What do we want from the BBC?


by Anthony Barnett    
10:41 am - May 16th 2012

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A new Director General is being appointed to take over the leadership of the single most important cultural and current affairs institution in Britain: the BBC.

What better time could there be to have a wide-ranging debate over the BBC you want and the UK needs? The BBC “we” need, as in “We, the people” in all our pluralism.

Many of us have criticised the BBC for its ‘regime’ like instincts and softness towards corporate power. But it remains distinct from the marketplace.

The BBC was created by a real Tory, Lord Reith, who would have been appalled at unconservative commercialism and lack of respect for tradition and the needs of open public access exhibited by the Mayor of London and his hedge-fund haircut.

As with the debate over the NHS, this goes to the heart of public life in Britain.

This is the argument ourBeeb aims to provide. It will have contributions from regular folk and what is left of the great and the good.

It will use video and debate the role of culture and sport; consider the future for a digital commons and the nature of funding models; ask about the nations and the union and local media in the age of internet broadcasting.

As the BBC Trust figures out who it wants to put in charge of the BBC, we will be hosting a debate about how a democracy should be in charge of our BBC.

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OurBeeb is edited by Dan Hancox and supported by openDemocracy. The point of ourBeeb is to take the questions of the day and run with them – with your help. You can see his initial list of questions and issues here.

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About the author
Anthony Barnett is a regular contributor, and editor of the blog Our Kingdom. Also a founder member of OpenDemocracy and Charter 88. He co-organised the Convention on Modern Liberty.
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Reader comments


1. margin4error

The BBC is one of the world’s ten biggest internet companies (in terms of global visitor numbers).

Along with google and facebook – it has a particularly valuable place at the heart of the internet age and like much of what has worked well online, it has a benign nature and a spirit that people warm to and feel they can trust and interact with safely and without agenda.

That is crucial to the BBC and to the UK. It is one of the few unambiguously positive gifts we in this country have given to the world and it should continue to serve that wider purpose rather than just focus on what the British public want. (not that what the British public want should be ignored). Its online success is its future, and the BBC is a remarkable demonstration of what impartiality and a commitment to good principles in programme making can achieve when so much of the world’s media cares only about making money.

Anything that damages that would be a betrayal that goes well beyond the UK.

2. Chaise Guevara

“It will use video and debate the role of culture and sport; consider the future for a digital commons and the nature of funding models; ask about the nations and the union and local media in the age of internet broadcasting.”

Can I slink in several levels below these worthy issues and just say that what *I* want from the BBC is more focus on showcasing new talent and trying out shows that would be considered too risky by commercial broadcasters? It’s not bad at this already, but when the BBC starts pushing lowest-common-denominator reality TV crap in an attempt to show that it has a bigger willy than C4, I start to wonder what the point of the institution is. You can get that stuff on the other gazillion channels.

3. margin4error

chaise

The BBC does have a role in mass-market shows too. There is no reason why it should stand aside from entire genres of programme and have no involvement in setting their tone or meeting public demand.

What I suspect you are more concerned about is where the drive to do that is a competitive instinct that would also see shows simply not produced, or discontinued early, because they are not getting good enough ratings.

4. Chaise Guevara

@ 3 M4E

“The BBC does have a role in mass-market shows too. There is no reason why it should stand aside from entire genres of programme and have no involvement in setting their tone or meeting public demand. ”

Other than the fact that we have loads of non-state-funded channels to do that already? I just think the Beeb should use its unique position to take artistic risks. My issue with reality shows isn’t that they’re a bad genre, it’s that they’re a lazy way to generate revenues fairly safely. I’m happy for the BBC to produce stuff I have no interest in watching, but I think it should justify its existence instead of just being an ad-free version of ITV.

“What I suspect you are more concerned about is where the drive to do that is a competitive instinct that would also see shows simply not produced, or discontinued early, because they are not getting good enough ratings.”

Yes, exactly. As you probably know, American channels seem to be even more ratings- and revenue-focused than ours (possibly as a cultural thing, maybe because their shows are longer, often more expensive, and are sometimes still being filmed when they start airing). This leads to quality stuff being cancelled, sometimes mid-season, because they don’t generate enough revenue. It also leads to artistic vision being mangled by executives who think the best way to boost ratings on their blacker-than-black nihilistic drama is to put an upbeat romantic storyline into it, and so on.

