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January 30, 2004

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The BBC is in trouble. They've been found lacking and blah blah blah. You can read all about it in numerous places around the net. You can even read about the aftermath at the BBC itself. But there's a broader issue many are not addressing.

Do we need publicly funded media?

The BBC, the ABC, the CBC and so on. Why should a Government fund these organisations? Do they really provide value to taxpayers that they do not get anywhere else? The short answer is no.

The main reasons public broadcasters exist can be summarised as:
1. They provide an independent source of news and programming, free from the interference of an owner with a political or commercial bias.
2. They give access to points of view that may not be captured by the general media.
3. They provide opportunities for sponsoring of local culture, talent and entertainment that may not otherwise have such an outlet. The diversity thing.
4. They cater to tastes that are not serviced by the general media.
5. They are not subject to conflicts-of-interest due to commercial pressures.
6. They are a platform for free expression of ideas and views.

None of these stand up to scrutiny. A public broadcaster is owned by the taxpayer via the Government. However in Australia the Government considers the ABC a den of ratbags conspiring against the Government. In the UK the Government considers the BBC a den of ratbags conspiring against the Government. Yet should these Governments act as a controlling shareholder there's an outcry about "independence" and "interference". The reality is no-one ever gets it right all of the time. Reporting on news is difficult because in this day and age speed matters more than accuracy. A quick analysis need not be correct, it just needs to be quick. That's what the internet and cable have done to the media cycle. That's not a quibble; if anything it's a good thing so long as it is reporting and only reporting. All humans have biases, especially reporters. It is natural they creep into their stories. The problems arise when these are hidden behind a veneer of "fair", "balanced", "factual" independence. A Government mandate makes it even worse. In the public mindset anything from the Government broadcaster is naturally independent because of the agency reporting it. Yet that is patently untrue in many cases. The recent Hutton inquiry is one example.

This is not to say the Government broadcaster should reflect the views of the Government of the day. The question is what does a Government broadcaster do better than anything the private sector already provides. Perhaps in the past there was an argument they pioneered in media, or they had the resources to provide better coverage. But these days there are literally hundreds of different outlets to get news from, to get entertainment from. Public broadcasters fill a niche that no longer needs filling. Is Fox News biased? Of course, they make no bones about it. Yet CNN's selling point is it's "balanced" nature of reporting the facts. These companies are responding to demand from consumers and providing what they want. Why? Because they can only sell advertising space if they get ratings. Ratings are people. No people equals no money equals no network. In Australia the ABC TV consistently rates last out of the major networks. Clearly the Australian public are happier watching whatever the commercial networks provide. Now the cultural elite may look down their noses at reality or lifestyle shows, but that's what the market wants. The public broadcaster simply represents a public subsidy of this minority taste. Again that may be justifiable if the benefits of such "culture" outweigh the costs. That's why making a public broadcaster reliant on the support of all taxpayers is a scam: it is a way for those minorities to get their preferences expressed at the cost to all. If there is insufficient demand for a product the Government has no business providing it. The advent of the internet, of blogs, of cable tv, of broadband, of satellites, all means that media is fragmenting and more tastes are being catered to in ever more specialised media fragments. Now more than ever Government broadcasters have little value to add in filling holes in coverage.

Let's look at it another way. In Western democracies the public broadcasters usually consist of television, radio and internet arms. What's missing? Newspapers. There are no "public" newspapers. Communist China and Russia both had plenty so that should tell you something. Yet people jump up and down if there's any threat to privatising or even reducing the funding of public broadcasters who compete against private companies in radio, the internet and TV. The real scandal is these public broadcasters are not held to any profit motive - the fact they are under no commercial imperative leads inevitably to inefficiently allocated resources. Trying to live up to a high minded mandate or charter within a Government determined budget or licence fee tax is not enough of a justification for competing against private enterprises. Don't believe me? A look at the BBC news website doesn't jump out as something different to anything else you can get on the net.

