On The BBC, Rupert Murdoch And Democracy


“The BBC licence fee stops people doing what they should be doing which is exercising their freedom.” David Elstein BBC Today Programme Thurs 10 Sep 2009

Elstein is here equating the exercising of consumer choice with freedom; that being free to choose between different commercial television channels is a significant exercising of a citizen’s freedom. I’m not sure Watt Tyler, The Levellers, The Chartists, The victims of Peterloo, The Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragettes would be too convinced by this debased representation of the political freedoms they fought and often died for.

It’s not even certain that if the BBC were to be privatised or dismantled, as Elstein and the free-marketeers urge, that it would result in the proliferation of choice that Elstein’s staement implies. Will Hutton in his Observer piece, The Threat Of Monopoly, (12-09-10) predicts that if News International is successful in its plan to acquire 100% ownership of BSkyB this year, it could own and control over 50% of the British media by the middle of the next decade. Hutton describes this as representing “the single largest concentration of media power in any large democracy.” This year Sky’s revenue’s were £5.9 billion with the BBC coming it at mere £3.6 billion, mainly, though not exclusively from the licence fee.

The internal logic of Capitalism leads inevitably to monopoly, and monopolies undermine one of the primary moral justifications for capitalism i.e. that free markets necessarily lead to equality of opportunity and the freedom to choose from a plurality of life choices. For this reason every advanced capitalist country in the world has felt it necessary to introduce legislation specifically designed to prevent the consolidation of businesses into monopolies (i.e. In the USA monopolies are regulated by the Anti-Trust Laws and in the UK the Competition Commission).

The monopolistic tendencies of News International demonstrate clearly that Elstein’s implied proposition that the alternative to the BBC is a diverse media representing a wide range of owners and thus a plurality of political and cultural points of view is idealistic & naïve at best; at worst an ideologically motivated lie.

But it gets worse; News International’s notorious founder and owner, Rupert Murdoch, was born an Australian and is now a naturalised citizen of the USA. He is not eligible to vote in the UK and never has been. Yet he is perhaps the single most powerful political figure in the UK today. But he’s not powerful because of his intellect, compassion, political philosophy, contribution to humanity or even his considerable business skills; lets face it if his business had been, say, steel or pharmaceuticals, his wealth and influence would surely have been felt in Whitehall but no more than any other leading industrialist. No, Rupert Murdoch is powerful because he controls a significant share of UK television and newspapers and does not shrink from using those instruments in the furtherance of his own interests. Murdoch has a direct line to all British Prime Ministers because in the last 30 years no election has been won without the support of Murdoch’s UK media empire. Henry Porter in a sister article to Will Hutton’s in the Observer points out that “Blair’s deputy director of communications, Lance Price, called Rupert Murdoch “the 24th member of cabinet” and “that no big decisions could be made inside No 10 without taking into account…..Murdoch’s reaction.”

In a democracy this should be a truly shocking revelation! That a non-elected, non-resident, non-voter with not even a genealogical link to the UK should be so central to our political decision making, profoundly undermines even the pretence that our country is governed “by the people, for the people.”

One of the specific ways Murdoch intervenes in British political life is the perpetual campaign mounted by News International media against the BBC. But News International are careful not to attack the BBC on purely commercial grounds, their self-interest would be too transparent for even the apparently purblind British electorate. So the argument is couched in political terms appealing to a Cold War rhetoric of freedom and democracy. The argument goes something like this: the BBC as a “state broadcaster”, funded by a compulsory tax, unfairly undermines the well-meaning and hardworking media folk who only wish to provide the public with the programmes they really deserve through the operation of the free market, and as a fee market is a precondition of a free society and the BBC undermines that market thus the BBC undermines the freedom of the British public – hence the Elstein quote that we started with.

But I would argue that the intervention of Rupert Murdoch’s News international in this entirely domestic and essentially cultural rather than economic debate, far from demonstrating the evil of the BBC actually demonstrates why citizens in a free democratic country need to fear the reactionary and anti-democratic tendencies of capital just as much as the totalitarian tendencies of the state

A free press is seen as central to the concept of liberal representative democracy. To be able to judge whether candidates are competent and share the moral values of a voter, the voter has to be have access to a truthful account of the competency and moral values of the candidates. They also have to have a truthful account of the theoretical and practical context within which the elected representative is going to have to operate.

