The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is, as far as I know, a fully government-subsidized British TV channel. Does that not make it an arm of the British government? While some may point to its independence, the same is claimed for the US judiciary system. Yet no one claims that its independence makes the US judiciary something other than a branch of the government. The BBC is an entity which was founded by the British government, which is funded by the British government, and which at times (most notably during WWII) was a propaganda arm of the government.

Since the Russian channel RT (formerly "Russia Today") was recently asked to register as a foreign agent, because it is owned by the Russian government, shouldn't the same be requested of the BBC? Is there any distinction?

While it may be tempting to point to the fact that Russia is at odds (to put it mildly) with the US and GB is an ally, I don't think that British agents (of other branches of the GB government) are excused from registering as foreign agents. So what's different about BBC?

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    The judiciary is independent of the other two parts, but it is still explicitly part of the USA government. "Independent" in the British (and Commonwealth) political sense means largely or entirely independent of any government involvement.
    – Nij
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 8:06
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    It receives money from the government, that's not the same thing as government involvement.
    – Nij
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 8:35
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    Getting funding from <> being explicitly controlled by. Comparing BBC to RT is an oversimplification, to say the least. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 16:22
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    @dan-klasson See here. Also, please remember to Be Nice.
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 14:09
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    @dan-klasson: It looks like you have sufficient ground for asking a new question on Politics.SE or Skeptics.SE : "To what extend is RT controlled by the Russian government?". That will be a much better place to discuss the matter than the comments here.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 8:31

5 Answers 5


The relevant US law is the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which covers agents who act "at the order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign power.

Therefore, institutional and editorial independence is the key.

If the UK Prime Minister tells (say) an employee of MI6 or the Foreign Office to do something, that person is required to either do it or resign.

This is not so for the BBC. Even during the Second World War, the BBC maintained its editorial independence; this was a deliberate policy, as it was believed the BBC would be more trusted if it was seen to be independent rather than a direct mouthpiece for government.

Instead of comparing the BBC to agencies under direct government control, a better analogy would be a university. British universities receive most of their funding from central government; but the Prime Minister is unable to sack university professors at will, and the mere fact of being a professor at (say) Oxford University does not make a person an agent of the British government in any meaningful sense.

Of course, both the BBC and Oxford University are part of the British establishment, and for cultural reasons will tend to reflect the establishment consensus; but that is a different matter from being agencies under the control of the government of the day.

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    @grovkin: Exactly the same would apply to a judge in the UK Supreme Court. It's highly doubtful that judges qualify as "foreign agents" within the meaning of the FARA. For example, a UK judge on sabbatical at a US university probably wouldn't have to register as a foreign agent. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 9:52
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    While they tend to reflect the establishment consensus , it's precisely the times when they chose not to reflect the consensus that it's critical they be allowed to do so.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 16:30
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    I think substantiating the claim "BBC has editorial independence" by linking to documents from the BBC themselves is questionable. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 11:43
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    @DrCopyPaste: I very much doubt the BBC has posted incorrect information about its own governing structures. Informal channels of influence are very difficult to prove or disprove; but formally speaking, the BBC has editorial independence from the UK government. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 17:45
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    How is the editorial structure of RT different from that of the BBC? Because this answer does not discuss RT, it answer does not answer the question "what's different about BBC?"
    – phoog
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 21:35

The BBC is a collection of entities, some of which are funded by the British government, some of which are not.

The BBC's news output which is available outside of the UK is run by BBC Global News, Ltd. This company is not funded in any way by the UK government or by the license fee that is paid by UK residents, but strictly by advertising and subscription revenues. It is because of this lack of funding from the UK government, as well as the editorial independence that you mentioned earlier, that means the BBC would not be covered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

As for the BBC's entertainment programming (such as what you'll find on BBC Americas), while much of the content is part-funded by the UK license fee (because we enjoy it in the UK as well), it's very difficult to argue that there is any political activity involved, so that would also not be covered under FARA.

  • Your second paragraph is not entirely accurate. Many people outside the UK can receive BBC 1, BBC 2, perhaps BBC 3 and 4. For example, those channels are typically part of cable packages in The Netherlands. Those channels are paid for by UK license fee payers yet available outside the UK.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 9:55
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    @gerrit 3 no longer exists, so it’s unlikely that is available.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 11:11
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    +1 but I suggest you add to your answer the BBC World Service, which is in some ways an agency of, and funded by, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gov.uk/government/organisations/bbc-world-service
    – Qsigma
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 14:58
  • This answer describes the BBC without discussing RT, so it does not answer the question "what's different about BBC?"
    – phoog
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 21:35

Because FARA is a vague written law that can be used to target particular individuals/entities that the current US government does not like.