Annoying as this is, I don’t blame execs for this: a channel is a business, and a business is a machine for generating money. But we’ve got a set of channels that *aren’t* a machine for making money, and it’s a shame to waste that.

5. margin4error

Chaise

But take the various celb-based reality tv shows. Ballroom dancing has had a revival in this country because, when coming up with a generic celebrity based mass-market show – the BBC did things a little different and had a positive impact on a relatively forgotten cultural tradition.

The BBC has a role in doing stuff like that and can use a range of genres to achieve that.

And in terms of commercialisation of american shows – it is inevitable because they have no BBC to anchor things. That means the artistic focus is always overwhelmed because there is no alternative for a writer or director to turn to. Everyone will demand commercialisation of the product. Turning to the BBC with a show, instead of Sky or ITV, means that those channels have to ease off a bit on the commercial influence over programme makers in order not to lose them. Better a cemmercially successful show than aiming for more money on top and losing the show.

Despite ‘daily cost breakdowns’ that portray the BBC as being relatively cheap, I literally won’t be able to afford next years licence. I don’t have broadband at home (nor a smart phone) so I can’t access iPlayer or any other ‘media rich’ offering. Most of the people I know can’t access the likes of iPlayer because, whilst being ‘free’, their capped internet connections means that streamed media is pretty much rationed anyway.

And whilst there’s a lot of BBC television output I do enjoy, there’s far more that I don’t and even question the existence of. However, as this is so subjective, I’m not sure how individuals can honestly address this in light of the question ‘what do we want from the BBC?’

I like the idea of the BBC as a state provision and all the things it’s assumed to be but my biggest criticism is that there’s too much of it and I think the idea about attracting the biggest ‘stars’ (and therefore the biggest wages) has lead us down a blind alley.

7. Churm Rincewind

@ 2 and 4 Chaise Guevara: I’d be grateful if you could provide some examples of the programmes you have in mind when you say that the BBC is “pushing … lowest-common-denominator reality TV crap”.

Also, I don’t accept your description of the BBC as “an ad-free version of ITV” No commercial broadcaster like ITV would ever, for example, provide services such as CBeebies or BBC4. Nor do I recognise your characterisation of American television, which is enormously diverse – it’s a very big country.

8. Chaise Guevara

@ 5 M4E

“But take the various celb-based reality tv shows. Ballroom dancing has had a revival in this country because, when coming up with a generic celebrity based mass-market show – the BBC did things a little different and had a positive impact on a relatively forgotten cultural tradition. ”

A good point, and if the Beeb is going to do reality TV it should have something like that going on.

“And in terms of commercialisation of american shows – it is inevitable because they have no BBC to anchor things.”

Huh, hadn’t considered that. But obviously it’s a benefit we lose if the BBC starts getting ratings-focused.

Although I should point out that ratings-focus isn’t as bad as revenue-focus, for sake of fairness. Apparently it’s believed that the least intelligent/educated 20% of the population account for 80% of the money gained through ad-generated sales, or something like that. Whether or not that’s true (the numbers are surprising dramatic and suspiciously neat), a channel that cares about ratings as a way of selling ads is incentivised to appeal as much as it can to a single demographic, which isn’t a worry if ratings are the goal in and of themselves.

(I also suspect that less intelligent and informed people are not the main target of “artistic” fare, but regardless of that it’s a problem if entertainment is preoccupied with a single demographic., because it leads to a narrower field of products.)

The BBC is soon to appoint a new Director General and so this is a good time to ask what do we want from the corporation?

This viewer would suggest the following:

Less dross about antiques and property filling up the daytime schedules, programmes like Homes Under the Hammer and Bargain Hunt are tired, repetitive and insult the intelligence of their largely captive audience. The BBC has a huge archive of programmes that have often not been shown since their first transmission; why not screen some of them during daytime?

More original drama about life in the Britain of 2012 and less pap about nurses, lawyers and the like, there is huge potential for serious one off plays, think a modern Play for Today for example or popular dramas like the first few series of Z Cars to explore the challenges faced by modern Britons.

Better regional news coverage, although the people responsible for the current output do their best it is all too clear they are woefully under resourced. Better information about what is happening in their local area might encourage more people to be active in or at least take an interest in civic life.

