Patient Name: British Broadcasting Corporation
Diagnosis: Chronic Institutional Atrophy
Remedy: Lifeblood Source Replacement & Drastic Surgery
Imagine if the state dictated that you’re allowed to undertake your groceries shopping on, and only on, the following model. You can shop at whichever groceries supplier you like, be it Waitrose, Tesco, Asda, Lidl or any other supermarket group: but to be allowed to do so at all, you’re required by law, on pain of arrest, prosecution and fine/imprisonment if you fail to comply, to purchase an annual shopping licence costing a flat £145, regardless of your income, from just one groceries supplier, Sainsbury’s – even though you don’t shop there and have no wish to.
It sounds authoritarian and regressive almost to the point of ludicrousness, doesn’t it? Yet it’s on precisely this model that the right to receive any television signal from any supplier is distributed in the UK – via the reception licence fee levied by the sole state-favoured supplier that is the BBC, in effect a compulsory regressive tax extracted from the population, irrespective of whether they want or consume the BBC’s product or not.
The model of quasi-state broadcaster funded by the compulsory taxation of the audience feels closer to 1950s Cuba or North Korea than anything else, and deserves abandonment in favour of a more market-oriented funding method on those grounds alone. But in addition to that, time and technology have outstripped its underlying assumption of one, limited-output broadcaster. We have the ability to watch hundreds of TV and thousands of radio channels, on conventional computers, tablets or smartphones, in the home or outside it, whether in one place or travelling. The BBC licence fee is anachronistic to the point of obsolescence, and needs replacement with a subscription or pay-per-view/listen regime, so that output becomes responsive principally to market demand and consumers can express their preferences through the price signals system.
All this has been true for some time: but the need now to address it urgently has been brought dramatically to the front of our thinking by the utter debacle engulfing the BBC over the hideously flawed journalism and governance revealed by the Jimmy Savile and McAlpine scandals. So let’s just park the funding issue to one side for a moment and concentrate on the behemoth itself.
It’s possible to detect, both in the ether of the twittersphere/blogosphere and in the prints, the distinct effort of all the proponents of the status quo, ranging from liberal-inclined Conservatives through various shades and degrees of Leftism to the hard-Left, recovering from their initial shock, to argue fiercely for an only minimalist approach to resolving the BBC problem. A few sacrificial heads must roll, a couple of layers of convoluted management structure must be compressed, goes the argument, but once that’s done, the Great National Treasure that is the BBC can sail on with its mission as before, suitably chastened but now wisely aware of the need for more rigour.
That argument fails on several levels. To deal with only two, even the BBC’s most ardent cheerleaders are acknowledging reluctantly that it has become far too big and unwieldy an organisation to be controlled effectively on its current management model, while Lord Patten’s stumbling, unconvincing performances as Chairman of the BBC Trust over the past three days have surely cemented the long-held suspicion that, far from being a watchdog on behalf of the licence-payers, the BBC Trust has become a defensive barrier and apologist for the flaws of the BBC itself.
What the BBC needs is drastic reform to make it suitable for a 21st century society. Take the issue of market dominance, against which the BBC rails with outraged righteousness when it’s enjoyed by a profit-making private concern like Tesco or Shell. The BBC loves, aided by its fellow-travellers in the left-leaning Press, to propagate the myth that News International represents an unacceptable threat of too much power residing in one news organisation: after all, it has a 30% market share of newspapers, as well as controlling 6% of TV news, 7% of online news, and 0% (yes, 0%) of radio news. The BBC itself, though, controls 70% of TV news, 60% of radio news, and 40% of online news. Which organisation would you say enjoyed media market dominance?
Or take the thorny subject of the BBC’s institutional bias. That the BBC has an underlying cultural bias towards Leftist positions in most areas should be such a non-contentious statement that it requires no amplification: but for the record, it’s unfailingly and uncritically enthusiastic towards statism, Keynesianism, Big Government, Islamism, Palestine, the euro, EU supranationalism, Greenism, and heavily progressive taxation, and profoundly and dismissively hostile towards any antithesis of those positions, as well as viscerally contemptuous of any views from the libertarian or libertarian-inclined Conservative end of the political spectrum. Ironically, the best documenters of this are some of its more distinguished former stars. And the bias isn’t restricted to its news and current affairs coverage, but pervades its entire output.
We should take a look at its attitude towards exposure of its pro-Palestine and anti-Israel partisanship. In 2004 it commissioned what’s become known as the Balen Report into its alleged bias in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. That report has never seen the light of day, widely assumed to be because its conclusions supported the accusations of systemic bias: and moreover, from that day to this, the BBC has spent about £0.35m of licence-payers’ money battling to keep from it seeing the light of day. Not, you might think, the most appropriate use of your and my money.
Or, alternatively, take the subject of climate change, on which the BBC has for years been such an unapologetic proselytiser for the Green Religion, and condescendingly dismissive of any contrary opinion. In 2006, though, it held a seminar at which the conclusion was reached that the state of scientific consensus was such that any even pretence of impartiality on the subject could be abandoned. Yet since then it’s been vociferous in its refusal to disclose who attended that seminar, what advice they gave, and on what peer-reviewed science it was based. Once again, the lawyers have benefited mightily, and once again, we licence-payers have footed the bill.
