They hate the BBC because it has concrete standards. Or, perhaps, it may be increasingly accurate to say that it had them.
Even the slightly tarnished reputation though, the BBC is beyond compare – and this is why the press – those who see themselves as the BBC’s rivals – are at their most poisonous and demagogic when they attack the Beeb.
The BBC represents the thinking of metropolitan elites – smartass folks who think we are descended from Monkeys. It is antithetical to the politics of its most vocal critics, not on the grounds that it’s taken sides in an intellectual argument, but that it fetishises the application of reason and intellect to a problem over the prejudices of angry losers.
However, the most dangerous line of attack is always a market-based one – one that has a superficial logic to it. A logic that often attracts people who would otherwise be sympathetic to the BEEB. It has two key elements;
- It is illiberal to compel people to pay a licence fee
- The BBC distort the workings of the market that would otherwise be benign.
The first point is absolutely correct – in the same way that it would be correct to say that it is illiberal to compel people to pay a tax. But today, only ultra-conservative fanatics would argue this – and politically, ultra-conservative fanatics no longer even need to be included in discussions any more.
The second point is both wrong and irrelevant. Let us first look at why it’s irrelevant before showing why it is wrong as well – just to be sure:
When you get this kind of ultra-economic analysis, you know that its authors are long on logic and very short on context and their assumptions.
I can understand the argument that the motor industry (to take an example at random) should not be subsidised. Why protectionism is not in the interests of humanity as a whole. That it is inefficient and unjust. I’d even agree with it more than the tossers who flew in to Washington in their Lear Jets to beg for a handout yesterday do.
On an even more clear-cut case, there is no rational objection to Europeans importing 100% of their rice from Asia (if indeed they do). But importing 100% - or even the majority of their TV content from the United States would be a different matter, surely?
To some extent, you can see what TV schedules would look like by scanning the offering of your local multiplex cinema tonight. Nearly all films that are either US-oriented or some transatlantic fudge at best.
Also, look at the importance of the industry. In human terms, TV and radio alone are absolutely vast. On average, the UK citizen spends six hours a day consuming radio and TV’s output.
The importance to our democracy is huge. The importance to our culture is huge – UK produced content is a glue that holds the country together in many ways. And I’ve already outlined why it is politically important that we have a broadcasting ecology that has to meet agreed standards. Compare Sky News in the UK and Fox News in the US if you don’t believe me about the benefits of UK regulation.
They may be vastly important in human terms, but as an industry, it is fairly small. Patrick Barwise of the London Business School points out that it is a £12bn industry – a mid-sized one that is dwarfed by the telecoms sector that OfCOM also regulates.
We have a debate on broadcasting and radio that the government has allowed to be dominated by economists who think that TV can be reguated in the same way that telephones are. These people should only be a sideshow. The systemic damage to the UK of running a broadcasting industry that is tainted by protectionism is minimal – while the consequences of not doing so would be to threaten an industry upon which so much hangs.
The question of how much of our disposable income we spend on the licence fee – the supposed injustice of a non-progressive ‘tax’ is fairly irrelevant given the relatively small amount concerned, and the relative importance of the product. And nine-out-of-ten of the people who bleat about this will never complain about regressive taxation at any other time!
The words ‘relatively’ and ‘relative’ are bearing a lot of weight in that last paragraph. We are talking about the relative difference between a dormouse and an elephant here. But seeing as the BBC’s critics wouldn’t acknowledge a point unless it was nailed through the middle of their forehead, let’s do just that now in the forlorn hope that it'll register:
The presence of the BBC – and to a lesser extent Channel 4 – does not distort a 'benign' market equilibrium. This is because economics of broadcasting are very unusual. In most spheres of industry there is (or perhaps, there was?) an assumption that 'public' is inefficient and expensive, while ‘private’ is bustling, busy, and lean. In broadcasting, the absolute opposite is the case.
The cost-per-viewer-hour of BBC content is very significantly less than that of pay TV. This problem is compounded by the fact that the only way that pay-TV can bring money into the industry is through advertising or subscription.
In the absence of the BBC and C4, if you have to pay more for more expensive TV, you will have to increase the subscription significantly because TV advertising is not only in slow decline, it also can’t be increased (in revenue terms) by making more time available to it across the board.
More channels = less revenue for most of them (particularly ITV and C4 in the UK’s case). So advertising funded TV is in long term systemic decline. And does lightly regulated Pay-TV defy the gravitational pull and actually make programmes? Hard-hitting documentaries? Drama? Kids TV? No. It doesn’t.
It doesn’t at the moment, and it is an ideological fantasy that it ever will. Sure, Pay-TV generates significant revenues. But they go largely to a few football clubs, players and agents (many of whom are not UK based, if we’re arguing about whether the cash goes into indigenous content).
Any profit maximising pay-TV operator in their right mind will much prefer to source imported content because it's a great deal cheaper, massively less risky, and usually of quite a high quality in itself. US-originated content is also designed to create a more attractive context for advertisers, so it delivers the consumers to those who are prepared to pay to reach them.
It will never generate revenue for UK-based producers. Neither will it provide a universal service. If the BBC were scrapped, a profit-maximising Sky would have a highly expensive ‘premium’ service for a small wealthy minority, and a standard service that would be out of the financial reach of the poorest sections of the population.
So here it is. Get rid of the BBC and you can say goodbye to any noticeable level of locally produced programmes – drama, documentary, kids TV and news programming. The democratic damage will be incalculable in a state where public service broadcasting has filled the gap left by our lack of bicameralism. You also increase the vocal range of a bunch of very thick seedy right-wing blokes that wouldn’t know news or comment standards if they were to bite their knackers off.
The BBC has enemies. It's time that this was acknowledged. And it's time that the majority of people who wouldn't want these demogogic sad-sacks to increase their influence to take sides.