James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
My first focus group was in Watford in 2000. In those days, virtually every other group seemed to take place there. Partly because it was seen as a bellwether seat. But also because it was the nearest vaguely normal place to London that could be reached in an evening.
In those days, people were stuffed full of sandwiches and crisps, beer and wine – unlike now when it’s generally more austere. And every focus group tended to begin with the same ice-breaker: tell us where you get your news from.
The news question provoked a bunch of different answers, depending on the make-up of the group or its location. Older people read the Daily Mail, working class people read The Sun or sometimes the The Daily Mirror, middle class people read The Times or The Daily Telegraph – and yes teachers read The Guardian. Most people in the Midlands and North read a local paper.
But everyone – almost without exception – relied primarily on the BBC1 nightly news bulletins for their daily news. And most supplemented this by dipping into other BBC news sources such as Today, Newsnight or On the Record (the main Sunday interview show, as it then was). For the English, the BBC was ubiquitous.
Over the years that followed, I was often asked to test public trust in the corporation – usually for campaigns that complained bitterly about the BBC’s attitudes towards their cause – on everything from Europe to economic policy. These campaigns hoped that people would share their concerns about BBC bias.
They never did; people almost always said they trusted BBC News in absolute terms, and relatively far more than most political parties and campaigns. Trying to make people question BBC News’ values and motives was a pointless exercise.
It was always hard to say, but the trust the public had in BBC News seemed partly to derive from their wider trust and affection for the BBC as a whole. When you asked people what they thought was so good about the BBC, they generally said wildlife and factual programmes, local programmes (including news) and the fact that there were no ads. Some would talk about the blockbuster shows like Only Fools & Horses. The BBC was interwoven through the lives of ordinary working class and lower middle class life.
Broadly speaking, in my experience, I’d say this was the reality consistently until a couple of years ago. Now, when you ask where people get their news from, it’s almost always Facebook and other social media channels – in turn, directing them to an array of sites (by no means usually the BBC).
Hardly anyone says they make time to watch the main BBC1 news bulletins, and fewer and fewer people say they watch or listen to the main news analysis shows. Furthermore, when you ask people about the shows they watch, they generally reply with an answer about the platform, not the shows themselves. So, they’ll say “Netflix” or “Amazon Prime” or whatever. They never say they “put the telly on” like they did even a decade ago.
Again, in my experience, I have not found that trust has fallen per se – although post the referendum and two brutal election campaigns, there is now a larger minority of people who moan about “BBC bias”. But “trust” has become become less relevant people as the BBC has become less relevant.
By that I mean that they don’t view trust as a negating factor in their views on the decreasing relevance of the institution. This is the big problem that the BBC has: it could always fall back on the trust argument, even as it was getting a kicking from usually right-leaning activists about its output. Now, trust doesn’t cut it because, increasingly, people are saying “so what?”
They’re increasingly saying “so what?” about everything regarding the BBC. When so many people are forking out for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Sky and other niche content on their phones and tablets, more people (but not all, see below) are starting to view the BBC as “just another service” that’s competing for their attention. In my experience, this is particularly true amongst younger audiences – they just don’t see the point of it, and they don’t even share the nostalgia to “better times”.
This is my experience from the focus groups, but what of the polling? The polling bears this out to a significant extent. My agency Public First polled directly on the question as to whether the licence fee should exist, which got a bit of attention at Christmas.
It showed a clear majority overall favouring its abolition – by 74 per cent to 14 per cent overall – and this was true across all the key demographics. And the poll also showed that people favour decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.
But it also showed that people were unsure about how the BBC should be funded in the future. Younger people were quite positive about the idea of the BBC being funded like Netflix, through subscriptions, but older people were hostile. More people liked the idea, they said, of the BBC being funded commercially, like ITV. Interestingly, the poll also showed that more people disagreed that the BBC was “neutral”, than agreed with it. Either way, the lesson is clear: very few people support the status quo.
The BBC’s perfectly reasonable pushback to this poll was that it didn’t give sufficient context – that it didn’t present enough alternatives, essentially. Their view is that the BBC always looks better when people are confronted with the alternatives or with the prospect of no BBC at all.
We had never intended this to be any sort of detailed look at public attitudes to the BBC; we ran it because one of our staff was being interviewed about the future of the BBC, and we wanted to have something to say about it. But the problem with the BBC’s pushback is that it almost acknowledges that the status quo is, at best, just the least worst option. They seem to be waiting for the future to make them entirely irrelevant.
So what does all this mean for Number Ten’s future combat with the BBC? My sense is that the BBC is extremely vulnerable to massive change if Downing Street simply and narrowly questions whether its relevance to people’s lives justifies the licence fee. This is where people are. On the other hand, if Number Ten tries to turn change into an ideological battle, it would leave most people cold but probably light up metropolitan lefties in ways that would be problematic.
Which takes us back to the BBC. As I note above, the it was interwoven in the lives of the English working class and lower middle class. This is no longer true – practically or culturally – and the Corporation will struggle to mobilise these people.
All the BBC has probably got left is the hope that at some point the public will view this Government as “just another set of politicians” who mess everything up. And of course the Corporation should seek to mobilise metropolitan lefties who aren’t terribly influential in Number Ten’s thinking. You have to start somewhere.