Should we take a stand on the BBC?


5:38 pm - July 8th 2008

by Sunder Katwala    


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There probably aren’t that many ways to spark a revolution in Britain. But Sir Antony Jay, of Yes Minister fame, may have alighted on one of them in his proposal to cut the BBC down to one TV channel and one radio station (which would be Radio 4).

His pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies was intended to be well timed, coinciding the with the publication of the BBC’s annual report today. But it was also, perhaps, ill timed as it comes at the end of what seems to have been (for this viewer anyway) a pretty good week for the BBC.

Thirteen million of us were gripped as the Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal stretched out into Sunday evening. The highlights will compete with that famous Borg-McEnroe tiebreak to be seen again and again whenever rain falls over SW19 in years to come. The spirit with which this epic contest was played strengthened the sense of a welcome throwback to the golden age of free-to-air televised sport.

Thanks to the iPlayer phenomenon, I had spent a good part of the weekend catching up with Peter Moffat’s drama Criminal Justice. Ben Whishaw’s performance has been acclaimed as heralding a great future talent, though the strength in depth of the ensemble cast deserved as much praise.

The BBC is far from perfect. I could find many things to grumble about if I tried. Jay’s approach is far too sweeping, but he makes some valid criticisms on the way. It is not clear why the BBC should bid to get imports onto a public rather than commercial channel. There is little point either in copycat programming of makeover shows and the like. But Jay’s proposal to slash seven-eighths of what the BBC does is his idea of a compromise, on his ideal ‘Friedmanite’ proposal to purely let the market decide.

There is a school debating society case against a compulsory licence fee. One day, technology may well demand a different model is needed. As a consumer, I am very happy with what I get for my £12 a month. But the argument for the BBC should go far beyond that. I am sure the BBC could survive on a voluntary subscription basis, but there is enough social consensus on the current model to make the administrative costs of introducing that unnecessary.

If the Jay revolution were implemented, the things I would miss would include Radio Five Live, Radio Two in what used to be Parkinson’s slot on a Sunday morning, and some of those programmes that I will probably never quite get around to watching on BBC Four. Others might be offended by Jay’s conclusion that anybody who likes classical music must have a large enough CD library to make Radio 3 pointless, and disagree with the idea that BBC local radio does not do anything that the market would not.

Most missed in our house would be Cbeebies. As the eldest of my two children is only two and a half, the academic evidence probably warns against watching TV at all. But, with some rationing in place, I can find an ethical distinction between loud and noisy cartoons with loud adverts, and the educative effects of the BBC. And that’s because I trust the BBC, and because flicking to any of the non-BBC channels confirms my sense about that trust being well placed. (Mr Tumble is a particular hero: the way he introduces all toddlers to sign language in Something Special, almost certainly without anybody noticing, might be as good a model of integration as we have anywhere in our society. I would be surprised if a commercial player would emulate that).

The Jay plan isn’t going to happen. But there are many signs that a battle with the BBC is something that many Conservatives would be keen on. (The ConservativeHome ‘broadcasters and arts news’ section runs under the URL of ‘biased BBC’, and the site is campaigning for greater media diversity, with many keen to go rather further and scrap the BBC).

For some, it seems to be unfinished business from the Thatcher era. For others, it is about a project to reshape social institutions, something which the right these days seems to have more confidence about than the left.

Despite the enmity which many on the right feel for the ‘liberal’ BBC, I don’t get the sense that this is matched by support for the institution from the liberal-left, many of whom have their own complaints about the BBC’s shortcomings,

But this feels like an argument which the right wants to pick. Will liberals be neutral? Or is this a public institution for which we should take a stand?

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


Of course, the common sense argument that people shouldn’t be forced to pay for a service they might never use, and with considerable justification consider to be politically biased against the libertarian/conservative/nationalist (take your pick) viewpoint, just to be able to own a TV, doesn’t get a look-in.
(well, apart from an insulting reference to a “school debating society case”).

The TV license should be consigned to history, where it belongs.

2. Lorna Spenceley

My CD collection consists mostly of things I’ve bought because I heard them on Radio 3’s Late Junction. No commercial broadcaster would offer such a variety. And what about gems of broadcasting like BBC2’s Culture Show? At the other end of the spectrum, BBC2 makes room for things like Mary Queen of Shops, a fascinatingly educational programme about fashion retail that wouldn’t be the same if it was punctuated by adverts for yoghurt and hair dye – and would be jostled out of a single BBC TV channel. Shame on you, Antony Jay.

On the strategic points I happen to agree, but I think there is less of a political debate to be had than might initially be apparent.

Conservatives have been making waves on which to ride the tide of popular opinion for a while now, while simultaneously benefiting from the exposure provided by the Beeb. They’ll change their tune as soon as (or if) they cross the threshold of number 10 and start flexing muscle within the corporation, just as they did under the Hussey chairmanship.

Children’s TV is a particular case where commercial interests present a great danger to the function of the programming remit, and the reach of BBC national radio places this equally beyond the pale of interfering politicos (commercial stations remember how Radio One evolved from the pirates of Caroline and Luxembourg and the industry is largely built on the independence of the platform it provides – we can argue about playlists and chat, but the public school peelite influence can be felt in the legacy of ‘more music’ and ‘new music’).

My angle would be to question whether the BBC actually fills its public service role adequately (not whether it fits, C4 compensates well, in my view, for any awkwardness of their ‘official’ positioning): Is it more of a narrowcaster in setting and refining government agenda, rather than providing the full breadth of informative and educational services to the general audience?

While the European question continues to rise in the public mind (particularly re Lisbon and the Irish vote), why does the BBC fail to use its Eurovision connections to provide more in-depth programming from the European institutions where our politics and laws are increasingly discussed? In this disregard for its role, we could blame the BBC for our apathy and antipathy towards Europe as a structure, all the while we increasingly trade, travel and live across the continent. This is just one example.

If there is to be any campaign for more diversity in media output, I think this will only be successful if it reflects diversity in media ownership.

Does anyone else think it is amusingly perverse that die-hard conservatives willingly campaign for more access to the liberal arts (even to the high arts of elysian elitism)? This sort of thing should be encouraged.

“The common sense argument that people shouldn’t be forced to pay for a service they
might never use…doesn’t get a look-in”

So common-sense that you’re willing to apply that selfsame logic to, say the NHS, the state education system, and so forth..

One of the most persuasive arguments i’ve heard for the licence fee – although it works for a voluntary subscription too – is the amount of time that the licence fee saves the viewer. In a 1-hour programme on commercial channels, there are roughly about 15 minutes of ad breaks. On the BBC, that quarter of an hour is devoted to further programming or – in the case of programmes made abroad like Family Guy and Heroes – shaved off the running time.

Given that men spend, on average, around 170 minutes a day watching TV or listening to radio, while women spend about 145 minutes a day doing the same, that number quartered and then multiplied by 365 gives 15,512.5 minutes for men, 13,231.25 minutes for women. That is how long, on average, is spent each year watching/listening to adverts by each sex.

The licence fee is currently £139.50 per year; even if one lives alone, for a man that works out at £1 for over an hour and three-quarters (111.201 minutes, to be precise) of time saved, and for women £1 for over an hour and a half (94.847 minutes) of time saved.

Granted, some people like watching adverts, some watch an hour or less TV each day and so forth, but if you can find me someone who values their time at less than £1 for an hour and a half then, as my economics teacher said in a debate on this subject, i need a new babysitter.

5. Akheloios

The whole point of the BBC is to provide content that would not be bought normally by the public.

Friedman and the market forces crowd are about as sociopathic as you can get.

Let people eat nothing but McDonalds if they want to, and when all those people have died then the market can be said to have self corrected away from the bad influence.

The Government and the BBC are there to PREVENT market forces from killing people when the dangers are already known.

The BBC is there to provide a forum for proper debate. If we left the market to itself, we’d have nothing but Murdoch clones polluting our air with propaganda, much to the detriment of the majority of citizens of the UK. It’s especially telling when the most vociferous critics of the BBC are the Murdoch press and readership.

The BBC is a public service, and should continue to be one.

I look forwards to commenters producing screeds of variants on a theme of “I like the BBC, so people who don’t should still pay for me to be able to watch it”.

7. Michael Clarke

Where to start?

I wasn’t shocked when i read about Mr Jay’s report, conservatives are always trying to hack off parts off the BBC. What i was shock at, is the degree to which he wanted to reduce the Beebs output.

This suggestion that the commercial media sector could take over many of the BBC’s roles is absolutely ridiculous. Take local radio, the biggest local radio provider GCap Media, has networked all its stations together so 90% of their programming is no longer local. The network now has something like 2 hours of local content per day. Compare that to the BBC’s local content which has a budget of £218m compared to GCap’s £214m. Despite this, since the creation of GCap over £300m has been wiped of its value. The former billion pound company was just sold for £375m.

Turning to news, BBC News is world renowned. Its new American program, World News America, has been airing less than a year yet has already won awards. Its global news channel, BBC World News reaches 282 million people worldwide. Forget the cost, the Foreign Secretary only recently spoke of the amazing benefit this gives to the UK, in terms of the boost it gives to our image on the international stage.

The domestic BBC News channel is by far the best in the country, (David Cameron watched Boris become Mayor on BBC News, not Sky) its audience share is more than double that of Sky. One must ask why we want want rid of a news channel that does not have ad breaks. I don’t watch Sky News but would you really want ad breaks during breaking news. “Breaking news, a bomb has gone off– and we’ll be right back after these messages!”. Thought not.

