Writing in Prospect magazine, the Archbishop of Canterbury has joined other British luminaries in defending the BBC from proposed budget cuts and the elimination of the license fee imposed by the state on those who own television sets. His defended the broadcaster’s role in British society stating: “Strong democracy requires governments to consciously support structures that can challenge and potentially undermine them”. His article was printed alongside those of other luminaries defending the status quo after the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, said the future of the BBC’s funding arrangements were up for discussion by the government.
The stakes are never higher than when truth is on trial. Jesus said: “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth…” At the trial that led to his death, Pilate asked Jesus: “what is truth?”
Truth is always essential and always contested. Finding it and harnessing it—for good or ill—have been the aims of philosophers and the powerful for as long as people have thought. In our own era, the pursuit of truth feels more urgent yet more complicated by the day. But if truth often feels elusive, abandoning the belief that truth exists and can be found is a counsel of despair.
The BBC exists in this maelstrom, amid debates about access to truth and power. Strong democracy requires governments to consciously support structures that can challenge and potentially undermine them. When they support media organisations that can scrutinise—and criticise—them publicly, and when they resist the urge to abuse their role in that power dynamic, governments willingly limit themselves for the benefit of the people.
In turn, truth-seeking journalism that strives for impartiality makes space for people to disagree well, and for different opinions to be heard and challenged. Strong national institutions like the BBC can support the flourishing of free speech, and encourage a society that listens and responds generously and with grace.
Operating in a global market economy, but driven by an ethic of public service that transcends the market, the BBC has established its soft power around the world by building trust rather than publishing propaganda. It has a capacity for reflection, self-criticism and learning from its errors.
Because truth is both essential and contested, the BBC will always be attacked as it seeks to inform. The attacks will often come from those either seeking power or seeking to protect it. Because it is run and staffed by humans, it will make mistakes. Because of its tradition and ethos, it has shown it can learn from them.
The BBC has a vocation to serve the whole nation, and seek the truth however complex it may be. The question of how to fund this service ethos will always loom large, perhaps now more than ever. But, as we remember Jesus standing before Pilate, more important is the question of who, in a troubled world, will stand for the pursuit of truth, even—perhaps especially—when it confronts power. That question is bigger than any media organisation, and one that every society must continually keep in mind.
Justin Welby is archbishop of Canterbury