For democracy to be meaningful we have to have an informed electorate.

One of the principle ways despots and tyrants control populations is by controlling information. The tyrant selectively educates the population to believe that the tyrant is all-powerful, all knowing and always benevolent. The population thinking they are informed support the tyrant and indeed if what they are being told were in fact true, they would be right to do so. {The point being that the electorate are not stupid but they need to have access to information in order to make informed judgements.]

In the post WWII UK, news and comment, including political & social documentaries, were seen, especially by the BBC, as part of the process of building an informed electorate. Impartial news and comment was seen as a public service, as important to a modern functioning democratic society as a secure power supply.

A public discourse that aspired to impartiality and justice was seen as a common good that should be pursued even if it pursuing it contradicted the apparent direction of the popular free market.

After the eco-political revolution of 1979 (Thatcher & Reagan) the free market came to be seen as the only way to deliver the ‘common good’ and in the West news and comment became part of the market led entertainment industry. The entertainment industry is driven firstly (only?) by profit and thousands of years of experience shows us that profit in the entertainment industry is delivered most reliably by spectacle, scandal and, above all, sex!

So over the last 30 years we have seen a fundamental shift in the motivating concepts that underlie the production of news and comment. Today news organisations are trying to provide entertainment, to give the audience what they want, which broadly speaking is spectacle, scandal and sex.

The democratic objectives of a free press, namely to keep the electorate informed and educated about the activities of the political elite in order that the individual voter has sufficient information to make an informed choice about who to elect as their representative, has been almost completely undermined by this free market idealogy.

Indeed, it has gone further than this. In the USA the Fox News network (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International) is subverting the public service values of objectivity and justice in the most blatantly cynical way. That Fox News can have the words “Fair & Balanced” as its strap-line should be truly shocking to anyone who believes in the democratic process because far from being “fair & balanced’ Fox News is perhaps the most partisan news organisation in the world. This in itself is not a problem; a variety of partisan sources of information is not in itself anti-democratic. What is truly sinister is the cynical, Orwellian hijacking of the moral values of public service broadcasting to hide the partisan nature of Fox from its own viewers; to suggest that the often highly controversial and sectarian views portrayed by the channel are mainstream.

Under a free market ideology it is very difficult to challenge Fox because values of objectivity & balance are public service values and the owners of Fox can, and do, argue that Fox News as a commercial organisation has no duty other than to provide a profit to it’s owners (ultimately Rupert Murdoch) and that if it is as bad as it’s critics claim viewers will turn off and thus the market will force it to give the audience what they want. This disingenuous argument is undermined by Fox News’ use of the words “fair & balanced” which cynically appeal to the tradition of public service broadcasting and a responsible press and are deliberately aimed at disguising from the audience the truly partisan nature of fox’s content.

The very concept of public service broadcasting was invented in the UK by the founders of the BBC – the very organisation Murdoch and the free-marketeers now wish to destroy. At the centre of the Reithian culture of the BBC are concepts of ‘objectivity & balance’; which means that where matters of opinion are being expressed they should clearly be identified as such and that no attempt should be made to confuse matters of opinion with matters of fact.

In most commercial media – especially Fox News – this is not the case. Many commercial media outlets adopt an aggressively partisan approach to issues of news & comment. Commercially this is a perfectly rational approach, part of the branding process and how a media business places themselves in the market, relative to their competitors, but it often results in matters of opinion being deliberately and consistently confused with matters of fact.

This means in effect that in a purely commercial media market no single media outlet can be trusted to be telling the truth. Under such a system if a member of the electorate wishes to become genuinely informed they would have to read all the different papers and watch all the different news programmes and then spend an unfeasible amount of time and intellectual energy assessing the value of competing claims from the different partisan sources. However, in reality this wouldn’t take long because due to the monopolistic tendencies inherent in markets, there wouldn’t really be any difference between the perspectives of the various different media sources – they would all be peddling the same line.

So far from the BBC being a threat to freedom in the UK, the BBC acts as a trusted source of independent political and commercial news & comment that is vital to an informed electorate.

