What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

October 11, 2006

Good telly: too important to leave to the BBC

What is the Lib Dems’ policy on the BBC? asks Martin Hoscik in a stimulating article on Lib Dem Voice. My answer: unthinking, conservative and wrong.

Let’s start with some liberal first principles: freedom of the individual, the democratic accountability of public institutions, and the merits of free and fair market competition in raising standards.

Which is why I am baffled by our party’s approach to public service broadcasting, with the Lib Dems passionately defending a state-run megalith, answerable only to a quango, immune from the rigours of the bottom line, and funded by a regressive poll tax.

Martin’s article explodes the myth, favoured by the Lib Dems’ culture spokesman Don Foster, that good telly is created by better regulation. However, his article perpetuates the myth that good telly has been created by the licence fee. That was not, and is not, the case.

The good telly, for which Britain is still famed, is the product of competition between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. ITV was founded in the 1950s precisely because it was recognised the danger of having a monopoly supplier of public service broadcasting. Similarly, the complacent duopoly of the BBC and ITV was broken up in the 1980s by the arrival of Channel 4, with its explicit 'minorities' remit.

Think of great drama - Brideshead Revisited, Inspector Morse, GBH - ground-breaking documentaries - 7-Up, Death on the Rock, Dispatches - cutting-edge comedy - Brass Eye, Spitting Image, Smack The Pony: all the product of commercial television. To argue that only the BBC can be entrusted to make great telly is to do a real injustice to the generations of independent producers who have helped shape our popular culture.

Yet those telly programmes are the product of a different age, an era when terrestrial channels were all there was, and when telly was the major past-time of the nation. Neither assumption now holds true.

Digital television has vastly expanded the choice available. Much of it may be what we would call ‘rubbish’ (code for ‘telly we don’t like or watch’): a lot of it isn’t. Around the world there is far more good telly being made than ever before - the vast majority of it without any state funding.

The old telly economy, which created those gems each of us fondly remembers, is dead. And yet the new economy which is emerging threatens to turn back the clock 50 years, with the BBC once again the dominant, effectively monopolistic, supplier of public service broadcasting. As advertising diminishes in line with audience share, the commercial channels have begun to chase ratings more ruthlessly than in the past: there are going to be more X-Factors, fewer South Bank Shows in the future.

The Lib Dem response to this appears to be to put all our eggs in the BBC basket: trust in the licence fee-engorged Auntie, and all will be well. It won’t be. First, because monopolies - whether public or private - are bad for the consumer, growing lazy, complacent and detached. (Yes, there are exceptions, ‘natural monopolies’ - telly isn’t one of them.)

Secondly, because the BBC is itself declining in popularity - one-fifth of 18-34 year-olds don’t tune into any BBC station in any given week. The BBC is enormously good value if you watch or listen to it regularly: it’s a rip-off if you don’t. The universal reach which justified the licence fee is soon going to become a distant memory.


And, of course, internet television is breaking through, whether in the form of YouTube or 18 Doughty Street. As close to a perfect market as you can imagine, such technology will increasingly make a mockery of the idea that you can only watch telly if you’ve paid the government a flat fee each year.

The market for telly has been transformed in the past decade. It will be even more unrecognisable in another decade’s time. And yet, perversely, the Lib Dems are attempting to hold a line on the licence fee, pretending not only that its existence will guarantee good telly, but also that it will remain politically possible. We would be better off thinking through what the broadcasting landscape will look like - and how we would wish to see it look - once the licence fee comes to an end.

This party is sometimes accused - by critics from within and without - of being little more than a glorified think-tank. Yet it’s the opposite that tends to be the case: far too often the Lib Dems are afraid to challenge received orthodoxy in how public services can best be delivered, preferring instead to stick to the trite-and-tested trick of accusing other parties of legislating or spending too much or too little (delete according to taste).

So dazzling is the broadcasting future in front of us that we seem to prefer to contemplate it facing backwards.

22 comments:

Norfolk Blogger said...

Virtually all the programs you listed as "great" were made more than five years ago.