The BBC’s budget was £4.3 billion in 2007 compared to £3.8 billion for Sky, yet compare the acclaim and awards that the BBC gets to that of Sky. How many of Sky’s shows have won BAFTA’s and International Emmy’s? How many of Sky’s shows are currently being remade by American networks (the royalties from remakes go back into the BBC’s budget)? Look at talent, how many members of on and off screen talent would not work at any other network. BBC America stole renowned staff from CBS and other top networks because those people saw that the BBC is passionate about its content and audience and not profits.

The BBC is far from perfect, but its got closer than anyone else.

See what I mean?

9. Michael Clarke

@ Bishop Hill

“I look forwards to commenters producing screeds of variants on a theme of “I like the BBC, so people who don’t should still pay for me to be able to watch it”.”

I don’t like funding the Royal families life of splendor, where’s my opt -out? I don’t like funding an illegal war, where’s my tax rebate? I don’t like my police force spending my taxes on detaining people for 42 days with out charge and allowing anonymous witnesses to testify…

Get my drift?

Absolutely. Let’s campaign against all of them! Yes?

@9 not sure that all of those are directly comparable in failing democratic tests, but that is the point of starting campaigning towards making change through the electoral system.

Some of you don’t quite get the idea of libertarianism, I see.

I refer you my post from last week over at tygerland:

Just listened to Stephen Fry’s latest “podgram” on the future of the BBC. Inspired and soothed, I checked the comments from his blog. The following comment was found there ::

Britain should remember that it is a tragically tiny country that most people wouldn’t have ever heard of if it punched its natural weight. It is no longer known for its quality manufacturing, no longer the custodian of a massive empire and ever less relevant in global politics alongside the growing superpowers. One thing remains however, and that is Britain’s role as a cultural cornerstone for the English speaking world. Its programming in both radio and television has permeated the English speaking world from my father’s childhood bedroom in Cape Town to corners of Australia, India, Canada, the US and New Zealand. To think that the global reach and effect of British programming isn’t to Britain’s benefit is simply moronic. British comedy does more to win hearts and minds than any of its military follies.

The World Service is testament to the fact this was once widely understood. Has the ambition of global cultural relevance died with imperial ambition? I hope not.

The kernel of Stephen’s beautifully articulated speech (paraphrased) ::

The BBC is flowers on a roundabout x 1,000,000

A public excess, that is, without a second of doubt, worth it.

So true.

Stephen Fry said this more eloquently recently. Bishop Hill: stop being a patronising faux revolutionary.

15. Sunder Katwala

QuestionThat,

Very few people are libertarians right now. We might get the idea but not support it. That’s democracy. So you would have a job of persuasion. But if you can get some friends together, put up some Libertarian Party candidates, and convince enough people to vote for it, you can run the whole country. If you can’t do that, run some blogs, write to the newspapers, support some pressure groups, and convince people you’re right.

If libertarianism would mean putting the opportunity to create the BBC or the NHS beyond the control of democracy on the basis of individual rights not to be taxed, most people would think that anti-democratic (though many of us support entrenching some rights, the right not to pay a licence fee probably is a relatively fringe one). If it means convincing parliament and/or the public to get rid of the BBC, then its a free country and good luck with your campaign on it. I’ll argue the opposite, but if you win the argument, I’ll accept it.

Until then, the licence fee, the NHS and the monarchy are all in a similar position. While there is general consent on them, and very limited opposition, then they will still be here, without an individual opt-out. If you can make the case for a different model convincing, then it might well happen.

Many of us think we would wreck something that works well – and for what?

I’ll also weigh in and say that Stephen Fry’s view is a very interesting one to me, and one I can’t really argue against.

I also think it’s naive to say that you shouldn’t pay for something you don’t use or directly benefit from, it’s really not too far a leap to make the same kind of statement about policing, hospitals and university. (and reading back through comments I see others agree with me that such an argument is a little nonsensical)

The Conservatives have long wanted to kill off the BBC. Their wet dream is the corporate controlled media in The USA. Have you ever seen Fox News? That is the Rights dream of future TV.

What is always amusing is how many of the great bastions of the Tory party live off the tax payer. You can start with those greedy, lazy farmers who live off tax payers subsidy. When the Duke of Westminster picks up over a million in tax payers money you know something is wrong. Then you have the Royal family, at about £50 million for one family. The armed forces are of course not exlusively Tory, but at the officers level the Torygrapgh reading colonels live off the tax payer. Remember Duncan Smith? His father was in the military, he was educated at a military school, joined the military and then worked for an arms company before ending up in Parliament. A lot of tax payers money have paid his way through life.

I could go on, Oxbridge with it’s high intake of Privately educated Tories is another beneficiary of tax payers money. The Police is another great Tory trade union, funded by the state.

Some of you don’t quite get the idea of libertarianism, I see.

I know it might come as a shock to you QT, but we’re not all libertarians here. I think you’ve got your various labels mixed up.

I look forwards to commenters producing screeds of variants on a theme of “I like the BBC, so people who don’t should still pay for me to be able to watch it”.

C’mon Bishop, it would be nice if you libertarian types said something original once in a while.

Sunder’s central question is:
Despite the enmity which many on the right feel for the ‘liberal’ BBC, I don’t get the sense that this is matched by support for the institution from the liberal-left, many of whom have their own complaints about the BBC’s shortcomings,

I agree. I’m constantly critical of the BBC too. But my problem is that if we’re uncritically supportive of the Beeb, simply because the Tories attack it with zealous only because it doesn’t follow their right-wing editorial agenda, then BBC producers have an incentive to move to the right – thus keeping them happy and us on side too.

This is why I think its best to start the conversation from the perspective that we should keep the BBC’s funding model, but that it could do with some internal trimming, and that its output should be criticised where necessary.

How do we strike that balance?

QT – why not start a libertarian campaign against paying your insurance premiums?

Surely you know it’s a conspiracy against individual and collective freedom, because there is no such thing as an accident – right?

Those companies – artificially boosting their profits at our expense, damn them!

hahaha

I just don’t believe libertarians exist. They are mostly Tories who have not got the guts to admit it. Ask any libertarian, do we need a military to defend us? Do we need a head of state? Do we need a police force to protect us? They almost always say yes. And on and on it goes.

Libertarians just don’t like money being spent on things they don’t agree with. Which makes them no different to everybody else.

Damn right we should fight for it Sunder. You forgot the other great reason that week – the finale of Dr Who! For all its faults, the BBC, like the NHS is a rightly popular part of this country’s make up and the privatisation-happy neo-spivs won’t get away with flogging it without a fight on their hands.

PS: Jay’s always been a right-wing git, and Yes Minister was [whisper it] vastly overated.

Yes Minister was just one giant Thatcher PR job. It set out to show that Govt does not work, and we should get rid of it.

No wonder she loved it.

“I just don’t believe libertarians exist.”

Like all things which may otherwise have appeared to be nonexistent, libertarians can be easily found on the internet:

http://lpuk.org/

@sally (but it’s relevant to some of the other comments as well):

There are some libertarians (more often encountered on the other side of the Atlantic, admittedly) who do oppose the state in all respects, including military and policing. They could be described as either anarchists or anarcho-capitalists (an example of the latter is Stefan Molyneux, who espouses a ‘stateless society’).

The Libertarian Party platform is a minarchist one, not anarchist or anarcho-capitalist, and LPUK do not propose the abolition of the military, police or parliament, or the removal of all state involvement in health or education – basically, things considered essential for the functioning of society.

A publicly funded broadcaster is not essential for the functioning of society.

Well, this thread proves one thing: the people who claim that the BBC has a left-of-center bias are almost certainly correct.

“I am sure the BBC could survive on a voluntary subscription basis”

Sunder, I would love to think you were right. But I think you’d have a tragedy of the commons, and no BBC. Or if not no BBC, then endless begging programmes like on PBS in the States.

… as well as a more open market for quality television to be provided on a subscription basis. I don’t think the BBC has been able to match or even approach the best of HBO, for example, in some time. At least channel 4 has some decent comedy. I am not saying that there isn’t plenty of talent at the BBC, only that I would rather gain access to it through voluntary transactions.

There is an irony too for the left that the licence fee, already the equivalent of a poll tax with only some scaling for pensioners, is going to become increasingly regressive. I don’t have a TV, as I think is the case for many graduates these days, and the only BBC content I use is radio 4 (mostly for waking up angry in the morning) and radio 3. Newsnight and Panorama I occasionally download. So I am currently parasitic for some admittedly decent-ish free (for me) content off the millions of families with a TV in their front room. Many of them will be relying on comparatively lower lifetime incomes than radio 4 listeners. Yet they will have a chunk of their incomes expropriated each year for the honour of watching entertainment and news content that would otherwise be provided for free with a bit of advertising.

“Ask any libertarian, do we need a military to defend us? Do we need a head of state? Do we need a police force to protect us? They almost always say yes. And on and on it goes.”

Well I am a libertarian and I would say no, which I guess makes me an anarchist. But since the state exists, I would rather see it constrained as much as possible by the rule of law and limited in scope and power over individuals. This is where there is some overlap to be found between libertarians and the liberal left.

Jennie

I’m not sure quite what prompted the “faux patronising revolutionary” jibe. If it was my previous comment, well, I’m a libertarian and would find it quite easy to support all of the things that Michael Clark says he’s against. I wasn’t patronising him in the slightest.