The BBC is not a State Broadcaster in any familiar meaning of the phrase and right from the beginning has irritated governments of both left and right by aspiring to report the news from a neutral standpoint. Back in 1926 Reith himself famously came into conflict with the government during the General Strike when the BBC doggedly reported all sides of the story and broadcast interviews with both ministers and trade union leaders. More recently Margaret Thatcher famously regarded the BBC as a hotbed of leftists and homosexuals and Alistair Campbell’s attacks on the BBC led to the resignation of Director General, Greg Dyke.

Far from being a state broadcaster the BBC is in fact a service paid for by the users. The state as such is not involved. Parliament, the legislators have created a legal framework that enables the BBC to collect a fee from everyone who has a TV. The licence fee is not a compulsory tax, it is not even collected by the government it is collected by the BBC. Incidentally, Sky has a similar right to collect a fee from everyone who has a Sky satellite dish.

The government’s involvement is only to set the rate of the fee – to act on behalf of the citizen to limit the Licence Fee to that which is reasonable and effective.

So the BBC is not just free of state control it is also free from market control.

The logic of markets is not, as is often claimed, that markets provide people with what they want and need, on the contrary markets provide people with what they can afford. Quality products almost always cost more to produce and under a free market system they naturally cost more. Thus only the wealthy have genuine choice under an exclusively free market system. Historically, the perception that wealth and poverty were often not a result of just desert led to the egalitarian idea that we should progressive taxation to provide more choices to the poor. To employ TV journalists to investigate thoroughly and report diligently costs a great deal of money and there is no guarantee that the market could indeed support such activity at a price that the mass of the population could afford. The BBC is an attempt to provide such services to both rich and poor alike.

But it is not only through news and current affairs that the BBC contributes to the democratic life of British citizens; the cultural impact of the organisation has always been, and still is, profound. Just as the National Health Service delivers health care free at the point of delivery so the BBC delivers culture free at the point of reception – and I don’t just, or even, mean “high culture”, I am using culture here in the widest sociological or anthropological sense to mean all the ways citizens of a democratic society use to communicate and explore with each other the shared values that make social living possible. On the BBC this includes the most popular forms of music, art, drama, variety, entertainment, comedy, poetry, dance and literature.

Without access to, and an understanding of, our own history and culture how can we regard ourselves as fully informed democratic citizens? For example in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s the political agenda of both left & right was profoundly influenced by social realist representations of the working class in British TV drama and comedy; for a member of the electorate to be entirely excluded from these representations would have been to be excluded from significant information that was informing the political discourse.

In the USA there has been a revolution in the quality of TV drama driven by the subscription channel HBO, which has produced such ground-breaking hit shows as The Sopranos, Sex In The City and Six Feet Under. But in the USA these shows are only available to those who can afford a HBO subscription, which comes in a bundled programme costing over $80 a month, or $1,000 a year. Even if you separate the HBO cost out it is about $14 a month, which is about £10 or £120 a year for ONE channel. Vast numbers of the population of the USA, perhaps even the majority, are excluded from watching HBO because they simply can’t afford it. So what? The free-marketeers would cry, it’s only TV! But as every leader of political coup knows TV is not “just TV”, it’s the primary vehicle through which societies define themselves and at least some level of equal access has to be available for a democratic society to be genuinely democratic.

On this side of the pond, the BBC licence fee is £142 a year for 4 TV channels, 8 national radio stations, numerous local radio stations and an archive free to non-commercial users. It is this cheap because everyone pays it; everyone pays it and everyone, rich and poor, benefits.

Elstein’s suggestion that a BBC, independent from government, committed to a reliable, objective and balanced news & current affairs service and producing hundreds of hours of the highest quality documentaries, drama, comedy and entertainment, is undermining British democracy is simply laughable.

It is certainly true that the existence of the BBC makes it more difficult for commercial despots like Rupert Murdoch to dominate the democratic and cultural life of our nation, but frankly I’d pay the licence fee just for that, let alone the programmes.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

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2 responses to “On The BBC, Rupert Murdoch And Democracy

  1. A very interesting if depressing piece. In my lifetime I have seen Thatcher’s words made reality..
    There IS NO such thing as SOCIETY
    There IS NO such thing as CITIZENS
    There IS the MARKET
    There ARE CONSUMERS.
    BARROWBOYS RUN THE WORLD.

  2. Marilyn. Great to hear from you. But don’t be depressed let’s fight the fight. Let’s stop them destroying the BBC.

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