Why The British Left Must Defend The BBC


11990440_1640492809532611_1240830817248301211_nThe new BBC 10 year Charter is scheduled to be in place by end of 2016. As part of the negotiations for this Charter renewal it was announced in July that the BBC had agreed to take on the £600-750 million cost of providing the over-75’s with free TV Licences. Thus the BBC Director General, Tony Hall, has in effect agreed to a 20% cut in BBC spending over the 10 years of the Charter (the BBC line is that it is actually only a 10% cut.) – while allowing the government to pretend they are continuing to support the BBC by increasing the licence fee in line with inflation. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33414693

But it was clear from the Media Show special on R4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06kc96f that the ‘deal’ the BBC thought it had done is not in fact a done deal, and the BBC have been manipulated by the government into accepting the responsibility for paying for free licences for over -75’s but in return have been ‘guaranteed’ nothing.

The threats to the BBC in this round of negotiations can be summarised as:

  • Massive cuts to funding by freezing the licence fee and/or imposing costs on the BBC such as the pensioners free licences. Highly likely.
  • An instruction to the BBC to radically reduce the quantity and range of services it provides in order to open up aspects of the market to the commercial competitors – this could be as a result of (i) above and/or an aim it’s own right.
  • A change to remit of the BBC restricting it to certain types of non-commercial ‘public service’ outputs – this could be an inevitable consequence of (i) & (ii) above and/or an aim it’s own right.
  • The end of the licence fee and the establishing of a ‘public service broadcasting’ fund, which would force the BBC to become a completely commercial subscription service OR a tiny public service only broadcaster. Extremely unlikely… this time.

This article discusses some of the economic and political ideas that underpin the BBC Charter renewal negotiations.


We have now entered an official period of public consultation on the 2016 BBC Charter renewal and the rest of the world looks on in disbelieve as we publicly question the efficacy and legitimacy of the BBC. Because the reality is that the experience of watching television almost anywhere in the world, including the USA, is vastly inferior to the UK; programmes are infinitely fractured by advertising, there is a complete blurring of the distinction between advertising and programme content, programme content is relentlessly ‘dumbed down’, schedules are completely dominated by ‘cheap’ programming such as chat shows, game shows and US imports. And the institution that makes the UK so different is the BBC.

The Federation of Entertainment Unions has instigated the Love It Or Lose It: Save the BBC campaign that seeks to protect the BBC as a collectively owned cultural institution. Much to our surprise the campaign has met with widespread indifference and even hostility, from many on the Left. This anti-BBC sentiment we have encountered seems to based on the belief that the BBC has a malevolent ‘right-wing’ bias and is in fact simply a propaganda tool of ‘the establishment’.

Now, just to be clear, I share that belief. For at least the last 30 years the BBC has mirrored the prevailing neoliberal economic and political orthodoxy and done so in a way that has significantly assisted in the presentation of those ideas to the public as the new ‘common-sense’. This has been hugely detrimental to the Left and helped to bring about the on going dismantling of the post war welfare state. So, sure, the BBC has a lot to answer for and its claim to be politically neutral has been seriously undermined (although it should be noted that for the Tories and the UK right in general the supposed left-wing bias of the BBC is one of the reasons they want it privatised.)

But even if this is so, should we be even surprised, let alone outraged? For at least 20 years our political, economic and intellectual elite have adopted neoliberal values and accepted the ‘End Of History’ narrative promoted after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And why wouldn’t they? The neoliberal era has brought huge benefits to elites of all kinds. For example corporate managers across the board have seen their salaries rise to staggering levels in exchange for imposing cuts on everyone else. For them it’s been a golden era. And we’ve seen this all across the public sector too, with NHS managers being paid hugely inflated salaries to impose ‘austerity’ and ‘privatisation’ on the institutions they are meant to be running for the public good. Why would we expect the BBC to be any different? And no one the Left would argue that because there are some over-paid be-suited jerks in charge of the NHS we should let them privatise it. The BBC is no different.

Do we seriously think that turning the BBC into a commercial subscription service would improve its political bias? And make no mistake that is the choice we are facing.

Ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 every BBC Charter renewal has meant the questioning of the BBC’s legitimacy[1] and the Freemarketeers BBC Catch-22 argument goes something like this:

  • In order to justify a universal licence fee the BBC has to provide programming across the spectrum of genres and interests – i.e. something for everyone.
  • However, if the BBC does provide this universal service it is argued by the Freemarketeers that the resulting service is so ‘popular’ that it could be provided by the commercial sector.
  • From this the Freemarketeers say that the funding of the BBC by a compulsory, universal, licence fee amounts to ‘unfair competition’ and interferes with the market-forces working in the commercial TV sector preventing them from innovating and providing a dynamic evolving TV service at a profit.
  • In response to this there are those who argue that a lower licence fee could be used by the BBC to provide a more public service orientated service that could not, or would not, be provided by commercial suppliers.
  • However the Freemarketeers then argue that such a limited service could not justify a universal licence fee and should paid for only by those people who use these limited services – via some form of subscription.

From these arguments the Freemarketeers arrive at some very stark options for the future of the BBC:

  • A fully commercial BBC funded by an entirely voluntary commercial subscription – perhaps fully owned by the public like C4 – but entirely self-funding from commercial subscriptions.
  • Or a much, much smaller ‘public-service’, BBC, funded through general taxation that only provides services that are perceived to have public value but that cannot be provided by the commercial sector at a profit.[2]
  • Or a fully commercial BBC as in (i) above but with a central government pot for ‘public service’ broadcasting, funded through general taxation, that all broadcasters could ‘compete’ for, thus making the BBC only one supplier of public service content amongst many.

This attack on the BBC from the neoliberal right is based on the same logic that is used to attack the NHS, education, social services and everything else in the public sector, and is part of the same ‘public versus private ownership’ battle. Just like the NHS the BBC is a collective social good that needs to be defended in those terms.

Much of the campaigning in support of the BBC focuses on the ‘value for money’ argument. The licence fee is £145 a year, which is £12.13 a week or 40p a day, for which you get 11 TV channels, 18 radio stations, the iPlayer, the website, three orchestras and one of the most highly regarded news services in the world. So what’s not to like? Well, the problem with this is that it catches us in the Freemarketeers Catch -22 trap – because the ‘value-for-money’ argument essentially argues that people would (or should) happily pay the licence fee anyway because it is such great value for money, which it genuinely is, to which the Freemarketeers can simply respond by saying, “Great, then there shouldn’t be a problem in changing to a commercial subscription service should there? Because if it’s such great value people will keep paying it, right?”

So why would a BBC funded by subscription be such a bad thing? Well, firstly of course the ‘value for money’ argument would be shown to be flawed. It is reasonable to predict that large numbers of punters who today are forced to pay a universal licence fee would not continue to pay a voluntary subscription fee. The immediate effect of this would be to force the BBC to concentrate on programming that would increase subscriptions, or at least stem the flow of falling subscriptions, and the question of whether the costs of running individual services could be met from subscriptions would become the determining question for all BBC services.

So what? The Freemarketeers cry. In terms of individual programme genres or even individual programmes, the international commercial ‘market’ in broadcasting content, could probably provide almost everything the BBC provides. Indeed, even the old arguments about the unique quality of specific British TV programming, (news, documentary and drama), are no longer convincing because the satellite revolution has transformed the international content market and high-quality television, (including news from different perspectives i.e. Al Jazeera, Russia Today), is now available from a range of commercial sources.

And increasingly younger viewers rarely watch television programmes on TV ‘channels’ at the time they are broadcast, instead they watch specific programmes at a time of their own choosing via online services. Thus even the concept of the BBC as a coherent public institution is out dated and becoming less and less meaningful for many viewers.

And furthermore, they say, even if services like Radio 4 and Radio 3 would not survive in a fully commercial market place, that is no justification for a system of unfair competition enforced by legal sanctions that criminalise consumers who are only making consumer choices?

But I would argue that there is something far more important at stake than whether Radio 4 or Radio 3 can survive in a commercial market or even whether the licence fee is ‘value for money’.

The purpose of any commercial business is to make money for the owners. Indeed, for public companies traded on the stock market, the law has established that this is their only legal purpose. And it may surprise you to hear that the business of commercial TV companies is not the making and broadcasting of television programmes. No, the primary business of commercial TV companies is the selling of advertising. In business terms[3] the content of TV channels, the programmes, are in fact simply a cost that has to be paid in order to generate the income from the real business, which is selling advertising.

In business terms a commercial TV company has no interest in TV as part of a nation or a communities culture. A commercial TV company will broadcast anything that will enable it to sell advertising at a profit, and conversely of course, will not broadcast anything that jeopardises that income stream from advertising.