As my first comment made clear, I don’t think that the BBC being good or excellent or popular is an adequate reason for forcing people who don’t want to watch it to pay for those who do. This is democratic majoritarianism writ large. The argument that popularity is a sufficient reason for government to do something is just plain wrong to a liberal (IMHO). Do we accept 42 days on the grounds that it’s popular? Do we accept stop and search of black men because the majority think it a good idea? Of course we don’t; we are liberals.

So we come back to Question That’s pertinent point that the BBC is not essential to the functioning of society. How then can you justify gaoling someone who doesn’t want to pay the licence fee because they spend their days watching trash on Sky?

Anthony

I think you need to look up the Tragedy of the Commons. The whole point of it is that the tragedy occurs because nobody can be excluded from the common. This is therefore not pertinent to a subscription model where only those who have paid can watch.

“This is democratic majoritarianism writ large. The argument that popularity is a sufficient reason for government to do something is just plain wrong to a liberal”

You’re right…but that isn’t what we (at least I) are arguing. The argument is that culturally and in that sector funding the BBC, to us, feels like it enables talent to grow, gives the UK some prominence in the world market for broadcasting and gives an opportunity for less popular and more expensive things to be made. Now if anything this is an argument that we are all individuals and it would be a shame to abandon a public funding model completely and be forced to watch programming and sit with “talent” that the “majority” supposedly like without any chance of seeing things that are maybe slightly more niche, or wouldn’t have got on the air at all if not for the less inhibitive route of going through the BBC.

It’s all highly subjective, but recent programming on BBC4, the classical eurovision thing (can’t remember it’s real name), and the ability to watch parliamentary debate on TV is invaluable to me. To the vast majority I doubt it is that important, but we all have our own tastes and a public funding model enables those tastes to be explored.

Are they explored proportionately and is the public funding going to the right places? I’m not sure I agree with the BBC being completely funded by the taxpayer, as Stephen Fry says, and perhaps bidding on shows from the US and such should only be able to be shown on a commercial self funded arm of the BBC in the future…but to sit here and claim that it’s “majoritarianism” that is fighting to keep publically funded broadcasting in some form is just false, it’s recognition of individualism and diversity.

Anyone that thinks the BBC needs reform of any kind should be made to sit and watch an evening of television in Australia (although this may be against the Geneva Conventions) and then rethink their point of view. The only stuff worth watching here is BBC and C4 imports and only when broadcast on the local ABC (it doesn’t have commercials).

Due to the recent Hollywood actors and writers strikes the commercial channels have started out-bidding the ABC and buying up popular UK output but the advert breaks completely ruin them. Even watching Dave Attenborough in seven minute chunks interrupted by three minutes of badly produced and overly repeated commercials is painful. They also dump programmes half way through a series if it doesn’t catch on immediately. Recently we had Michael Palin’s tour of half of eastern Europe for this reason.

NB The ABC here is similar to the BBC other than it’s funded by tiny non-licence fee government handouts and therefore falls short of ideal despite brave efforts.

Long live the Licence Fee. Long live the BBC. Long live torrents for expats!

I think it’s okay to be broadly libertarian (certainly being a civil libertarian who is in the main economically liberal), and not be tied to dogmatic interpretations of libertarianism.

My personal position is that the BBC has its fingers in too many pies, and prevents entrepreneurship in certain media sectors. Personally I think it can be a little dumbed down and extensive, but on the whole it has an important function.

Spend a few years travelling, and even if you have only a passing familiarity with the local language, you’ll observe that BBC content is fantastic in comparison to the absolute dog-shit most nations suffer.

I would like to see much greater dislocation of government and the BBC and a reduction in the BBC’s budget. Let me put it simply… Less Jonathan Ross and his astronomical salary and more foreign correspondents. Less Chris Moyles and his astronomical salary and more original radio drama.

The BBC is too populist, which means it encroaches on content happily paid for by advertising and subscription based providers. The BBC should be about empirical information, supporting young creatives, and education.

The BBC should not be starved of funding. It should go on a diet and re-address its constitutional remit. It shouldn’t be vying for every listener in a competitive market where it has an uncompetitive advantage. It should provide a cultural and informational bedrock which will continue to enrich the British experience.

Maybe this prevents me from being a fundamentalist libertarian, but I’m comfortable with that.

Some of you don’t quite get the idea of libertarianism, I see.

I understand it very well, thanks, but since I’m thirty and not seven I can tell the difference between a considered political stance advocated by well-meaning grown-ups and vague promises of future chocolate and ponies from foot-stamping children who don’t want to pay their taxes and can’t tell the difference between the BBC and Pravda.

Never mind watching TV in Australia, sit yourself down in front of American TV. Credits, opening scene – Adverts – seven minutes of show – adverts – seven minutes – adverts – credits – adverts. That’s before we get near American TV news, the content of which would embarrass a Soviet commissar.

No wonder “libertarians” would like to see the model replicated in Britain – mediocre-to-abysmal aspirational dreck jam packed with product placement, all of it designed to hold the attention long enough to make the audience sit through hundreds of adverts for shite they don’t need. Sit down with the supposedly liberal ABC or CNN news and count the number of pieces on poverty, say, or the colossal pile of civilian corpses in one of our wars – I won’t be spoiling the surprise if I tell you right now that there won’t be any at all. Poverty and death don’t sell hair-restoring medication or foot spas, while celebrity gossip and Extreme Congressional Smackdown do.

So please don’t insult my intelligence with these “minarchist” arguments for breaking up the BBC. If you mean I want to destroy one of the few remaining cultural outlets for quality programming because I’ve convinced myself it’s the mouthpiece of modern Marxism, be my guest. That, at least, would show some respect for the rest of us and would lay bare the actual motivation of Mr. Jay and his ilk – block-headed ideological spite and ludicrously overblown resentment.

Nobody ever went broke in this country by fluffing our natural philistine tendencies, whining about non-existent persecution or by pretending to speak for the poor when they really meant Screw everybody, I want a fancier car and a bigger TV.

The problem with your argument, Aaron, is that the government uses viewing figures as a stick with which to beat the beeb. If they stop doing populist stuff, and in most cases doing it better than anyone else anyway, then the viewing figures go down and that is when the government says “time you were abolished”.

I agree with you that Jonathan Woss is paid too much for what he does, and that the beeb could do with fostering new talent more, but those are tweaks. I don’t think the beeb needs to worry about “losing its talent” to ITV or Sky, because inevitably, when they go over to the commercial broadcaster they suddenly discover that it wasn’t THEM as the star people were watching, but the show (I’m thinking Des Lynam, Ross Kemp, etc, here). The BBC could do with letting that happen more often. There’s hundreds and thousands of wannabe actors and presenters, but there’s only one BBC Bristol natural history unit, for example.

But I don’t think the beeb needs to stop doing the populist stuff and concentrate more on the stuff for US. The populist stuff is what allows the stuff for us to happen. If we get rid of Eastenders, Stephen Fry reconstructing the Guttenberg press is sure to follow.

I’m of mixed views about this… I can tell you from experience in Australia that direct government funding (as they do with the ABC) is problematic to say the least. The ABC is very poorly funded in comparison and is subject to more direct political interference.

I think the BBC is valuable, but I for one can see significant problems with the way it’s put together, particularly the news coverage. There is a clear institutional bias on some issues (not just the one linked below) and a certain arrogance within the corporation which I assume is the result of their size and status compared to other news organisations.

I’d also say their news programmes are pretty lame compared with a few years back. And their presentation style is just mind-rottingly irritating.

I think Aaron Heath’s analysis is pretty spot on.

For one perspective on bias check out http://www.republic.org.uk/bbc

…is that the government uses viewing figures as a stick with which to beat the beeb. If they stop doing populist stuff, and in most cases doing it better than anyone else anyway, then the viewing figures go down and that is when the government says “time you were abolished”. ~ Jennie

Exactly. What happened to progressive ideology?

If we get rid of Eastenders, Stephen Fry reconstructing the Guttenberg press is sure to follow. ~ Jennie

Not within a constitutionally protected BBC would it. A new remit and new guarantees. I don’t think you appreciate the radical changes that are needed. Too right EastEnders gets the boot. And sadly, so does Match of the Day (sobs).

@ Aaron Heath

“My personal position is that the BBC has its fingers in too many pies, and prevents entrepreneurship in certain media sectors.”

Oh someone save us from this pseudo neo-liberal claptrap every time the BBC is debated. The fact is, by being publicly funded the Beeb does innovation and entrepreneurism far, far better than any commercial broadcaster does and ever would.

It’s licence fee based revenue enables the BBC to take the long term view and commit to proper investment. That’s why BBC1 has many more times the original programming of almost exclusively imported Sky One content.

All arguments based on “competition”, “entrepreneurism” etc are defeated by taking one look at the way such dogma has almost irreperably weakened British industry in general over the last 30 years. Thanks to policies spun as “encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit” Britain invests less than comparable industrialised nations, runs a massive trade deficit, and has no manufacturing or engineering sector worthy of the name. But that’s ok apparently because rich people only pay 40pc tax. Never mind facing up to stark economic reality when it all inevitably goes tits up.

This delusion must not spread to our greatest public institution.

The evidence is in from the wider economy. Clipping the wings of the BBC just won’t encourage better programming. It’ll simply accelerate a rush to the bottom and a hollowing out of one of the last great national assets.

