Few have tried to reformulate broadcasting policy from a free market position. I have already mentioned Mark Oliver’s paper, Changing the Channel, for the Policy Exchange. Another recent piece of work is To inform, educate and entertain (2009) by Martin LeJeune, for the Centre for Policy Studies. Anyone who is serious about broadcasting should read them. Both can be found from links besides this posting.
Martin makes his position clear from the outset. “The crisis in broadcasting is in reality confined to a tiny number of decaying organistations which were created in a different age”. He regards the “crisis” as a crisis of institutions rather than of broadcasting itself. He thinks broadcasting policy is designed to favour “political and cultural elites who wish to enjoy programming suited to their needs at the lowest possible direct cost.”
He sees Ofcom as party to all this, something that comes down to the inclusion of one word in its statutory duties: the word is “citizen”. In his view the incorporation of the citizen clause at a relatively late stage in the legislation that created it gave it wide scope to maintain “public sector intervention in broadcasting, far out of proportion to the real need to support minority content”. “The idea that, left to themselves, people would exercise choice and create a demand for a diverse range of content – arts, entertainment, soaps, documentaries and so on….is not an idea that has gained any traction”.
This takes him onto the core of his paper and his discussion of Public Service Broadcasting. Consistent with the above, he thinks the BBC should be “kept tightly focussed on delivering what the market cannot do, or does only to a limited extent”. He sees no need for “pluralism” in the production and distribution of such content.
As for popular content, he would “send large parts of the Corporation out into the world to make its own way. The power of a subscription-based BBC1, say, would be unwelcome to Sky but good for consumers”, and would result in an “immediate and rapid reduction in the licence fee”
The trouble then is an organisation with a “powerful culture”, a “strong sense of its mission and ethos”, and an “unflinching belief that it unselfishly serves the public”. This is an organisation that he been able to capture regulators and sponsoring departments, over-defining public service content and maintaining, in effect, a £3.5bn annual subsidy.
The question is: Does it matter? Organisations with strong cultures get on with things and often move with great energy and decision. That is a strength of the BBC. But, yes, I agree that in its present form it stands in the way of change and sits at the heart lf a system that is now too insular and inward-looking, an obstacle to what, in my view, UK Plc now needs.
But I have two basic reservations about Martin’ proposals. I do not think a reduced license fee is feasible for two reasons: first, the cost of collection will become disproportionate to the revenue raised and, second, resistance to paying the fee would still be likely to increase. Furthermore, as I suggest in a previous post, I do not yet see a mechanism (or justification) for compliance with a mandatory payment if a lot of TV viewing goes over to broadband video on demand.
I share Martin’s view that the citizen/consumer distinction is false. People think and act as both. Most people support legal backing for reliable News and Information programmes. A subscription model is very different from an advertising model. With subscription you belong to something. That’s important. I therefore support a subscription model for the BBC and do not see that it needs to broken up. Its range and the breadth of its current output is part of its identity, what makes the BBC what it is. That’s why people will want to be part of it. Let us see how much of its brief to inform, educate and entertain really has to be ditched.
Nevertheless Government would have powers and some money to fill necessary gaps by setting up a unit in a relevant department to determine what is needed and where.