Protect what’s good about the radio network, Radios 1 and 2 could probably be left to paddle their own commercial canoe, but Radios 3, 4 and 5 need to be protected in order to continue with the good work they do making, respectively, current affairs, the arts and sporting events accessible to a wider audience.

Most of all the BBC needs to treat its audience with the respect it deserves. We want to be inspired, moved and sometimes upset by our national broadcaster; not to be spoon fed the sort of rubbish you can find on Sky without the adverts.

Serious television drama. Honestly, it’s all I ask. They could devote 166 hours to antiques, nurses and Jeremy Clarkson and a couple of series that even approach the level of Dennis Potter would keep me satisfied.

Boris Johnson set the tone to a new low in this debate by demanding a tory DG. It was a pretty low move even for him.

What we need is political neutrality and some balls from our public service broadcaster, like the old Greg Dyke BBC. I’m pretty fed up with the craven news editorial on shows like Today and the tabloidisation of much news. Given they have excellent staff in bureaux around the world we could have much better international news coverage.

Regarding entertainment, I’ve simply stopped watching. A bit of variety would be nice instead of the dross I see whenever I get a chance to switch on. Even some old movies, for goodness sake. The beeb used to do excellent movie seasons.

12. Chaise Guevara

@ Churm

“@ 2 and 4 Chaise Guevara: I’d be grateful if you could provide some examples of the programmes you have in mind when you say that the BBC is “pushing … lowest-common-denominator reality TV crap”. ”

Here’s today’s schedule for BBC 1: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcone/programmes/schedules/north_west

So in the daytime we’ve got two different shows about people buying houses, a show about someone selling their attic stuff, and a show about someone buying other people’s attic stuff (plus a rubbish soap opera, but that’s outside of my remit).

The evening starts out ok, but then you’ve got two reality shows filling the slot between 20.00 and 22.00: prime time. The latter of these shows is partially based around the charming viewer-snaring technique of humiliating human beings on national TV.

“Also, I don’t accept your description of the BBC as “an ad-free version of ITV” No commercial broadcaster like ITV would ever, for example, provide services such as CBeebies or BBC4. Nor do I recognise your characterisation of American television, which is enormously diverse – it’s a very big country.”

I didn’t say the BBC was that, although BBC 1 can feel like that at times (when you’re watching Homes Under the Hammer, for example). I used it as the far end of a scale on which I’d like the BBC to slide the other way.

I don’t know enough about US TV to be sure, but American commenters seem very used to shows being scarred by attempts to make them more saleable (“We need some vampires! Vampires are really big right now!”) or to match the political feelings of the advertisers. I’m sure there are plenty of American channels that avoid doing this, but the extreme in America seems more… extreme than it does here, is what I’m saying. I’m not dismissing all US TV in one go.

To be fair to the BBC what are they supposed to put on during the day whilst most of the population is at work? They can’t have any of their popular programmes such as Eastenders or The Apprentice on during the day and likewise there is no point spending large sums of money on quality dramas and then broadcasting them when most people can’t watch them.

In my opinion the BBC has got it’s balance pretty good and I certainly don’t think that any radical change is needed. Just some tweaking here and there.

14. Churm Rincewind

@ 12 Chaise Guevara: I’m not quite sure what you have against reality shows, whatever that means, apart from the fact that you don’t seem to like them. But closer examination shows that BBC programmes such as “Under the Hammer” and “Cash in the Attic” are actually chock full of information about our cultural heritage in the fields of arts and crafts. Now, they may be operating at a relatively lowly level in an attempt to inform and engage the otherwise uninterested, but surely that can be no bad thing?

As for your dismissal of The Apprentice, the programme is a deliberate response to an ongoing consensus that the BBC has historically tended to neglect (and some would say devalue) the important concerns of business and entrepreneurship in the UK. The Apprentice is specifically designed to profile and dramatise these concerns and to intrigue the public into taking an interest in issues of commerce, which I guess we might all agree to be a worthy aim. Note that this is not just my interpretation – the BBC has been publicly explicit about their aims, intentions and reasons for producing this programme, though they’ve probably explained it better elsewhere than I have here.