Like all scientists the best way to conduct an experiment is with a control. What about those places that do not have a public broadcaster? I don't recall seeing the collapse of any economies due to a lack of public broadcaster. Nor the end of all cultural life in such places. In fact I'd be hard pressed to find any difference between places with or without public broadcasters. Maybe one: places without public broadcasters seem to have less media time taken up by accusations of bias in public broadcasters.

All media companies of conflicts-of-interest. They are commercial enterprises, working to make a profit. Many of the conglomerates are based on the idea of media cross-selling and that dreaded word: synergies. One branch can provide publicity for others, or provide subscriptions, or advertisements. Again this is something public broadcasters engage in too. They also engage in a conflict - between the various stakeholders in the organisation. Yet it is an impossible job because they are trying to please the entire population by living up to their charter of balance. Nothing in the world is free of bias. Why pretend otherwise? You want a platform to express your views freely? Start a blog. Better yet, if your views make sence, run in politics. Or write for a paper. Don't rely on the Government to give you a free leg up.

Don't get me wrong. I like much of the product of the public broadcasters. I enjoy watching ABC TV, or reading BBC of the net. I wouldn't die if they had advertisements to pay their way. I don't think it would impact greatly on what they do - their advantage is the audience they bring and their brand value. Changing that to imitate what commercial networks already provide would be commercial suicide. Despite they often do try and imitate their "non"-rivals. They exist in half-way house of trying to please all and pleasing none.

Like all things in life and especially when it comes to spending my tax money, do the benefits outweigh the costs? No. These broadcasters do not provide enough value or product that cannot be found elsewhere. The private sector has more than covered the gaps that may once have existed. Does it mean we won't be getting broadcasts of the flippin' Poms night in some dim castle once a year? We won't get to watch re-runs of 40 year old comedies? We won't be able to subsidise keep some journos and self-important worthies employed for a few more years? Boo-hoo. When you set the extra hospitals, schools, roads, tax cuts, paper clips or whatever else that money could buy keeping public broadcasters doesn't make sense.

They are costly behemoths that no longer serve their purpose.

posted by Simon on 01.30.04 at 04:54 PM in the


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The British government doesn't fund the BBC, as far as I am aware. It gets its money from the Licence Fee, paid by everyone who has a TV licence (regardless of whether they watch the BBC or not).

posted by: Chris on 01.30.04 at 05:35 PM [permalink]

Which is effectively an annuity tax on all TV owners, just like car rego fees are a tax on car owners. The idea is the same.

posted by: Simon on 01.30.04 at 05:38 PM [permalink]

OK, the BBC operates under charter from the UK government. This charter stipulates how much the BBC may collect in Licence Fees from the owners of TV's. At no point are the Beeb subsidised by the British gov (or the Irish, Scotish Assembly, the USofA, Aus or any other government in the world even though you can recieve BBC broadcasts in most of them).

Personally I would say that the BBC provide a value added service to both UK citizens and the rest of the world (via the world service, BBC-I, etc.) and the fact that manage this whilst operating under a government charter only serves to cement their objectivity.

Odds are good that (assuming we still have a Labour government in 2006 which is looking distinctly unlikely) the BBC is going to suffer badly for this latest debacle and may well not get their charter renewed. If so then they will make the switch to commercial broadcaster without too much hassle. But (and here's the rub) I currently find it refreshing to be allowed to watch an hour of news both global and local without the constant yammering of adverts. to be able to log on to the largest news website in the world without pop-ups or flash ad's flickering away demadning my attention. To be honest that alone is well worth my £116 per year and I would be very sorry to see it go ...



posted by: Robert on 01.30.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

OK, the BBC operates under charter from the UK government. This charter stipulates how much the BBC may collect in Licence Fees from the owners of TV's. At no point are the Beeb subsidised by the British gov (or the Irish, Scottish Assembly, the USofA, Aus or any other government in the world even though you can receive BBC broadcasts in most of them).