In the above case, the Tribunal seems to have ruled that the BBC is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, because it’s a “private organisation”. Which prompts the question: if it’s a private organisation, how come it has the statutory power to extract £145 pa from you and me, regardless of whether we want to consume its product?
See update Tuesday 13 November below
Any media outlet is going to have an editorial stance which informs and guides its coverage. But the BBC ought to be an exception, firstly because of its uniquely privileged position in both its dominant market share and its tax-extractive, alternative-denying, funding model, and secondly because of the balance and impartiality requirements built into its Charter. Those checks on it have clearly failed, though, and the way in which BBC over the years succumbed to cognitive bias, or what the French more accurately term déformation professionelle, exacerbated its abuse of its special position, leading to a defensive institutional atrophy.
The solution must be to break it up, both because of its sheer unwieldiness and unmanageability, and because the current model is demonstrably unfit for purpose – if that involves drastic surgery and the odd minor amputation, so be it – and make its funding a voluntary purchase by the consumer. If it’s as good value and as much loved as the BBC claims it is, then it will have no trouble procuring the willing revenue in replacement for the compulsory licence fee.
My absolute preference would be a pay-per-programme-view model – if you watch, then you pay, and if you don’t pay, then you don’t watch. I suspect though, that it probably needs to be split into several discrete packages under different managements, including a much more limited, but genuine and truly apolitical, public service broadcast element which I’d happily pay for, provided it separated into a completely different package the ratings-chasing replication of reality shows and soaps that commercial TV already provides. I’d also even be prepared to pay for Radio 4 and the World Service, some of whose less popular coverage, freed from the institutional bias, can be outstanding. And if the bias creeps back, well, we just stop paying if we don’t like it, don’t we?
One area missed out from much of current commentary is local radio. At present, the BBC’s economies of scale through market dominance, plus its frequency/bandwidth allocation, give it a huge advantage in local radio, which can act as a barrier to entry to alternative, more nimble, competitors. The BBC’s local radio stations should therefore become semi-independent, but, crucially, self-financing subsidiaries, competing for listener custom with their private local counterparts: why this should not involve a mix of electronic payment subscription, for which the technology certainly exists, plus a modicum of advertising revenue, is not immediately obvious.
As City AM’s Allister Heath suggests today, the regulatory remit of OFCOM must be extended to the slimmed-down, more customer-responsive BBC of the 21st Century, whose own governance structures need drastic reform. The BBC Trust certainly needs to be abolished, having signally failed to safeguard either the interests of the licence-payers or the integrity of the Charter: it is difficult to see what advantage it, or even a replacement, can provide over a properly constituted and accountable board of directors overseeing flatter and less bureaucratic, but more journalistically attuned, management structures.
The BBC has inadvertently, but through its own failings, juddered almost to a halt at an historic crossroads: we should not hesitate to correct its increasingly faltering progress, and send it towards the future better equipped to serve 21st Century Britain.
UPDATE – TUESDAY 13 NOVEMBER
Well – entirely fortuitously, but within hours of the post going up, what should emerge but, thanks to the determined efforts of Mauritzio Morabito, the full details of just who attended the BBC’s infamous “the science is settled, so we can abandon even any pretence of impartiality on climate change and global warming” seminar in January 2006. And little did we realise just what a scandal it would turn out to be.
For not merely was the seminar not graced with the “best scientific advice available”, as the BBC falsely claimed: it was hardly provided with any specialised scientific advice at all. Present were just three scientists not sceptical about the CO2 theory of anthropogenic global warming, and none whatsoever from the sceptical side of the debate. The rest were a motley collection of politically-committed Green-Left activists, advocacy directors, charities and rent-seekers from Big Green Business.
Looking down the list, you might ask yourself what on earth a senior executive from the Global Environmental Assets Team – whatever that is – from the Department for International Development was doing there. Was there Government complicity in the BBC’s decision to transform itself into, in effect, the broadcasting arm of Greenpeace? Given the increases in domestic energy bills which UK consumers have had to suffer to subsidise costly and inefficient Green energy, that’s a question which should be answered.
Look too, down the list of BBC attendees. You might recognise some of the names, for they’ve been very much in the news lately: mostly though, for having to “step aside” because of their decision to suppress the story revealing the BBC’s failure to confront Jimmy Savile’s 25 years organised paedophilia on the premises, while deciding to run the story smearing a senior political figure with paedophilia on scant and mistaken evidence.
And remember – the BBC fought tooth and nail for over 6 years, using your and my money, to stop us finding out. Rarely can a broadcasting organisation have so deliberately decided to compromise its integrity and become such a biased, partisan advocate for such a controversial cause. You’ll notice that the vast majority of the calls for the BBC not to be broken up, or the licence fee not to be scrapped, are coming from the Liberal-centrist to hard-Left range of the political spectrum, across which the Green position on climate change is accepted uncritically. If we had even the tiniest sliver of doubt before as to why this might be, there’s no room for it now. The BBC needs to be in that operating theatre for drastic surgery before the end of this week.