The fact that you and I may know what a silver hallmark is should not be used as an argument against programmes like Cash in the Attic. It’s not intended for the previously well-informed. Followers of Liberal Conspiracy can get their rocks off (and I’ve no doubt do) on The Killing which, in the scale of things, only attracted a tiny though vociferous audience amongst the chattering classes.

Finally and briefly, it’s unwise to judge American television by the output of the national broadcast networks. The (relative) blandness of their programming is not so much in answer to “saleability” or to the political concerns of their advertisers but is an attempt to address an enormously diverse audience ranging from the sophisticates of New York to the Mormons of Utah. Certainly this approach may have led to a pursuit of an uninteresting “safe zone” in editorial terms, but this cosy consensus has been exploded by the “unsafe” approach of the Fox Network. Rupert Murdoch has been ahead of the pack, as always.

15. Barrie J

Sir John Reith, the first Director General of the BBC once famously stated – ‘It is occasionally indicated to us that we are apparently setting out to give the public what we think they need- and not what they want – but few know what they want and very few what they need. In any case it is better to overestimate the mentality of the public than to underestimate it. He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy.’

Job done then.

Judging by the tone of submitted posts, people seem either to be mostly happy with the current output, or are perhaps in the employ of the BBC.
I cannot imagine how anyone could be satisfied with the depth and quality of its news gathering, which consists of regurgitating press releases and government propaganda, the presentation; particularly its breakfast show is puerile.
Investigative journalism has almost disappeared.

Stop filling ‘panel game shows’ with the same tired old has beens, and cease refering to Jo Brand as a comedienne – she was never funny and still isn’t.
.
The following, under the esteemed leadership of Alan Yentob could be relocated to the Falkland Islands and spun as a ‘sign of Britain’s continued investment in the islanders’.:
Gyles Brandreth, Anne Widdicombe, Richard Hammond, Chris Hollins, Terry Wogan, Andrew Marr, James May, Anne Robinson, Bruce Forsythe, Gloria Hunniford, Jeremy Clarkson, Andrew Marr, Bill Turnbull, Greg Davies, Chris Evans, David Dimbleby, Susie Reid, Rob Bonnet, Raymond Snoddy, Dick and James Strawbridge, Gabby Logan, Jonathon Ross, Fiona Bruce, Graham Norton, Simon King, Dave Myers, etc., etc., etc.

For a better idea of how they wasted your money in 2009/10, Google:
BBC top stars paid £54 million.
The staff expenses make the best reading.
I can’t imagine it’s got any better.

16. Chaise Guevara

@ 14 Churm

“I’m not quite sure what you have against reality shows, whatever that means, apart from the fact that you don’t seem to like them.”

I’ve drawn this distinction already. I don’t like them, but that in itself is irrelevant (or should be; obviously we’re all prey to bias). The point is that they’re safe and often virtually indistinguishable from shows available on other channels. The BBC seems to be complacent in this regard, because it’s overly concerned about ratings. It should be doing groundbreaking and artistic and experimental and socially beneficial stuff – which it does at some points.

“But closer examination shows that BBC programmes such as “Under the Hammer” and “Cash in the Attic” are actually chock full of information about our cultural heritage in the fields of arts and crafts. Now, they may be operating at a relatively lowly level in an attempt to inform and engage the otherwise uninterested, but surely that can be no bad thing? ”

It’s not bad, but it’s not good enough. You could claim any non-fiction was education if you tried hard enough. I’m not convinced that peppering your show with infobytes is that great.

“As for your dismissal of The Apprentice, the programme is a deliberate response to an ongoing consensus that the BBC has historically tended to neglect (and some would say devalue) the important concerns of business and entrepreneurship in the UK. The Apprentice is specifically designed to profile and dramatise these concerns and to intrigue the public into taking an interest in issues of commerce, which I guess we might all agree to be a worthy aim. Note that this is not just my interpretation – the BBC has been publicly explicit about their aims, intentions and reasons for producing this programme, though they’ve probably explained it better elsewhere than I have here.”

Point taken, but it’s still exploitative.

“The fact that you and I may know what a silver hallmark is should not be used as an argument against programmes like Cash in the Attic. It’s not intended for the previously well-informed.”

I don’t, as it happens, and I’m not using that argument.

