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Are petitions ever worth it? They are to save the BBC


By Nicky Marr

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The BBC may not be perfect, but it remains largely independent of government and big business. Picture: HNM
The BBC may not be perfect, but it remains largely independent of government and big business. Picture: HNM

The rise of online petition companies like Change.org and 38Degrees.org.uk make it easy for us to add our voices to causes we believe in, and to stand up and be counted.

A petition is a hammer in our toolbox of democratic options – if 100,000 of us add our names to a cause, it will be considered by the UK government’s petitions committee. Isn’t that fantastic? Doesn’t that make you feel listened to?

To be honest, if it does, it shouldn’t. The important word here is ‘considered’. The petitions committee might have an obligation to consider, but they have no obligation to act. Looking at the impact of recent petitions, it would appear that the hammer in our toolbox is made of nothing stronger than cotton wool.

By March 2019, 6.1 million of us had signed a petition requesting the government revoke Article 50 to allow the UK to remain in the EU – we can all see how well that went.

Previously, 4.2 million of us had petitioned for a second referendum; that fell on deaf ears too. And in January 2017, 1.8 million of us called for Donald Trump to be banned from an official state visit to the UK. In response, our nation rolled out the red carpet.

On that record, one might question the point of the petitions committee at all. Clicking and sharing is easy, but potentially too easy. Does signing a petition make us feel as though we’ve done our bit, so we can tick ‘protesting’ off the list and go back to our daily lives? It probably does.

Is the real role of the petitions committee then, to make us feel listened to, in order to stop us from rebelling?

If your Facebook and Twitter feeds are anything like mine (and I’ll admit I follow lots of news outlets, journalists, commentators and politicians) then most days you’ll be faced with two or three petitions and asked to sign and share. It takes seconds to do so. But increasingly, I’m not bothering.

In fact, until today, the last one I signed was to pardon Alan Turing and the 49,000 other gay men who had been convicted under gross indecency laws. Common sense prevailed; those pardons were granted.

One current petition that I do support, though, is to save the BBC.

I love the BBC. It’s not without its critics, but that’s because it is far from perfect. Its news coverage too often follows the pattern of a BBC anchor in the studio interviewing a BBC reporter on the scene, rather than interviewing the people at the centre of the story.

It is constantly under fire for left-wing bias, right-wing bias or anti-SNP bias – almost every bias there is. But for 42p a day it is incredibly good value, and I’d like to keep it at least as independent from government and big business as it is.

You’ll have heard the rumours – Downing Street is apparently planning to scrap the licence fee, prune down the service and replace it with a Netflix-type subscription model.

I have both Netflix and Prime, but I am a tireless consumer of the BBC too. I turn to it for news, drama and documentaries. I download whole series and box-sets to watch on long train journeys and flights. I check its apps for the weather too. But most of all, I listen to its radio stations and podcasts.

I must declare an interest here – I am an occasional contributor to Radio Scotland – I express opinions, share experiences, and review theatre, books and TV. But it’s not my pocket-money earnings that I’m trying to protect, it’s my precious hours of listening; the podcasts and programmes that surprise me, educate me, and make me think, laugh and change my mind.

Where would I be without the brilliant Beyond Today podcast, or my nightly fix of The Archers? I can nosily dip in and out of other people’s lives with Desert Island Discs and The Life Scientific, experiment with quirky wellness tips thanks to All Hail Kale, and Sara Cox lets me know the weekend is nearly here with the joyous All Request Fridays on Radio 2.

It’s a tough one. We must all stand up for what we believe in, and petitions are quick to sign, are reported upon in the media and do sometimes put pressure on our elected representatives to do the right thing.

But with so many petitions being ignored, we can’t think of them as the only way to make our voices heard. And without the BBC, our voices will be a little quieter.


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