The problem with your argument, Aaron, is that the government uses viewing figures as a stick with which to beat the beeb. If they stop doing populist stuff, and in most cases doing it better than anyone else anyway, then the viewing figures go down and that is when the government says “time you were abolished”.

The way I look at this is that if everyone* has to pay for the BBC, then everyone should get something out of it. This is the argument in favour of the BBC having Chris Moyles – he might find a home on a commercial radio channel, but that shouldn’t be an argument against him being on the BBC. I reckon that viewing figures/audience share for any particular programme should be less relevant than audience reach, by which I mean the percentage of people who get something out of the BBC.

*Everyone who has a TV, that is.

BenM

Did you even read my post?

I don’t think that the BBC should be racing independent content providers to the bottom, that’s all. Call it pseudo-whatever, if that makes you feel big and clever, but I would point out that at present the license fee is rather large and unchecked would continue to grow.

You maybe happy to pay whatever the cost, I on the other hand, think that the modern BBC is too big.

As you slip into manufacturing-related spiel, I rather think you’re both off-topic and speaking to the wrong person. If you want to have a lengthy discussion about the manufacturing sector, let’s take this elsewhere – but please understand I have worked in manufacturing for 10-years as a manager and management accountant, so I know exactly how government policy has effected industry – both practically and technically.

Also, advertising isn’t the only option. And the BBC does *not* make the best original content in the world. Without question, HBO produces the best written and most innovative television in the world. And that’s an independent, subscription-based cable channel.

All arguments based on “competition”, “entrepreneurism” etc are defeated by taking one look at the way such dogma has almost irreperably weakened British industry in general over the last 30 years. ~ BenM

I’m sorry, I know I should, but I can’t let that bullshit just pass.

What exactly was the British industrial and manufacturing might built upon, if it wasn’t competition and entrepreneurial spirit? It was the post-war debt and welfare movement that throttled British industry, not attempts to introduce greater competition.

Try a history book.

Surely you can’t talk about the decline in British industry (particularly manufacturing) without highlighting the fact that it became far more cost-effective to import over the course of the latter half of the 20th century.

Back on-topic: Quite a few people talking about advertising. That’s where the voluntary subscription model being proposed comes in: Advert-free TV on a voluntary basis.

The interesting thing about American TV is that while it can easily be said to be quite shocking in the broad scale, it still comes up with some of the best TV around. Like Aaron says, HBO does well, but plenty of other networks manage to commission top notch work.

However is this because of competition or because of a culture and industry that is the most active in the world to support it? There are plenty of amazing shows that get chopped after a few episodes in America simply because of viewing figures, it’s the epitome of simple, broad-stroke majority rule that means things fall by the way side that a still significant proportion of the nation could benefit from or enjoy. It’s this reason why, after some reforms, the BBC needs to stay as that pressure simply isn’t there to take things that aren’t quite as popular off air straight away as there is no immediate financial knockback.

QT: And how much will that cost exactly? It already costs lots to get the full sky package and that is full of adverts, for arguably little to no more content than the BBC channels offer.

I also find it interesting to draw parrallels with Sky here. You’re happy with subscription models and seemingly with things like Sky, aren’t you annoyed that Sky bundle their packages so that you’re forced to buy channels that you might not watch? If I want to get some cartoon channels on Sky along with one Movie channel I have to (at last check) get the full family package, with 100’s of channels I don’t want, at an exorbitant price. Is this any more just than a license fee?

Lee Griffin

I’m not really following you. You agree with me that it’s wrong to force people to pay for something they don’t want watch, but then the rest of your post appears to be an attempt to say that they should be forced to pay to have the opportunity there anyway. Is this really what you mean?

Others.

HBO is advert free and subscription only, and by most accounts is the most innovative TV producer in the world.

I think it is unrealistic to expect minority views and needs to be recognised by the scrapping of the license fee, it’s that simple. I don’t think it’s wrong to force people to pay for something they don’t want to watch, I think it’s ironic that you say it’s wrong yet stand by things like Sky which are no better.

I’ve made it clear though that I feel BBC needs some reform, but I can’t put it in to the same segment of wasting peoples money that Sky achieves with its channels seemingly solely for repeats and the same style of content you can get on C4 for free.

@ Aaron Heath,

You may want to believe that my manufacturing analogy is off topic maybe because the point it makes hits home and thus sits uncomfortably with your views of the BBC.

And as for your blatant appeal to authority, as a finance trained individual I could meet you in any debate on the plight of manufacturing since it was squeezed by myopic Thatcherite neo-liberal economic dogma.

I think we get a fair deal from a relatively cheap licence fee and I’m happy to see the BBC grow even further given its first class history in broadcasting innovation as well as continuing to do the “bread an butter” far better than any commercial broadcaster could ever dream.

The BBC is proof that public outshines private by a country mile in certain sectors, and it should be supported politically and financially. That’s why poll after poll after poll shows the British public stubbornly immune from bizarre, self-interested rightwing appeals for its demise.

BenM

You may want to believe that my manufacturing analogy is off topic maybe because the point it makes hits home and thus sits uncomfortably with your views of the BBC.

It didn’t hit home. It was unrelated, historically incorrect, and didn’t support any legitimate argument you think you made.

And as for your blatant appeal to authority, as a finance trained individual I could meet you in any debate on the plight of manufacturing since it was squeezed by myopic Thatcherite neo-liberal economic dogma.

No fan of Thatcher myself, neo or otherwise, I would say that the state of the British economy wasn’t particularly healthy in 1979. Also, global economics played the biggest part, hence why the manufacturing situation in so many developed countries is similar (in fairness some nations have done well in manufacturing, Germany springs to mind, but in other areas Germans can hardly crow). My appeal to authority was to assure you that I worked in manufacturing for years, so I’m not ideologically driven – merely practically informed.

I think we get a fair deal from a relatively cheap licence fee and I’m happy to see the BBC grow even further given its first class history in broadcasting innovation as well as continuing to do the “bread an butter” far better than any commercial broadcaster could ever dream.

A decent point. Maybe we could have a referendum on whether the BBC continues on its present path? I feel innovative private ventures could be squeezed out by the hulking BBC. My point of view, but such as it is. I do, and you seem to have missed this, love the BBC and long may it continue.

The BBC is proof that public outshines private by a country mile in certain sectors, and it should be supported politically and financially.

No, it’s an example. Not proof.

Mr Jay has specific problems with his argument.

“Return the BBC to a single channel”.

– Competely flies in the face of a multi-niche world. Lunacy.

“Take the best stuff and dump the rest” (paraphrased)

How do you topslice quality? Part of the way that you get quality is by allowing risks to be taken that will inevitably lead to some projects not working.

This is a recipe for treating the BBC as a “programme mine”, since removal of the possibility to take risks in order to create high-quality programmes cause a descending spiral and choke off the future supply.

He’s suggesting at least two impossible things before breakfast. It would be more honest to say “I want to close the BBC”. Personally, I’d dismiss him out of hand if he can’t come up with some sensible ideas.

Compared to Sky, the Beeb delivers far much more for far less money.

But this debate is more about idealogy than what works. Ideology is also the place where the debate needs to be won. Ultimately I support a publicly funded BBC because I think it is a good thing.

Sure there are debates about the margins, but the principle remains completely sound.

Lee

It would certainly be nice if Sky didn’t bundle their content the way they do, but it’s not quite the same as the BBC situation. You don’t have to pay for Sky to get the BBC. Why should you have to pay for the BBC to get Sky? That’s why I see no irony – Sky I can take or leave. The BBC I’m stuck with.

And I should reiterate that it’s working class Sky viewers who are subsidising middle class BBC viewers.

There are plenty of things we’re stuck with, I understand you don’t agree with how that works, but I am guessing that’s a point of principle that both sides of this debate are going to be fairly unmoving on.

I also think you are being more than slightly emotive with your final sentence.

Lee

I’m not sure what the point of principle is that you are standing on. “It’s really good” is a practical argument, but not a principled one.

Why is it emotive to point out that it’s a case of the poor subsidising the middle classes? It’s true isn’t it?

HBO is advert free and subscription only, and by most accounts is the most innovative TV producer in the world.

It also has a much bigger market to serve, hence benefitting from economies of scale. And while I agree that HBO is good, it is good only for dramas. There is a whole world out there of other kinds of programming. So this is rather short sighted.

I find Graham’s Republic blog complaint about BBC bias amusing. I guess there is one.

I don’t think you appreciate the radical changes that are needed. Too right EastEnders gets the boot. And sadly, so does Match of the Day (sobs).

I disagree. While I don’t watch Eastenders or MotD, I think the corp does need to keep its populist streak. After all, its remit is to develop and form popular culture. This is what it’s doing.

“Why is it emotive to point out that it’s a case of the poor subsidising the middle classes? It’s true isn’t it?”

I suspect if you compare disposable rather than gross income, people who watch Sky are far better-off than those who watch the BBC.

After all, its remit is to develop and form popular culture. This is what it’s doing. ~ Sunny

I’m all for using the BBC as a vehicle for developing art and comedy etc. But I think that its remit should stop when the new artists and works outgrow the BBC. Ross, when he asked for so much money, should have been told go elsewhere. Premiership highlights are over-priced, so why not let the private sector provide this service? I don’t like the idea of getting into a bidding war with public funds.