Even Brass Eye fell foul of advertisers who ran scared. For every "great" you listed made by Channel 4 or ITV, you could name 3 from the BBC. Oh, and remember, Channel 4 is a state Broadcaster too.

Jock Coats said...

The fundamental issue I have (which I am not saying only the BBC can resolve) is that there is an absolute need for some mechanism of delivering news that is not dependent on corporate agendae. Both those of media giants and advertisers.

Do you think that regulation, the ITC and so on are enough to ensure editorial independence? Personally, I like the BBC and would sign up as a member if it became a member based organisation like a media co-op of some kind.

I do resent it being run on my behalf by some system of patronage by the great and the good. If it's "my BBC" as they say every year when it comes round to the annual report I should have an equal say and vote in it with anyone else who chooses to be a member.

MayorWatch said...

Quick response and I'll let you have more after I sleep next ;-)

Internet telly such as YouTube and 18 DS is something for the blog generation - there are a lot of people who won't be watching telly via the web for a long time, if ever.

Where I agree with you is your statement that the LF doesn't "guarantee good telly" but I'd argue it gives us a better expectation of it.

Yes the BBC is ruled by a quango but it's a rare quango because it actually produces something the public can name and because it bothers to appear before Parliament to account for past actions.

It's certainly not my position that "only the BBC can be entrusted to make great telly", indeed most of the examples I cited were from Indies and the phrase I used was "BBC produced and commissioned drama".

Anyhow, thanks for responding and putting the over the other side of the debate :-)

Stephen Tall said...

The programmes I highlighted were deliberately chosen as 'canonical'. If I'd selected BBC equivalents I'd probably have chosen (eg) I Claudius, Civilisation and BlackAdder - all at least 15 years ago.

I think it's a bit futile attempting to quantify which channel has made more, or better, telly shows. Your estimate may well be right. I'd still argue the BBC is better for having strong competitiors that keep it on its toes. The very real danger is that th licence fee is now so skewing the 'telly economy' that neither ITV nor C4 can afford to compete against the BBC. And, as I argue, that kind of monopoly situation will be bad for telly.

Jock - I like the BBC as well. I'd almost certainly subscribe to it. But it's wrong that we make other people subscribe whether they like it or not.

Stephen Tall said...

Thanks Martin.

Agree Internet telly is currently niche (so was satellite a decade ago: now even my parents have Freeview). It won't be for long.

The licence fee did give us better telly - back when it helped create a level playing field between the BBC and ITV (and C4). Now it's skewing the market, and that's bad for telly.

What redress does Parliament have if dissatisfied with the BBC? (Genuine question.)

And apologies if it seemed like I suggested your argument was about only trusting the BBC. I was referring at that point to party policy, rather than your article.

cheers, stephen

MayorWatch said...

ITV COULD compete with the BBC, they've just chosen to compete with Sky One.

ITV have pursued a policy of downsizing even since the ITV Digital fiasco - they have shed every PSB obligation they can in an attempt to take on Sky and Five.

Love Island? It has more in common with Sky's Temptation Island than Big Brother and now they plan to introduce US imports into the schedule while asking (though being refused) permission to remove Children's shows from ITV1.

Where's the innovation in their schedule?

Without the licence fee funding Freeview we'd all be forced to pay Sky or Ntl/Telewest for telly.

The poor would still be forced to pay, there would just be less control over the prices they'd pay.

MayorWatch said...

Stephen

Parliament has to approve LF settlements and charter renewals which gives it a chance to constrain or direct the BBC by imposing conditions on any settlement - it's not the BBC's fault if the MPs lack the courage to do so!

Personally I would prefer the BBC freed from direct threat of Government intervention with elections for the Trust in which all LF payers got a say.

That really would be public control!

The Cat said...

Something in that. Turn the BBC into a "mutual" ??

MayorWatch said...

Provided that mutual could never be sold, yes.

What always amuses me is how people cite digital growth/switchover as a reason for rethinking the BBC's without accepting that it was the BBC's Freeview proposition which has driven that takeup.

All the commercial sector wanted to offer were pay-TV options. Everyone would be paying for TV post switch-off had ITV Digital not gone bust.

I don't see how that would be better or fairer than the LF but I can see it would give us less control over the quality of the content.