“Followers of Liberal Conspiracy can get their rocks off (and I’ve no doubt do) on The Killing which, in the scale of things, only attracted a tiny though vociferous audience amongst the chattering classes.”

Haven’t seen the Killing. But if it’s a work of literary merit with a fairly narrow target audience, which might not have seen the light of day if it had needed to sell itself on commercial appeal, that’s exactly the sort of thing the BBC should be showing.

“Finally and briefly, it’s unwise to judge American television by the output of the national broadcast networks. The (relative) blandness of their programming is not so much in answer to “saleability” or to the political concerns of their advertisers but is an attempt to address an enormously diverse audience ranging from the sophisticates of New York to the Mormons of Utah.”

Uh, that would be saleability.

“Certainly this approach may have led to a pursuit of an uninteresting “safe zone” in editorial terms, but this cosy consensus has been exploded by the “unsafe” approach of the Fox Network. Rupert Murdoch has been ahead of the pack, as always.”

Good for him, but it IS a problem within the industry as a whole, to hear Americans within the industry tell it.

17. Dan Factor

I want the BBC to carry on pissing off the Daily Mail with it’s “Marxist liberal anti British agenda”. It fills me with mirth everytime!

I’m a huge admirer of the BBC, and my licence fee works out at probably a penny an hour when it comes to the amount I listen to Radio 4. I’ve just been listening to the re-run of Vivat Rex on 4 Extra through I-player. It’s an astonishing piece of work – top class actors acting out top class lines with Richard Burton narrating. It’s beautifully directed and edited. I feel immensely spoiled that I can hear great actors declaiming out of my laptop. I can’t imagine any other organisation that would have produced such a piece of work. (OK, it’s a few decades old).

I would have thought I-player has added another dimension to the educational aspect of the BBC, that you can see/hear programmes at convenient times, which must suit teachers and lecturers.

What the Beeb has done historically has nurtured talent, both writing and acting. It’s a big commissioner of drama (I’m thinking more of radio than telly, which I don’t watch much). I’d like it to continue doing that. I have niggles – up-themselves presenters (I’m thinking of telly) who are paid too much; that rude bugger John Humphrys on the Today programme; slack and sometimes biassed reporting, with journalists telling us how we should feel about this and that (“things will never be the same” is the favourite ending to a harrowing news story). However the squabbles I have with it are family squabbles. It really is an institution that the Brits can be proud of.

When I see the people who complain about the BBC it’s the likes of Murodch father and son – because it doesn’t meet the price of everything, value of nothing, the market place is all ethos. Those who work for the organisation should have enough pride in it that they can swank in front of their chums that they were at uni with who now pull in killer salaries in law or banking, even if they don’t earn nearly as much.

Personally I couldn’t care less what kind of entertainment broadcasting the BBC chooses to meet audience demand.

What concerns me, what has turned me over the past couple of years from a BBC supporter to someone who sees the channel as part of the problem, not part of the solution, is the all too apparent decline in the standard of news output and the pandering to media witch-hunts.

As a disabled person involved in the fight against the Welfare Reform Bill and the ongoing demonisation of disabled people, I’ve seen coverage that all too often peaked at ‘sloppy’, and frequently slipped from that high ground to simplistic repetition of DWP press releases without any attempt to compare them to the reality. If I can, for example, tear apart DWP figures about 75% of ESA claimants being fake by demonstrating the real breakdown, based on the DWP’s own figures, and do that with no more than a few minutes work, then why is the BBC newsroom seemingly incapable of the same standard of work? Worse, I’ve seen BBC presenters leaping to the defence of government policies and openly treating pro-disability campaigners as though they were the enemy.

Then we have the pseudo-news coverage, John Humphrys attacking benefit claimants without any pretense to a balanced viewpoint, Panorama claiming disability benefit claimants who happen to sail or have a good car must be frauds, a lesson repeated day in and day out by programmes like Saints and Scroungers, and people wonder why the disability hate crime figures are rising.

What do I want from the BBC? I’d like it to treat me, and other disabled people, as valued members of society.

Yje BBC should release its back catalogue under a creative commons (or similar) license.

21. margin4error

Chaise

Thanks for the comment about advertising and the 20% of people who make up 80% of TV advertising revenue generation.

It certainly puts a different complexion on the issue of chasing raitings and chasing revenues as utterly different things.