EastEnders is fine, to a point, as it’s a BBC product and gives new writers an opportunity to work in the medium. However I do think soaps are chewing-gum for the brain, as is most of the junk the BBC1 puts out. Should the BBC really be paying astronomical amounts for football rights? I don’t think so. I’d rather they spent money on the more creative or news gathering services (and while still providing a better service, the revenues could still be trimmed).

55. Michael Clarke

@ 30

“perhaps bidding on shows from the US and such should only be able to be shown on a commercial self funded arm of the BBC in the future”

Good point, but BBC Worldwide (Beebs commercial arm) made £117m last year, so that probably covers the amount spent of Heroes, Family guy and other imports as well as the movies that are shown form time to time. Also this allows for imports to be shown without adverts but also without spending license fee money.

@ 33

“Sit down with the supposedly liberal ABC or CNN news”

ABC World News Tonight is shown on BBC News channel; and yes, its awful! Americans are usually criticized for not knowing that they are not the only country in the world. You only have to look at their news to realise that its not their fault.

@ 39

“HBO produces the best written and most innovative television in the world. And that’s an independent, subscription-based cable channel.”

Yes but to be fair, it is owned by TimeWarner, the second largest media company in the world, so it can borrow a lot of resources from stable-mates such as Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. Still, good point.

@ 48

“Mr Jay has specific problems with his argument.

“Return the BBC to a single channel”.

– Competely flies in the face of a multi-niche world. Lunacy.”

Agreed. By the way, how would Mr Jay expect to persuade to convince people, especially pensioners, to switch over to Freeview/sat if he wants to take away half the channels. We’d still be using the analogue signal in 2100 if he had his way.

56. Sunder Katwala

* Thanks for the comments and responses.

After this discussion, it seems to me that one of the best arguments for the BBC is the common sense and rather conservative one. We have an established public institution which works well, provides high quality services which are popular, and which is widely regarded as a good thing and pretty good value. There might be all sorts of reasoned arguments for changes of different kinds, for doing less of some things, for greater transparency, and other issues.

But the onus should be on those saying they would rip it up much more drastically to explain what would improve. It seems a highly ideological argument rather than one about how to improve the quality of public broadcasting. Many people would fear a reduction in quality. Advertising will be very unpopular (and I liked carrion’s point, especially about babysitting). A subscription model would lead to much increased costs to service it. Perhaps we would liberate a few people who feel oppressed by it; the rest of us might have additional hassle and lower quality. It is difficult to see any evidence for a great groundswell against the licence fee. (The idea that there are, say, even 5000 working-class Sky subscribers who never watch or listen to the BBC and are desperate to see that scrapped seems to me pure supposition, but perhaps BishopHill is starting a campaign to show that there are a great many people so affected).

* Within that, there are some good arguments about what the BBC should and shouldn’t do, about public transparency and accountability, about how to remain broad and popular without being judged purely on ratings. There are some concerns about the market impact on commercial providers, which seem to me much more relevant around non-core broadcasting issues (such as magazines, etc), and I am sceptical that we are losing some cultural renaissance by having the BBC. There is little international evidence for that.

* It would be great to see the Conservatives run on Antony Jay’s pamphlet. “We pledge to abolish BBC2, Radio1, Radio2, Radio3 and all of the BBC local radio stations (plus some websites and digital channels, like CBeebies and CBBC for parents). Licence fee payers will get (whatever it would be, eg £6 a month/£75 a year back?). Vote Conservative!” They won’t, of course. They might adopt an ideologically-driven right-wing agenda which looks for a series of ways to undermine and salami slice the BBC.

If that happens, I remain unconvinced that liberals will feel they have much of a stake in the BBC, despite what the right says about it. But perhaps the New Tories might be better off being conservatives and accept that the BBC is a good thing, and a national institution which most of us feel still does something important and good.

* I am not at all convinced by the Libertarian Party argument, and I doubt many people are. It is interesting to see a definition of “things considered essential for the functioning of society” (I am not clear what health and education makes the cut for you). People will disagree over what should and should not be provided collectively and from taxation. No doubt the Libertarians will argue against, for example, the BBC, local libraries and swimming pools, the support of elite athletes to compete at the Olympic Games in relatively minor sports, the support of cultural and arts activities of different kinds, extending public support for childcare provision. Different people might support or oppose you on these particular occasions. I am not for pure majoritarianism, as I would favour a written constitution with some entrenched rights, but these are deeply political questions which are legitimately decided democratically.

You are welcome to argue and campaign for scrapping the licence fee, and more generally cutting back public provision towards 35% or 30% of GDP, or even much lower, but I imagine it will be a Herculean effort because of the lack of public support for this. But its a free country, so good luck!

John B

Interesting if true. I don’t suppose this is something we’re ever going to be proved one way or the other. Forgive me though, if I find the idea of the residents of council estates having higher disposable incomes than the leafy suburbs a bit surprising!

Sunny

What makes you think that the BBC is limited in its market to the UK? It resells its programming all over the world, same as all the others. And why should this model only work for drama? And what about a model based on delivery of single programmes? These kinds of innovation are suppressed by the domination of the big channels and particularly by the licence fee.

“Should the BBC really be paying astronomical amounts for football rights? I don’t think so.”

I’d agree with this, instead it could put much more money in to helping promote coverage of lesser known or seen sports. Better overage of rugby is one thing that stands out as recently being campaigned for. This is what the BBC should be doing, taking stuff the commercial operators won’t touch and seeing if they can develop a market for it.

“Why is it emotive to point out that it’s a case of the poor subsidising the middle classes? It’s true isn’t it?”

I don’t know, why don’t you show me some figures that show that a) working class people are wasting their money on sky while never interacting with the BBC and b) that the middle-classes somehow only restrict themselves to BBC/terestrial programming. I can’t help but feel your point there is spurious, as is much of the argument of “we shouldn’t pay for what we don’t use” when that “use” is not necessarily easy to define.

Do people enjoy Stuff that Stephen Fry has done? or Hugh Laurie? Would either of them have got the break they’ve had without the BBC? Indirectly are people that are fans of either of them, but not of the BBC, willing to say they’d rather those comedians potentially never got to be even heard for the sake of a license fee? Obviously examples go on and on, and this is the point some of us are trying to make…just because you don’t listen to Radio 1, or watch BBC 1, doesn’t mean you’ve not benefited from the BBC.

“And why should this model only work for drama?”

It doesn’t does it? I know Little Britain is being written for America for instance…the limits seem only to be on what is wished to be purchased, and that’s normal right?

A hugely entertaining thread with all the old prejudices rolled out again for the benefit of the audience – I love it!

The License Fee debate is simply the best version of a contemporary clash of art and commerce that money can buy – it’s a shame that backward-looking politics is always defeated by proliferation, but it is a truism that there is simply more appeal in raising standards and broadening access than lowering quality while restricting audience choice.

Do people enjoy Stuff that Stephen Fry has done? or Hugh Laurie? Would either of them have got the break they’ve had without the BBC?

Maybe not. But this is exactly my point. The BBC should be fostering new talent. My point of annoyance is the sheer size of the budget, paying the likes of J Ross millions, competing with commercial content providers in low-brow content (something there is no shortage of, such as reality TV shows) and paying over-the-odds for sporting rights that commercial stations are also willing/wanting to cover.

Aye, essentially the BBC should be a starter program for talent and niche subjects…nurturing and growing them until they become something that would survive in the wild of commercial business. But I have to say I have no problem with the BBC holding on to things like Doctor Who (which arguably would equally be able to be funded commercially, it’s not a long way off Primeval) because they have a wider income stream.

Fry and Laurie both ‘got their break’ when they were introduced by Emma Thompson at university before stroming Footlights and the Edinburgh festival. They then moved into radio and minor roles on TV while still appearing on stage, in panel shows and writing prolfically in what has been a long path to stardom. The BBC is a single stepping stone of this established path for developing talent, which has allowed Fry to direct and star in drama on ITV and in cinema, while Laurie has done a similar thing on a larger scale on the other side of the Atlantic.

Jonathan Ross is worth every penny of what he recieves for what he brings to the organisation in terms of his personality, politics and as a mainspring for keeping and developing the integrity of the arts/entertainment community in all its forms. He is an amusing and diplomatic critic whose work’s quality is of less importance by comparison to his ability to champion work according to his taste (eg James McAvoy is a recent recipient of his praise and Richard Harris earned a late revival partly due to his efforts, while he is also responsible for providing exposure to young and old musicians alike). Although backroom activity is by nature less recognised than front-of-house showmanship it doesn’t make it any less vital.

I think there are two sides to how we view this debate, for which I think both of the above provide good examples.

The BBC needs to be understood not only as a factory of industrial output, but also as a national institution.

That its continued existence and role remain constantly questioned is a healthy sign which enables it to respond to our demands as society grows and technologies evolve. The story of the BBC is perfectly entwined in our shared national story in a way which ITV or Sky can only partially be.

The limited subscription service of an HBO or specialised channels such as MTV, TMF or QVC cannot simply be seen in isolation as an alternative ‘universalist’ platform format which would not exist were it not for the diversification made possible be media proliferation.

The next stage of this development is the idea of personalised TV made possible by the internet. Yet again, however, the dispute over payment for capacity usage has been driven by the popularity of the BBC iPlayer – which wouldn’t happen were it not for its role as a technological innovator. The resolution of this dispute (most probably by establishing indirect payment methods to content providers through telecom bills as the norm) will provide the way for commercial operators to develop their services and improve their products for both client and customer bases.