Stephen Tall said...

The decline of ITV is indeed a sad one. But it’s not because they took a corporate decision to produce bad telly. I don’t even believe it was a conscious decision to imitate Sky One or Five either.

Partly it’s the legacy of the Thatcher Government’s botched franchise experiment, partly that ITV’s regional fragmentation mean it was too slow to respond to broadcasting changes. And partly driven by the reality that they simply cannot afford now to compete with the BBC every night.

As for ITV programmes looking too ‘samey’ - agreed. But so’s BBC1 (though not as bad, I agree). For every ITV1 Celebrity Love Island, there’s a BBC1 Celebrity Sleepover.

Agree that Freeview is one of the best things the BBC has done. To be clear: I am against monopolies, whether run by Sky or the BBC. I’, all for innovation that breaks up monopolies and introduces competition. (I suspect it would still have happened even if we didn’t have the BBC, though.)

At its simplest, my argument is this: the BBC licence fee is fair for those who want to watch the BBC. It’s deeply unfair for those who don’t. A poll tax to watch telly is an anachronism of an analogue age. It will have to go, sooner or later. Let’s start thinking about the implications of that sooner, rather than later.

Richard F said...

"The programmes I highlighted were deliberately chosen as 'canonical'. If I'd selected BBC equivalents I'd probably have chosen (eg) I Claudius, Civilisation and BlackAdder - all at least 15 years ago."

Ahh, but Stephen you COULD have also chosen "Bleak House", "Planet Earth" and "Extras" all from the BBC in the last 12 MONTHS - I'm not sure that ITV1 could provide a similar line up :)

Stephen Tall said...

True, Richard. ITV1 is floundering, stretched in too many different directions. Expected to be a commercial broadcaster producing popular programmes funded entirely by advertising, but also expected to meet expensive public service obligations on the cheap. Currently it's doing neither job well.

I could, though, have chosen Shameless, Jamie's School Dinners and Peep Show - all made by C4.

MayorWatch said...

>> At its simplest, my argument is this: the BBC licence fee is fair for those who want to watch the BBC. It’s deeply unfair for those who don’t. <<

And at its simplest - tough!

As a childless gay man I have no need for schools but I have to pay for them, that's the way taxes work and that's the problem with simple statements.

I know you claim someone would have challenged Sky's monopoly but the reality is no-one did until ITV's attempt to ape them with OnDigital failed.

Even then the majority of bids for the returned digital multiplexes were to run them on a commercial (i.e. Pay TV) basis.

The Freeview consortium of Crown Castle and BBC* made such a success of the service that ITV and Channel 4 then joined - the fact that Andy Duncan who now heads Channel 4 and took that decision - was the BBC's man on the Freeview project might be suggestive of their reasons for joining.

I'm not trying to rubbish your position but I just can't see how you arrive at your claim that something else would come along when there's no evidence to support the claim.

ITV is about to spend more money on +2 channels

http://www.itv.com/page.asp?partid=4718

the overheads of those services could have been spent on content for their main channel.

That they decided not to spend it that was suggests to me that it's not a case of them not being able to afford to invest in drama and compete with the BBC bt of them simply not wanting to.

*Sky's own execs are on record as saying their only joined and provided their 3 channels so they could keep an eye on what was being discussed and decided.

Will said...

If you needed evidence that the BBC is at the core of British cultural life, look at the amount of debate that it generates...

The BBC is probably the public service I use most of all, so I'm wary of anything that endangers it. What it has in common with Channel 4 - which is also much better than ITV1 - is being a public service broadcaster.

There will be a case for ending the licence fee and charging by usage once the government has finally forced us off analogue (not something the BBC should have to fund) and the technology exists. But at present, it remains the least worst option. Outcomes are, arguably, more important than funding regimes - which is why we would neither dogmatically oppose PFI in all circumstances, or force it on all public building projects.

I've never been a big fan of Don's "public service regulator" policy, but I'll stand behind him in defence of much of the BBC.