22. Chaise Guevara

@ 21 M4E

I had a bit of a lightbulb-going-off-above-my-head moment when I first read about it. It does explain why many adverts are so blatant that it’s almost insulting: “buy our product and you will be happy/sexy/cool.”

23. margin4error

Chaise

I can see exactly what you mean.

24. Churm Rincewind

@ 22 Chaise Guevara: I don’t believe this statistic is correct, though you’re right to point out that ratings in themselves are not the be-all-and-end-all concern for advertising agencies. Audience demographics are critical – there’s no point in advertising (say) luxury cars to a daytime audience of the young and the old.

However, I’m in danger of distracting myself again from the elephant in the room which the original post avoids, which is why the BBC exists in the first place. And let’s not kid ourselves, there are many who think it should not.

The argument I was trying to make was that I believe one of the key virtues of the BBC, which would not obtain in an entirely commercial TV environment, is a commitment to educative elements in everything it does – the Reithian aim to educate, inform, and entertain (simultaneously if at all possible). That’s the grounds on which I would defend Cash in the Attic.

I am aware, however, that this is an elitist view, and would probably be shot down in flames in any “popular” debate.

Some important issues here. No 1 M4E opposes “anything that damages” the BBC. But it’s current budget points to a 20 to 40% drop in income over the coming few years. Can the new DGF do anything but “manage decline”? Greg Dyke has a very readable speech published in ourBeeb on this
http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourbeeb/greg-dyke/change-or-die-future-of-bbc

No 2 chairseG calls for the BBC to support new talent as a specific role, I agree with this a lot. It seems clear to me that there is very little new television drama on it compared to the past – and while the US produces a lot of odious viewing it also creates great TV drama

19 David g “What concerns me, what has turned me over the past couple of years from a BBC supporter to someone who sees the channel as part of the problem, not part of the solution, is the all too apparent decline in the standard of news output and the pandering to media witch-hunts.” This is based on experience and it is striking how the faults of the BBC’s current affairs coverage emerge when you know the issue.

then there is the licence fee and the rise of digital… The debate will continue intense over on ourBeeb – with Sunny ion the Steering Committee! http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourbeeb

26. Trooper Thompson

The BBC is essentially illegitimate. A television ‘licence’ is an outrage to a free society.

26

TT, that’s not quite true, you can choose not to have a television and that is pure liberalism. Other channels may not receive anthing from the tv licence but their costs are gained from adverts and the cost passed to the consumer, I can choose not to watch adverts or indeed the channels which broadcast them, but as a consumer, I will pay for them regardless, there’s no choice there.

28. Trooper Thompson

@27 steveb,

“TT, that’s not quite true, you can choose not to have a television and that is pure liberalism. ”

I don’t have a television, but there’s no way you can call a state-sanctioned quasi-monopoly in broadcasting liberal. Just imagine a similar thing for newspapers, i.e. a tax-payer funded, government-run newspaper that’s ‘impartial’ – yeah right. Such things are only normal in communist/fascist states.

I don’t see how you can make the comparison you do between the coercive licence and advertising. Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of adverts for Vauxhall cars, but I’ve never bought one, and, unlike the BBC, Vauxhall don’t send enforcers round to my door to make sure I cough up.

Advertising is part of the production cost of consumer goods. There’s not much point in making the stuff if no one knows you’ve done so.

28

I did not say that the content of the BBC programmes are liberal or impartial, I pointed-out that you were able to choose whether or not to own a television, which you have, therefore you don’t have a licence (presumably) But you are financing the advertising of products that you have not purchased, where’s the freedom there?

30. Trooper Thompson

@29

“But you are financing the advertising of products that you have not purchased, where’s the freedom there?”

Do you mean this? Surely I only pay for advertising if I buy the product, the advertising being part of the production cost. This being the case, I don’t object. I don’t have a problem with advertising in principle, although I’m no great fan of much of it.

In any case, although I have a choice not to own a television, and thus avoid the ‘licence’, this is not a free choice, but a coerced choice. I see no more justification for a television ‘licence’ than I would for a licence to own books or buy newspapers.


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  8. Anthony Barnett

    the unofficial debate on the BBC spreads from @our_Beeb to @libcon key issues haunt its brief exchanges http://t.co/i9TThROI





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