So the hidden benefits of providing a universal basic standard are not immediately apparent to the more bellicose and short-sighted polemicists, but becoming a magnet for criticism will always be the price of success.

thomas,

Jonathan Ross is worth every penny of what he recieves for what he brings to the organisation in terms of his personality, politics and as a mainspring for keeping and developing the integrity of the arts/entertainment community in all its forms.

That’s just an opinion, and I don’t agree. I really, really like Jonathan Ross, which is why I’m sure his many talents would soon find a home on commercial TV. Just because the BBC wouldn’t pay Ross his many millions, doesn’t mean he’d be vaporised or banished forever from the airwaves!

The BBC needs to be understood not only as a factory of industrial output, but also as a national institution.

No-one is considering it in industrial output, at least I’m not. So I would agree. But does it have to be so, very very big? What chance do small private media companies have in any medium if the BBC is simply going to have a colossal advantage? The BBC dominates TV, Radio, and has now permeated the web.

The limited subscription service of an HBO or specialised channels such as MTV, TMF or QVC cannot simply be seen in isolation as an alternative ‘universalist’ platform format which would not exist were it not for the diversification made possible be media proliferation.

Why not?

Finally, TV and Radio is inarguably becoming less-and-less important. So surely the scope and influence of the BBC, as part of our national narrative, is waning?

Okay. I’ll play Devil’s Advocate…

Modernity has all but eradicated the corner shop, the local book store, and the independent record shop. This, apparently, is progress – and we, one would suggest, are progressives. Why should the BBC increase its license fee just to spread its tentacles into new media? It has no historical influence there…

“Why should the BBC increase its license fee just to spread its tentacles into new media? It has no historical influence there…”

..except that historically, the BBC has pioneered new media (e.g., err, television)

“I really, really like Jonathan Ross, which is why I’m sure his many talents would soon find a home on commercial TV.”

Let’s take as a given that Ross is an excellent presenter. If the market solution would be for him to be paid £15m to excellently and popularly host Celebrity Monster Truck Racing on Sky1, and instead the BBC pays him £15m to excellently and popularly host something which gets his many fans more interested in the arts and current affairs, surely the BBC is still adding something unique and valuable to the mix?

Excellent Aaron, this is a great topic for a debate and I’m glad you’ve taken up the challenge.

Personally I’m far more appreciative of Ross’ taste than style, but he has consistently shown his ability to carve his own niche by tailoring his suits and style accordingly. Whether he’d ever find a spot on commercial television is completely open to debate because I fully doubt we’ll ever get a chance to find out, partly because the guy seems completely in control of his own destiny and is using his talents to direct his course towards higher ambitions.

Firstly I doubt commercial TV could find enough outlets for those talents to justify the amount of money they’d have to pay him to prise him away, but also because I think he appreciates the power which comes with the ‘public service’ tag – if you analyse his decisions to try to ascertain his politics it seems obvious that he has firstly sought acceptance by the establishment in order to enter it and overturn it, so it would be an interesting set of negotiations where this fact was taken into account. Or are the BBC actually already underpaying for his services because of the additional value they offer in social progression and individual standing?

Anyway, going backwards slightly, alternatives created as a result of proliferation cannot be replacements. I argue that TV and radio aren’t becoming less important because media is generally becoming more relevant to our individual and national daily lives (hello, this is how we communicate, and even now written word blogs are being increasingly overtaken by versions with integrated sound and picture) – are you supporting the argument that the telegraph would render newspapers obsolete?

Modernity has not eradicated anything, whether all but or at all – it has forced the classic form to evolve and transmogrify into new and more diverse niches which are more varied and relevant to our each individual needs – which is progress. The consequent challenge to navigate between and around all these entities is the eternal struggle to define identity.

So instead of copying Mary Whitehouse in complaining that our personal demands aren’t being met we should all recognise what we would lose without a totemic standard bearer.

It is a false definition to say that the BBC colonises commercial territory which other operators are suited to exploit competitively, because the BBC creates competition at a very basic level by preventing an all-commercial monopoly, and what is the value of competition if standards fall by creating artificial restrictions?

Equally, it is a false argument to say that the BBC is biased when the underlying complaint is that it is not biased enough (one way or the other, usually the other).

Put simply, the unavoidable political role of a publicly-funded corporation adds invisible value to it’s output, however it is and will remain a matter of perspective how to manage the continuous process of rebalancing content.

JohnB

..except that historically, the BBC has pioneered new media (e.g., err, television)

Er, no, John. You’re not reading previous posts, nor mine correctly. So you’re missing the point.

The writer was defending the BBC as a fulcrum of our national conscience. I’m saying it has no historical presence in new media – so why should it be given a leg-up? I think you’d agree 2008 is not 1958.

Let’s take as a given that Ross is an excellent presenter. If the market solution would be for him to be paid £15m to excellently and popularly host Celebrity Monster Truck Racing on Sky1, and instead the BBC pays him £15m to excellently and popularly host something which gets his many fans more interested in the arts and current affairs, surely the BBC is still adding something unique and valuable to the mix?

But that’s a straw man argument. Ross has always been a chat-show host (and later a movie critic, thanks to BBC2 (Mondo Rosso, I think?)) ever since his début on Channel Four. And I’ve never argued against the BBC giving airtime to new talent, just competing for the signatures of established stars/franchises.

Again, you’re taking a contrarian position for the sake of it, John.

thomas,

I shall, if I can, answer your post tomorrow.

It’s late here, almost midnight (I live in Tallinn, Estonia), so you’ll have to forgive me if I turn in.

That’s cool, I’m intriguiged as how you resolve the open/closed competition dilemma though.

69. Michael Clarke

“Why should the BBC increase its license fee just to spread its tentacles into new media? It has no historical influence there…”

Because it does it better than any other broadcaster. Allright, if it hadn’t already gone into new media and we didn’t know how successful it would be, then you’d have an incredibly valid point. But, it started in radio and undoubtably provides better content than commercial broadcasters, then it went into television and, again, outshone its commercial competitors there. Now, its gone into new media and, once again does a better job than the commercial competition.

I, and i would think the majority of the public, just want the best quality media products and services possible, never mind who funds it. At the end of the day, commercial or funded by tax, we are still paying for it. Just because we don’t directly fund ITV doesn’t mean we aren’t paying for it. Every-time we buy can of Coke, shop at Tesco, or use a bank, we are funding commercial broadcasters. The difference with the BBC, is that we are funding it directly and, as such, it is accountable to us instead of shareholders.

Michael, your final paragraph is correct, but your first one isn’t.

The BBC does not do innovation better than any other – it does what others don’t do at all: it’s the difference between pure research and research for purely commercial reasons.

If you go into academia this debate has been extremely heated in recent years as our public universities have been forced to open up and confront the different motivating forces and priorities of private commerce. I won’t say that either system is all good or all bad because the truth is that diversity ensures a healthy dynamic of the mixture.

No party will run on a “cut the BBC down to size” ticket.

I don’t know if there is any polling evidence, but I suspect that many – maybe now most – people believe the BBC (or at least the licence fee) costs too much.
That will allow any new government to force cuts via capping the licence fee, while of course not prescribing where the cuts should fall.

The arrogance of the BBC does not help exactly, does it? Nor the greed of its management.

Why has Jenny Abramsky, who is about to retire, been given a 27% increase to 419,000? It can only be to boost the value of her (final salary based) pension.
Disgraceful.

People will always disagree on the issue of bias.
But I think there is an emerging consensus of discontent around the issues of waste and cost (eg Ross) and of hubris and empire building.

Net result is that the licence fee will stay, but likely now to be cut in real terms in future funding rounds.

This will have to be my last post on this thread. Have so much to do.

Thomas,

Firstly I doubt commercial TV could find enough outlets for those talents to justify the amount of money they’d have to pay him to prise him away…

This is based on a false premise. If the BBC were not bidding, the price wouldn’t be as high and it wouldn’t be a case of prizing him away. He could either get paid much less, or take his ample talents into the commercial world from whence he came.

…are you supporting the argument that the telegraph would render newspapers obsolete?

No. But the internet and the digital age has forced the newspapers to evolve. Most American newspapers consider their newspaper complimentary to their web portal. Also, the cost of content production is falling. Video technology that cost tens of thousands of pounds 10-years ago, is now sold for a few hundred. Software and computer technology means that good writers and technicians can make things happen without the say-so of execs. Things are changing and we have no way to know how they’ll play. The digital age has meant any historical precedent is pointless.

Also, if I had my own – completely personal – way, the BBC would remain much as it is. I think the BBC offers *me* great value for money. I love comedy, documentaries, and when in the UK I’m always tuned to Radio Four. The BBC trains thousands of technicians and journalists, and gives opportunities to young writers and performers. IMO it’s a wonderful institution.

But, it has its critics and many of their attacks have worth…

I *personally* agree that it sucks up so much oxygen, and maybe the commercial providers – who let’s be honest are struggling as it is, could survive if the BBC didn’t go after every single section of the market. I don’t think the BBC should be doing dumbed-down programming just because it’s popular, and I don’t think it should be using the license fee to get in a huge bidding war over talent or rights.