What could we change?
- Restrict the BBC from spreading further into areas outside its core remit. Why on Earth did the BBC get into the search engine business?
- Sell Channel 4.
- Remove all public service requirements from ITV1 so that it can compete with multi-channel television stations that have no such remit.
- Peg the licence fee to inflation and force the BBC to fund its own expansion plans in other ways.

MayorWatch said...

Will - the BBC's SE is just a reskinned Google:

http://searchenginewatch.com/showPage.html?page=2159851

and doesn't reallly carry much costs - especially given that it needs something to allow users to search BBC sites anyway.

That said I agree there are probably areas the BBC doesn't need to venture into.

Anonymous said...

A question to all of you liberals (or others).

If you took away the BBC licence fee, do any of you really believe this will be an improvement in the cultural life of this country?

The argument has been made before of course: privatise and let market forces be responsible for finding the appropriate level people want. As a result, we have railway, utility, and telecoms companies - do we though have a better quality of life or range of opportunities than before.

Why would feeding the BBC to the wolves prove any different?

Joe Taylor said...

I quite agree that the license fee has become grossly unfair - that became apparent as soon as we started having to give people means-tested free TV licenses...

I don't see any reason why we shouldn't treat the unique functions and obligations of the BBC like any other public good, and fund them from general taxation. If we accept that the license fee has to go, any other course of action would lumber the BBC (or some other provider) with a hefty unfunded mandate.

Neither do I see a reason for the Beeb being the only provider of public service content - any number of not-for-profit organisations could compete for tenders or funding.

I like Jock's idea of making the BBC a democratic member organisation. Fee-paying members could provide a mandate for making content according to their interests, just as the Government could provide a mandate for the public interest.

There could, and perhaps should, be many BBC-like organisations in such a system - but I don't expect the BBC brand to disappear given its universal recognition. (Indeed, I suspect that a lot of the clamour to preserve the BBC is really about the preservation of a brand - which is rather a hollow objective if you think about it.)

There you go - so endeth Joe's back-of-a-fag-packet policy making... ;-)

MayorWatch said...

Joe says:

"Neither do I see a reason for the Beeb being the only provider of public service content"

You've missed the point of my original article Joe!

The BBC isn't meant to be the only provider of public service content - poor regulation has allowed ITV to shed all their PSB obligations with no benefit to the viewer.

garypowell said...

As a REAL liberal and a Conservative Party member I am always still shocked how un-liberal you Liberals are.

Your policies have been BBC and media driven for so long, you dont even know what a liberal is anymore. Not only that the BBC has not got you elected to any real power and influence. Hopefully David Cameron will not have the same disapointment.

The BBC is the enemy of any liberal democracy. Why do so many of you so called liberals in 2006 not see this?

The BBC likes to pretend to be the friend of the Liberal party, but the BBC are the biggest reason why there will never be a Liberal government again in Britain.

For those of you that want to start taking personal responsibilty for YOUR nations future. May I suggest to you highly intellegent people that you either deside that you are really socialists and vote for the Labour party. Or that you are real liberals and start voteing Conservative, while we still have a democracy to vote in. PLEASE!

phil said...

MayorWatch: As a childless gay man I have no need for schools but I have to pay for them, that's the way taxes work and that's the problem with simple statements.

So are you happy that as a non-TV-owner I get BBC radio and web content without paying a penny?

Joe Taylor has it exactly right here - fund genuine public service material from general taxation (not an inefficient-to-collect poll tax) and stop using coercion to fund the rest of the BBC's TV output, which is no better than ITV or Sky.

Bullseye said...

I think there is a fairly obvious way of funding public service TV, while spreading our eggs beyond the BBC basket.

That is maintaining the license fee but opening it up the money raised to anyone who produces public service broadcasting. Why shouldn't anyone be allowed to bid for funds to produce quality TV, broadcast or internet - instead of guaranteeing to fund whatever the BBC happens to decide it wants to air.

garypowell said...

Bullseye
I like that idear. It must however be funded by some kind of voluntary non force funded system, and must involve the closing down of the BBC ASAP. This to conform with any type of liberal thinking. It is about time that all liberal thinking people especialy those that call themselves Liberals gained some balls and started doing what it "says on the tin."Or we will all deserve what we WILL get.