Friday, 15 July 2011

Plurality Does Not Mean a Bigger BBC

I'm all for plurality, hate monopolies (either private or taxpayer-funded) and have no fondness for Rupert Murdoch and his grubby little media empire, so welcome their semi-enforced withdrawal from the BSkyB takeover as much as anyone. Part of me hopes that this acts as a watershed moment, with an opportunity to re-establish the separation and independence of the media, parliament and the judiciary. Fear of press and broadcast tycoons over the last two decades has often neutered our politicians against standing up to them where it was necessary, and this may be the once in a generation shot at redressing the imbalances that have grossly distorted the power held by a few wealthy individuals.

However, I can't help but think that in time, the statists will contrive to resume normal service, since they seem to enjoy the positive press, the private parties and their shameless sycophancy towards the Murdochs of this world every bit as much as the moguls get off on their power fix. In many ways this was a mutually rewarding relationship and serves to illustrate that whatever walk of life you're talking about, the megalomaniacs and their disciples need each other in reality. For once Ed Miliband was right when he described this week's events as "a victory for the British people", but at the risk of spoiling the party I'm already accepting that it may well have been a brief one. The BSkyB takeover will be back on the table in a year or two, and will be waved through by a government seeking the sort of press they (rightly or wrongly) believe gets you re-elected. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys...

Nor do I have any confidence that this would have been the outcome were it not for the manner in which the general population expressed their widespread disgust about phone-hacking and intrusions into personal privacy. That "it was the people what won it" is good news for this bunny on two counts. First up, it might put the issue of civil liberties back on the political radar at least for a short time - even if it doesn't enable the pendulum to be swung back in that direction away from the police state imposed in the name of 'security' then there is still the hope that things won't get any worse than they are for a few years. In the current climate, those of us committed to the notion of personal liberty should probably take any small comfort from whetever direction.

The most important lesson of all this is, or at least ought to be that we can enable change to be implemented without politicians. Part of me really admires the French attitude towards civil disobedience, even if some of the motivations for their kicking off in the first instance can be described as deeply misguided on occasions. It becomes apparent sometimes that the "mustn't grumble" nature of the 'British stiff upper-lip' has enabled the bullying and manipulation of the statist to flourish in this country far more than it would have done were we just a tad more in touch with our anarchic side. I'm hoping that this is the shot in the arm that the rest of us need with regard to expressions of political conscience. I'm not talking riots in the streets here, but boycotting products, taking your money elsewhere and some forms of civil disobedience have a far more profound effect than writing to your member of parliament ever could. I still remember the sight of Blair visibly shitting himself on TV during the fuel blockade and think "yeah, we should do that again sometime".

But there's something I've noticed in the last couple of days amid the 'non-partisan' anti-News Corp atmosphere that smacks of political opportunism. Some Labour MPs appear to be hailing this as "Auntie's revenge", as if sucking up to Murdoch and freezing the BBC budget were somehow two sides of a malignant coin. This is a highly disingenuous and dangerous argument, but I'm worried that with Miliband's stock rising this week (from a low base it should be said), many people might just fall for it. There is no justification for the behaviour of successive governments seeking to court the approval of News Corp, and you're certainly not going to find one here. But how we deal with the BBC is an entirely separate issue. In reality. the licence fee was subjected to a two year freeze in a climate where other areas of public expenditure were on the end of substantial cuts - from where I'm stood that sounds like a pretty generous settlement.

Hey, I'm happy enough with what I get for £145.50 a year and personally don't see it as a rip-off once this is weighed up against the fact that I also shell out £10 a month for the solitary channel of ESPN. The problem from a personal angle is not the cost, but that is extracted from the licence fee payer by force on threat of imprisonment. I appreciate that some readers may just feel wholly ripped off as a result of paying for Television and Radio programmes that they never watch. The solution is simple - an optional licence fee. If those of us that are happy enough with what we have eventually find ourselves in a minority to the point where the BBC is unworkable and has to close, then that's the market at its best. The uninterested can simply have their BBC channels scrambled and find their televisual information or entertainment elsewhere.

Another cringeworthy moment came when Ben Bradshaw took the opportunity to argue for more sporting events to be returned to the 'protected list' that can only be shown on terrestrial television. Of course this puts the BBC in an artificially inflated position, and while again I've no real qualms with what sports coverage the Beeb currently has (although why they show bowls but not boxing escapes me), who the Premier League, ECB, Hatton Promotions and the PDC choose to sell their product to is entirely their business. There is of course a balance to be struck between the greater immediate revenue of Sky and the mass audience of terrestrial channels that will attract the next generation of fans. Whether the ECB in particular have always got this judgement call right is a debatable issue, but the argument that the State should be making these decisions on their behalf should not be allowed to thrive simply as a result of justified anti-Murdoch sentiment.

It would be disappointing if the need for plurality became an excuse to increase the size and scope of the BBC and its cultural bias. In the 21st century, the notion of what Public Service Broadcasting actually is has become more difficult to define, and this usually means that the term has been stripped of what relevance it once had by a changing world. That Murdoch and his empire have been the bad guys in this episode should not mean that we must don the Beeb with a shiny new halo, falsely holding up their left-leaning PC stances as beacons of broadcasting virtue. The notion that Aunty 'protects' us from anything is surely dead, and I just hope that Statists don't get the chance to revive this particular corpse.


  1. Public Service Broadcasting is not difficult to define, it is completely impossible. The public cannot possibly be served by being forced to pay for state owned media.

    Licencing is just a euphemism for tax. The BBC needs to be sold. Its new owners can then decide whether to fund it by subscription, advertising, sponsorship, fees or combinations of these things.

    I was very pleased that some BBC journalists went on 24 hour strike today. Most people will not have noticed, but those who have might just decide to look for their news from ITN, CNN, Al Jazeera, Sky, CNBC and the host of other suppliers including many thousands of sources on the Internet. If they normally get their current affairs information solely from the BBC they might just notice that it is a very partial view and good information depends on genuinely plural sources.

    State broadcasters are the tools of tyrannies. In a free society there is no possible case for the government to have any role whatever in the media.