Modernity has not eradicated anything, whether all but or at all – it has forced the classic form to evolve and transmogrify into new and more diverse niches which are more varied and relevant to our each individual needs…

How can you use a Dawinian term like evolve with the BBC? Evolution is about changing to survive. The BBC’s dinner is guaranteed. It changes because politicians ask it to.

It is a false definition to say that the BBC colonises commercial territory which other operators are suited to exploit competitively, because the BBC creates competition at a very basic level by preventing an all-commercial monopoly, and what is the value of competition if standards fall by creating artificial restrictions?

You lost me here. Sorry.

Equally, it is a false argument to say that the BBC is biased when the underlying complaint is that it is not biased enough (one way or the other, usually the other).

I don’t think the BBC is biased. Personally.

…will remain a matter of perspective how to manage the continuous process of rebalancing content.

Agreed.

Who’s arguing the BBC is not biased enough? The BBC is biased, not in a deliberate conspiratorial way, but in terms of broad institutional bias. It’s not difficult to spot. A report a while back demonstrated that there was a clear bias against euro-sceptics – the BBC had to look seriously at changing the way they reported on the EU debate. Just recently there have been reports showing an London/South East England bias too. Our experience shows a clear bias toward the monarchy. It’s nothing to do with wanting a bias the other way, it’s a clear case of the BBC allowing certain dominant perspectives influence their broadcasting.

@Graham Smith: Thanks. The bias against Euro-sceptics is (IMO) the most blatant of all the BBC’s biases. I really struggle to see how anyone could deny it.

I should add, because I’m not a social conservative and/or a supporter of the US Republican party, I don’t tend to perceive those biases so much as those against libertarianism and Euro-scepticism.

But Biased BBC consistently provides evidence of biases towards social liberalism and the US Democrat party

Yes – though unfortunately Biased BBC throws in enough bonkers-ness to obscure the many valid examples it does provide.

Let’s nail this “BBC is biased against Eurosceptics” nonsense before it flies.

The BBC actually got criticised for the thinness of its overall coverage, for example having no Europe editor despite the impact of the continent on our politics, economy and way of life.

So Mark Mardell is the most visible of BBC changes in this area.

Eurosceptics have a problem because too much of their position on the EU is little more than throwing up daft conspiracies. It doesn’t take much for an objective observer, let alone a pro-European, to blow away most Eurosceptic arguments. It is this self-inflicted phenomenon that damages eurosceptics, not the BBC.

@Aaron Heath,

Your fixation on the plight of poor commercial broadcasters (sorry, can’t shed any tears here) blinds you to the fact that the BBC just does it better.

It has evolved, it reacts just as quickly to changes in the “market” (an awful phrase when dealing with an information medium) as its all powerful internet site shows.

I’d argue that if anything we don’t need a proliferation of commercial broadcasting. Given the utter balls up of ITV in recent years and the dumbing down of Channel 4 (ignoring completely the inanity of Sky) then the unanswerable case for the BBC is made in comparison with the dirge commercial broadcasters come up with.

Moreover, commercial reliance on advertising for revenue is about to become a critical weakness in that sector. Technological advancement of digital recording means most people can whizz through advert breaks at the touch of a button. Advertisers are cottoning on to this fast. Which will lead to a preciptous decline in revenue and therefore impact adversly any perceived innovation you think commercial broadcasters bring to the table.

The only way commercial broadcasters are likley to make revenue in future is to jack up subscription rates. And then where will the misplaced arguments over the paltry license fees be?

Eurosceptics have a problem because too much of their position on the EU is little more than throwing up daft conspiracies.

That’s balls, and betrays your own bias.

“blinds you to the fact that the BBC just does it better.”

I wouldn’t say that, I don’t think the BBC does much, in terms of TV, “better” than anyone else.

@ Lee

If you think the BBC doesn’t do much better TV than anyone else I’ll send you a tape of an evening of commercial Australian TV. Fancy sitting through 30 minute, yes, count ’em, 30 minute long commercials? If it wasn’t for BBC stuff I’d give up on TV altogether.

It is simply hilarious to complain about bias based on selectivity of perspective.

Next it’ll be said the Beeb is unfairly biased in favour of professional sport at expense of the amateurs or in favour of law abiding citizens against criminals – this sort of recidivism leads to questions about paedophile’s rights!? Why is there Songs of Praise but no equivalent for satanists, you might ask.

This is stupidity. The question of bias is not that bias is bad, or that conclusions drawn from bias are incorrect, but that the uncertainty created by bias needs to be negated through effective representative balance. There will always be critics, but existence of opinion doesn’t provide validation, though many conservatives wish it were so and seek affirmation through representation.

The simple fact this debate happens at all contradicts the suggestion that the license fee is guaranteed in perpetuity or that the issue isn’t taken seriously.

The truth is that the license fee is the least worst funding solution (it is a voluntary tax – you don’t have to watch TV) until adequate payment methods are developed in replacement. Auntie does it’s best to avoid accusations of unfair bias and we hold it to far higher standards than we expect of any other media organisation. All of which is A Good Thing.

It is informative to remember how this issue has changed over time as political fortune has swung between the major parties and the institution has developed to treat all with equanimity, and that this pattern can be applied to all institutions which reach ‘official’ status. The military, church, parliament etc have all been (and sometimes still are) portrayed as bastions of corruption against the ‘one true way’. This should not however dissuade us from recognition of their applied and actual value.

Which reminds me that the question of ‘balance’ is one which LC needs to address.

I should add, because I’m not a social conservative and/or a supporter of the US Republican party, I don’t tend to perceive those biases so much as those against libertarianism and Euro-scepticism.

Similarly, as a social liberal, supporter of the Democrats, moderate Europhile and moderate libertarian, I find the BBC biased in favour of social conservatives, Republicans, Europhobes and authoritarians.

This suggests to me that it’s doing a pretty decent job, no?

(or, Thomas’s point. I also look forward to the posts pointing out that the Beeb is biased against murderers and paedophiles…)

#82 & #85: Don’t be so ridiculous. Political bias is not the same thing has “bias against murderers and paedophiles”.

#84: If you’re serious, it suggests that no matter what the BBC does no-one will ever be happy with it (from a political point of view at least) and it should be abolished.

I reckon as soon as analogue is phased out, the defence of the TV licence model will be even more untenable than it is now, and a subscription-based model will take over.

Eurosceptics have a problem because too much of their position on the EU is little more than throwing up daft conspiracies. It doesn’t take much for an objective observer, let alone a pro-European, to blow away most Eurosceptic arguments. It is this self-inflicted phenomenon that damages eurosceptics, not the BBC.

I agree wit this, most euroscepticism is simply ‘omg they’re legislating on the shape of bananas!’ sort of crap. Its just guff.

If you’re serious, it suggests that no matter what the BBC does no-one will ever be happy with it (from a political point of view at least) and it should be abolished.

Erm, NO! The whole point is that it sits in the politican centre where both sides are annoyed it doesnt do their side any justice. That is what is called neutrality, much as its difficult to get your head around 😉

Why would you want to get rid of a broadly politically neutral news org (though I still think its too right wing on its news agenda), and instead only read crap that reinforces your prejudices?

@87 no matter what the BBC does there will be those who are unhappy with it, and it should be encouraged to use it’s position of contention to investigate the issues.

Oh, that’s what happens now.

QT, I suggest you may have knocked your reading spectacles off when you had your fit of pique that anyone could take the same evidence and reach a diametrically opposed conclusion to your own.

I wrote that bias against paedophiles is acceptable because it is justifiable. It is because it comes after open debate of the issues and it is a position supported by law.

I used this example to try to show that bias under such conditions is considered fine because it isn’t ‘political bias’.

The complaints of BBC bias are not comparable because they are an attempt to influence the outcome of an ongoing debate, and that they therefore renounce any claim to objectivity in doing so.

Sunny, you’re confusing neutrality with balance.

@Sunny: I’m not sure how biased to the left it’d have to be before lefties would admit that it’s not biased to the right?!?

Anyone who’s still reading this, I refer you to the discussion on this thread (BBC vs David Davis)

What, because something entirely expected happened, the BBC should’ve devoted all its coverage to it? Yes, that convinces me.

95. David Elstein

Sunder seems to assume that introducing a voluntary subscription basis for funding the BBC would involve additional cost. Almost certainly, that is not true. The current cost of managing the licence fee (collection and evasion) is over £300m a year, and that does not include the very large costs of the court cases brought by the BBC every year. The last statistics showed that 400,000 people a year were threatened with prosecution, and 150,000 were actually prosecuted: a huge extra burden for the court system.

There is also evidence that many of those prosecuted are unemployed single parents, who are often pursued by the collection agency repeatedly, as their ability to pay the licence fee is undermined by the fines imposed. Even though almost no-one is imprisoned for non-payment of fines imposed for evading the licence fee, the threat of a criminal record is wholly disporportionate to the offence (for instance, non-payment of gas or telephone or electricity bills does not carry the same threat).

The great advantage of a subscription system is that it would enable the BBC to offer a layered proposition to consumers, along the lines of cable and satellite services, and that different televisions could be connected to different layers of provision. This flexibility would be greatly helpful to the BBC in judging real viewer and listener preferences, which is currently not possible. Obviously, for consumers to have a choice of service packages, or the right to opt out altogether, would be a significant improvement in accountability (the nominal accountability provided by the licence fee is almost completely ineffective, especially at the individual household level).