For example from Wikipedia, United States v. Franklin:

The 2005 case of United States v. Franklin, Rosen, and Weissman against United States Department of Defense employee Larry Franklin and American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy director Steven Rosen and AIPAC senior Iran analyst Keith Weissman[41][42] raised the possibility that AIPAC would come under greater scrutiny by the Department of Justice. While Franklin pleaded guilty to passing government secrets to Rosen and Weissman, as well as to an Israeli government official,[43][44] the cases against Rosen and Weissman were dismissed and no actions against AIPAC were instituted.[40]

So it is a matter of a poorly written law that makes "everybody" guilty but allows the government to pick when to enforce it.

Unfortunately this is considered "conspiracy" but it is true in multiple areas some of which are not related to Russia. For example recently there was a discussion if Jeff Sessions will start enforcing federal laws regarding Marijuana(Obama administration decided not to enforce a certain law and now Sessions plans to end that practice). In other words law did not change, but different administrations choose to ignore it or not ignore it.


While the BBC might well be part of the British establishment, it does have independence from the government. We could argue all day about funding sources and whether the licence fee is a tax. From outside the UK the views it presents do appear to coincide with those of the government on many issues. In your comments you mention attitudes to former colonies. The mainstream view of Britain's colonial past is very rosy; even many figures on the left seem to regret the loss of the empire, a veiw that's almost universal on the right (including among the current government, whose representatives do get quite a lot of airtime). Similar arguments apply to Israel/Palestine, where other parts of the traditional British media are much more pro-Israel.

Within the UK the BBC is often perceived as left-wing by Tories and the right-wing press, especially so since the Brexit vote. As the Tories are in government that means a significant perception within the UK of anti-government bias. Conversely the left of the Labour party feel pretty hard-done-by and accuse the BBC of unfair treatment. They are required to tread a fine line and by drawing the ire of both sides must be getting it right much of the time.

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    @grovkin yes, and to put it simply the government doesn't tell them what to say. In fact the charter and agreement with government tell them that they must be impartial. I think you'll have to read it.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 9:54
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    I am sure RT charter tells RT to say what Kremlin wants. /s Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 7:20
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    Strongly disagree about the general "rosy" view of Britain's colonial past. Although people may remark on the change in Britain's relative influence since the 19th century, almost everyone would acknowledge that many disservices were done to indigenous people in those times, and there is no appetite for a return to that era.
    – Baracus
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 20:15
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    @Baracus do you mean as presented by the BBC or as a mainstream view? When I emerge from the liberal bubble in which I spend most of my time, views like "but we gave them the railways/civil service/civilisation" are all too common.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 21:31
  • I have never observed a "view" on colony in the BBC's output. Although many people in the street may talk about how "we" gave "them" railways, I don't believe the British public then makes the leap to say that everything we did in that era was correct. It is in the UK's distant past now .
    – Baracus
    Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 11:45

The majority of the BBC is NOT government funded. It is important to make this distinction.

The bulk of the BBC's domestic programming is funded by the TV licence. This is not a tax, but it is an enforceable charge levied on households consuming broadcast TV.

The majority of the BBC's international programming is not funded by the licence fee, but is funded by commercial revenues (advertising etc.).

However, the BBC World Service IS directly funded by the Foreign Office (UK government department).

There are many controversies around the way the BBC is funded (is the license fee a "tax"/how can you "sell" programmes that are made with licence fee funding/where does the World Service draw the line between "international development" and "propaganda" etc etc), but it is fundamentally NOT an organ of the state.

"Auntie" has a unique relationship with the UK public. Politically, the left think it is too conservative and the right think it is too liberal. Since nobody is happy, BBC News (which is required to be impartial) must be getting the balance about right. Yet when there is an event of national importance - people will choose to watch the BBC's coverage of it.

P.S. Channel 4 IS government owned, but commercially funded.

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    The first line of your original question was "The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is, as far as I know, a fully government-subsidized British TV channel." This was your premise for the question as to whether that it should be treated as a "foreign agent". The point I was making was that your premise is wrong - it is not government subsidised (with the exception of the BBC World Service). There are also other regulatory reasons why it does not reflect the views of the state. Its independence from government is far more than a perception.
    – Baracus
    Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 11:51
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    @Baracus Actually, the World Service hasn't been funded by the UK government since 2010. Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 22:23
  • What about RT's funding? The question is about the difference between RT and the BBC.
    – phoog
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 21:38
  • "enforceable charge levied on households consuming broadcast TV". Seems to be a flawed justification that flat rate government fees are fundamentally different from percentage-based taxes. A vehicle registration fee is a flat-rate fee used to pay for roads, and an fuel excise tax is variable. Both are government charges on public road users. I see no difference.
    – user71659
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 20:31

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