This is not of course how many viewers experience television. To viewers television programmes are cultural objects that carry huge significance and meaning – just like books, plays, songs, symphonies or operas. To a passionate Whovian, Dr Who is not a consumer choice, it is an imaginative window into a world of infinite possibilities. To a regular viewer of Eastenders the characters and world of the story are part of their own life experience not simply a consumer choice. Being informed by television about the arts, about wildlife, about the news, about science, about how institutions work from the inside, transforms lives on a daily basis. It informs career choices for the young, it stimulates people to take action, to join organisations; it enriches all our lives by allowing us to observe and share experiences across space and time. We experience television as a transformative cultural experience. And for most of us television is the principle, if not the only, opportunity we get for such experiences. For most of us it is not books or the theatre that provide our cultural life it is films and most importantly television. This means that like it or not television, and what’s on it, is really, really important to us as individuals and as a society.

Making money is not the primary aim of the BBC. Selling advertising or subscriptions is not the purpose of the BBC. The purpose of the BBC is to use the latest technology of broadcasting to inform, educate and entertain the British public and to do so without pressure from commercial advertisers OR the government; hence the licence fee, which is a noble attempt to provide an income for the BBC while keeping an arms length between the BBC and the government. [4]

For a democracy to be meaningful all citizens have to be informed and educated to a level that allows them to form coherent opinions, to analyse and critique competing economic and political theories, to engage with civic life and to make informed choices at the ballot box. The BBC is not simply a provider of consumer media content; it is, or should be, one of the foundational institutions of our democracy.

Culture is both individual and universal. Sure we make personal and individual consumer choices based on which cultural objects we prefer, but the result of these choices is far more than simply an aggregate of these choices, it is what we call ‘our culture’, and we, all of us, whether we like it or not, live embedded in this culture of ours, and like it or not, television has for the last 50 years been the defining and determining form of all Western cultures and I would argue will, in some digital manifestation or another, be so for the next 50 years. Thus we must value the BBC in totality, as a publicly owned national cultural institution; the sum is greater than it’s parts. Individual programmes come and go; individual performers come and go; programme fashions are in and then they are out; you like that show, I like this show. All that is unavoidable. But the importance of the BBC as a collectively owned expression of our national cultural identity must not be underestimated.

Just like the NHS the question about the BBC is an ideological one – do you believe that free markets are the only just and efficient way to provide us as individuals with all our wants and needs? Or do you believe that collectively owned public institutions are crucial to mitigating the inevitably brutal effects of the market place? And that collectively owned cultural institutions are a prerequisite for social cohesion and to developing and sustaining the shared values that any society must have in order to function?

As a key institution of our democracy the BBC needs to remain within the influence of our democratic system. As a fully commercial operation the BBC would be free from government influence but conversely would be subject to the brutal law of the market place. Such a BBC would owe no allegiance to the country or the citizens of the country, but only to its ‘customers’,[5] and the only influence these customers could have would be to subscribe or not to subscribe.

So the question we need to ask about the BBC is not whether we like this programme or that programme, or whether this or that presenter is a Tory bastard. We need to ask whether we are happy to hand the public expression of ‘our culture’ entirely over to the global free market? With the inevitable loss of specific cultural identity that this would inevitably entail[6]. Do we think our democracy would operate more meaningfully if all our media were run global media barons? Would the TV news be more reliable in an entirely commercialised media landscape? Would cultural life in the UK be enhanced if one of our most important cultural institutions became a fully commercial media conglomerate?

We need to defend the BBC as one of the core institutions of our democracy and our culture and not fall into the Freemarketeers trap by defending it solely on their terms.


If you are interested in saving the BBC as a collectively owned democratic and cultural institution then please join the Love it or Lose it: Save the BBC campaign being run by The Federation Of Entertainment Unions


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[1] – Despite the fact that there is no popular demand for changes to the BBC

[2] Sometimes called the PBS model by analogy with the non-commercial US public service channels.

[3] And just like newspapers.

[4] Incidentally, there are those on the Right who constantly describe the licence fee as a ‘tax’ and it is very important to resist this designation because tax income is, and should be, controlled by the elected government. The BBC licence fee on the other hand should be controlled by the BBC independently of the government. The government’s only role, as in commercial transactions, should simply be to provide the legal infrastructure to allow for the collection of debts. Indeed, I would suggest that government should be put at further distance from the BBC by the establishing of an independent body tasked with setting the licence fee.

[5] Neoliberal theory of course assumes that ‘customers’ and ‘citizens’ are synonymous and that customers making consumer choices is a more authentic expression of collective will than citizens making democratic choices.

[6] Remember that the global market in TV content is overwhelmingly dominated by content from the USA. And that US cultural imperialism has been a pernicious economic and cultural force that has promoted neoliberal values across the world.


 

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