Most studies show that the BBC would be strengthened financially by a subscription system, as evasion would become impossible, and added quality services (such as High Definition) would be paid for by those who wanted them, whilst poorer households could limit themselves to basic packages. Historically, this was the effective situation when the BBC introduced BBC2, where households who wanted the service paid a colour fee (BBC2 was the first channel to be broadcast in colour), whilst those remaining with just BBC1 paid a black-and-white fee. For a long time, radio and television had separate licence fees.

The biggest problems with the licence fee are its inflexibility and its regressive impact on the poorest. If we really believe the BBC is like the NHS or education, it should be funded out of taxation, with non-payers of tax exempt, and a surcharge of about 0.75% of taxable income levied on taxpayers to maintain the BBC’s current level of income. The BBC’s DG would pay £5,000, and most of the commentariat about £1,000, with MPs on a £400 rate: once the cost of the BBC were fairly based, we might have a more informed debate about the right level of the licence fee.

Some people worry about editorial independence, but the BBC already receives some 15% of the licence fee direct from the Treasury (who pay for the over-75s), and its World Service is funded directly by the Foreign Office. S4C and the Gaelic Television Service are also directly funded. No issues of editorial independence have been reported in any of these cases.

The idea that we should have fleets of detection vans, armies of snoopers, threats of criminalisation and an underclass of the prosecuted in the period after digital switchover (timetabled for 2012) makes such an apparatus wholly redundant is evidence of hardened brain arteries. The BBC is a (mostly) brilliant institution which has no objective means of judging audience preferences and demand: subscription would at long last provide that.

96. Sunder Katwala

Dear David,

Thanks for the detailed and interesting comments. As you will have gathered, I am coming at this particular issue more as a citizen, viewer and listener than a pointy-head. So I can’t pretend to compete on expert knowledge of the topic at all.

I would be v.interested to know whether you could speculate on what the Conservatives might finally do on the BBC. They seemed to find your proposals something of a hot potato. Antony Jay’s are considerably more in the electoral suicide note category. I can see there is some interest in a fight, but I find it difficult to judge whether there is going to any radical thinking in this area. (In the end, unlike you, I hope they might be rather conservative!)

Of your various proposals … In principle, I would be rather tempted to support a politically viable progressive reform of how the licence fee is distributed, as the regressive/poll tax element is certainly an issue. Aside from practical issues of policy design, the issue would presumably be that losers would make much more noise than winners. (And you state that the intention would be to drive downward pressure on the overall BBC income, though others here have also said that they think the BBC could be smaller). But there is a tempting idea in there.

While there are concerns about independence on the taxpayer model, I agree with what you say about the BBC World Service. At the risk of hyperbole, there is a good case for saying that the World Service is the best thing the BBC does, and just about the best thing that anybody in Britain does at anything. However, my hunch is that the particular distinctive culture and history of the BBC itself is the reason that it does appear to operate with considerably more independence and credibility than seems to be the case in other government-funded foreign broadcasting services.

I am inclined to think that there could be more creative ways of increasing transparency and accountability/voice than simply relying on the power of exit. A purely subscription model has dangers in how to provide unpopular programmes, unless there are very broad packages. I guess some of us are instinctively for a bit of BBC liberal paternalism/elitism, or at least some rather indirect mechanisms for democratic voice in the interests of public service quality.

Maybe that’s all rather too much treating the BBC as a bit of a secular religion. Still, some of that is widely held, and it is an issue which reformers will have to take on board.

97. David Elstein

Dear Sunder,

The latest Conservative thinking was published by the Conservative Research Department a few weeks ago in a paper entitled “Plurality In A New Media Age”, but I doubt if it would help you much on these issues. It certainly assumed the licence fee would persist indefinitely, and it by-passed the recent models for the future of poublic service broadcasting that Ofcom put forward in its April 10th PSB review.

The report commissioned by John Whittingdale from the Broadcasting Policy Group (which I chaired) was published four years ago (Beyond The Charter: The Future Of The BBC), but does not seem to have penetrated very far into Conservative thinking, not least because John Whittingdale was shifted to another portfolio before we completed our work – by the way, the Group had no political affiliations, and contained more Labour supporters than Conservative ones.

As Mark Thompson reminds us in the Telegraph this morning, public willnigness to pay for BBC output is much higher than the licence fee for a significant proportion of the population. However, the BBC cannot tap into this willingness, because it is committed to a flat-rate compulsory licence fee (despite agreeing in 2000 to a supplemental digital licence fee, as proposed by the Davies Report, on grounds of fairness – most viewers could not receive BBC digital services at that time – why should they have to pay for them?). Even if the single package were retained, a tax-based fee would re-position accountability, remove the burden of the licence fee from those least able to pay, and allow the BBC to pitch its ambitions at a level where ability and willingness to pay were highest.

A flexible package of services would allow the poorest to opt out of what they cannot afford or do not want, but there would be nothing to stop the Government from funding a completely free version of BBC content (through the web or even through broadcast transmission) if that was deemed socially desirable. Both choice and subsidy would thereby be transparent.

I prefer the subscription model, because I think it offers the most choice, accountability and transparency, but a tax-based licence fee is at least socially equitable.

By the way, Sunder, paternalism has its limits: you can force people to pay for the BBC, but you cannot force them to consume its services. Amongst the 16-24 year olds, as Ofcom has shown, BBC Television is rapidly declining in popularity.

David Elstein

David, you seem confused. Firstly you propose an opt-in subscription system then you propose an opt-out method for funding the BBC. Do you also propose that the BBC executive could opt in or out of the parts of the public service remit it finds to its favour while retaining the value of its founding identity?

Sunder, your thinking appears overcomplicated. The subject of payment is already starting to be superceded by the way personalised TV is evolving into a system which the consumer audience is beginning to pay indirectly through phone bills according to usage as a result of digital media conversion.

So from both perspectives of the supply-side and demand-side economic question policy-making lags significantly behind events – which only shows the irrelevance and lack of balance of both your political perspectives.

“Amongst the 16-24 year olds, as Ofcom has shown, BBC Television is rapidly declining in popularity.”

Less than pretty much every other form of traditional media, AIUI…

100. Sunder Katwala

thomas – sorry to be both overcomplicated and irrelevant.

But I am pretty sceptical about this claim – “The subject of payment is already starting to be superceded by the way personalised TV is evolving into a system which the consumer audience is beginning to pay indirectly through phone bills according to usage as a result of digital media conversion” which you make.

if you mean by that that political debates about the future funding model of the BBC are therefore futile, because they have been settled by this “evolving system”. That makes little sense. There is a licence fee to fund the BBC and there will be a debate about maintaining that or various models after that. Technological change will affect that; the idea it settles the political choice is odd.

Sunder, the question here is not whether political choice is affected by the evolution of debate, but whether this subject remains at the forefront of it as a wet fish to batter the public with by the different wings trying to corral votes.

Alternate funding methods for the public service have long been under consideration since the political sustainability of the license fee started to come under threat. Within the organisation these discussions are the framework by which management increasingly tailors its output.

Increasing commercialisation of in-house brands through spin-offs, product licensing and greater international marketing has reduced the need to escalate the license fee in the past two decades, while before that loosening the restrictions of exclusive contracts enabled the BBC to hold onto talent and retain workers who might otherwise have been poached.

Consider the case of Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond – both ubiquitous in promotions of motor/machine related DVDs. Add this to newspaper columns, book deals, speaking or hosting engagements and various personal appearances and the scale of their earnings built out of the profile provided by the Beeb is more than it could offer alone, yet far beyond the capability of any purely commercial operator.

The reintroduction of Doctor Who is also designed to build a multi-platform presence and I’m awaiting the day when they OK a serious coproduction deal to enter into and establish their place in the cinema market. But that day will have to wait until policymakers and competitors both agree to liberate the multiple functions of the BBC and accept its role in providing essential cross-over connectivity between media formats and production platforms.

Commercialisation was the first step in reducing the relative cost of the fee without reducing the overall quality of the service – integration is the next step in eliminating coertion without eliminating the service charter.

When the fee all for practical purposes costs as much as a postage stamp does now for the individual tax-payer it will have been depoliticised to the extent that there is nothing left to complain about except the inability of overly populist commercial operators to provide ever-growing dividends without distorting the level playing field or creating artificial monopolies.

The point about technology is worth investigating further in my view as I personally doubt innovation can continue at the same rate of pace as now once convergence and integration are achieved and content proliferation is fully enabled. How long this will take before plateauing begins to occur is a matter of perspective, but by then the politics of the debate will have shifted in focus away from the symmetrical corporate funding/personal payment dichotomy.

(not that I’m suggesting any political link between policy development for the BBC and Post Offices…)

Haven’t read all the comments, so apologise if these points have been already mentioned.

1. By showing US imports, films, makeover shows, sport etc, the BBC brings in an audience for the more educational stuff it also shows. To reach out to everyone with it’s quality broadcasts it has to have a broad remit. And just being able to watch all this stuff without the adverts is worth the TV licence alone.

2. The BBC is phenomenal value for money – 37% of all TV viewing for just 23% of TV revenues. Most people would pay more than £12 a month. Sky is £45 a month for nothing but imports and repeats and they have the cheek to force you to watch adverts as well!

3. Finally, because the BBC is not funded by advertisers, it can make programmes in the interests of viewers. It is the only organisation that can stand up to the big multi-nationals when they do something wrong. The others are too scared of losing the advertising revenue! I think we need a BBC tabloid newspaper in this country as well.


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