toilet roll tubes”, compared to eight million in the programme’s “heyday”.
The BBC took to Twitter to defend the programme. While the Blue Peter badge may no longer be the coolest accessory in the playground, more than 160,000 children between six and 15 still have one and while viewing figures have gone down since the programme’s peak in the 1970s, Blue Peter retains a considerable audience.
The episode the Daily Mail referenced was a repeat shown at 2.30pm (when Blue Peter’s target audience was largely in school). The episode was actually watched by 252,000 people across four separate airings.
This isn’t the first time that the BBC has taken to social media to defend itself against newspaper attacks. A search through the BBC’s Twitter history finds a response to a Daily Mail article suggesting that the BBC “has opened itself up to accusations of left-wing bias after it was revealed it gets more than 1,300 copies of The Guardian every week”. The BBC hit back by pointing out that the Corporation receives “more copies of the Times than The Guardian and 1,200 Daily Mails a week”.
It’s interesting to see the Daily Mail trying to portray the BBC as a left-wing fellow-traveller of The Guardian. The Guardian, like the Mail, also criticised the BBC for the declining viewing figures of Blue Peter, arguing that, “a flagship children’s show like Blue Peter deserves better than this”.
So why would two national newspapers with almost polar opposite political points of view, the left-leaning Guardian and the right-leaning Daily Mail, use a skewed reading of viewing figures to create a negative story about the BBC? The answer lies with the broadcaster’s unusual funding system. The BBC is funded by a compulsory annual licence fee of £147, paid by everyone who watches television or downloads BBC programmes in the UK, no matter how much money they earn or how much they watch.
This means that the BBC is able to make programmes free from the influence of advertisers and in areas which the commercial media market wouldn’t necessarily serve because they don’t generate enough profit. This includes children’s programming. But, because everyone pays, the BBC also needs to make programmes which are popular, such as Strictly Come Dancing – or people would simply refuse to pay their licence fee.
While 97% of the UK population use BBC services every week, the number of people who read newspapers in print has declined heavily over the past 10 years with newspaper reach among adults falling by more than a quarter since 2005.
Newspapers don’t receive a guaranteed income from the licence fee and therefore many senior figures within the newspaper industry – including the owner of The Sun and The Times, Rupert Murdoch and the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre – have criticised the licence fee as giving the BBC an unfair advantage. Newspaper owners see the BBC as a rival and there is some evidence showing that the BBC is criticised within particular newspapers because of this.
Playing the blame game
As many BBC programmes are popular, it seems as though newspapers are usually careful not to obviously attack the BBC programmes themselves. Blue Peter, for example, is a programme many newspaper readers would have grown up watching and so suggesting the programme was at fault would not have gone down well. The newspapers, therefore, developed their story around the BBC failing to take proper care of a programme which the nation knows and loves.
The Daily Mail, for example, blamed the BBC for moving the programme around in scheduling and cutting the number of weekly episodes from three to one. The Mail also suggested this was the fault of the BBC, not the Conservative-led government, which froze the licence fee for six years. This means that the BBC has had a real terms cut in funding.
The BBC isn’t perfect – and scandals such as the Jimmy Savile debacle mean it often deserves criticism. But it’s important to remember that the owners of the newspapers criticising the BBC have an agenda in wanting to see the BBC decline: they want to pick up its share of the media market. So criticism of the BBC may not always have the interests of those who use BBC services at heart.
The BBC’s Royal Charter – the document which sets out what the BBC should do – was recently renewed for 11 years. This was said to be kind to the Corporation because it allowed the licence fee to continue and increase in line with inflation until 2021-22. It also prompted critics to suggest that this was a missed chance to reform the BBC.
Most people still see the BBC as a national treasure. But that doesn’t necessarily include the UK’s newspapers, and recent coverage of Blue Peter shows Fleet Street’s knives are still out for Auntie.
Catrin Owen receives funding from a Future Academic Bursary at the University of Liverpool. She also works part time in the constituency office of a backbench Labour Party Member of Parliament alongside her PhD studies.