Personally I would say that the BBC provide a value added service to both UK citizens and the rest of the world (via the world service, BBC-I, etc.) and the fact that manage this whilst operating under a government charter only serves to cement their objectivity.

Odds are good that (assuming we still have a Labour government in 2006 which is looking distinctly unlikely) the BBC is going to suffer badly for this latest debacle and may well not get their charter renewed. If so then they will make the switch to commercial broadcaster without too much hassle. But (and here's the rub) I currently find it refreshing to be allowed to watch an hour of news both global and local without the constant yammering of adverts. to be able to log on to the largest news website in the world without pop-ups or flash ad's flickering away demanding my attention. To be honest that alone is well worth my £116 per year and I would be very sorry to see it go ...



posted by: Robert on 01.30.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]


The licence fee is still a tax. You have to pay it if you watch it or not. The only rule is you must have a TV - thus it is a tax, no matter what you dress it up as. In fact it is a poll tax, which proved so popular for Maggie Thatcher. You are right they are not subsidised by the Government directly, but the Government mandates the licence fee level and enforces its payment. Sounds like a tax.

If it is a value added service, then those that derive the value can pay for it. Two ways: either through putting up with ads, or paying a licence/subscription. Just like websites. Personally I would pay up for it because I like what they do. Doesn't mean every British TV owner should. That they remain "objective" seems at odds with what Lord Hutton had to say. Likewise Rob I'm not sure I follow why a licence fee and a Government charter are a better way of guaranteeing objectivity.

If they lost their charter there will be a change to ads, but surely everyone can put up with a few ads as a small price to pay to watch such a value added service without paying the licence fee. Such is the way of the world.

posted by: Simon on 01.30.04 at 06:26 PM [permalink]

The difference between the Licence Fee and Car Tax is that all the money raised from the Licence Fee goes to the BBC, whereas Car Tax goes to the government's general revenue and certainly isn't all spent on roads.

I think it is very unlikely that the BBC would lose its charter, but some changes may be made to the way it operates.

posted by: Chris on 01.30.04 at 06:40 PM [permalink]

First of, sorry for the double posting (damn these cheapass Compaq keyboards).

I agree that the Licence Fee is a tax of sorts and have heard any number of arguments against it (mostly be people who own a TV but don't watch the BBC channels even though said people have no doubt enjoyed BBC productions without even realising it.)

There are two reasons why the Charter and LF provide a guarantee of objectivity. The charter itself stipulates that the beeb must report news and events impartially and without bias. The second argument is an ideological one. Because they are funded by a government imposed tax the BBC has to be seen to be impartial and objective. Failure to do so (besides being in breach of charter) would lead to a total loss of trust in the corporation's output. Consequently, every effort is made to ensure that no-one can pin the "vested interest" argument on them.

Whilst I concur that advertising would not drastically reduce the value of the programming it would be an annoyance. It is unrealistic to request that people subscribe to BBC services purely because no-one would do it. If you had to pay to view the news on the beeb site you'd simply go else where. Enforcement of payment on the other media is nigh on impossible and any attempt to do so would result in a massive loss of audience across the world.

Lets put it this way. The British people pay for the BBC and for the most part are happy to do so. Brits gain a great sense of pride from knowing that the BBC is one of the most highly respected broadcasters in the world and will continue to do so for as long as it is allowed to operate. It's this kind of "look what we made" feeling that makes the beeb unique.

The corporation has survived governments, wars and scandals and hopefully it will survive this latest debacle. Reading the Hutton report (I'm about half way through) I can feel my blood rising. It contains factual inaccuracies and given the verifiable contents I am amazed that Hutton came to the conclusion he did. In this instance the BBC is being used as a Scape goat to cover Tony's ass. If only some of the beeb's objectivity had been present in Lord Hutton's offices when he prepared his damning document.

posted by: rob on 01.30.04 at 06:52 PM [permalink]

While I'm still waiting for Mrs M to come meet me for dinner let me engage the brain for a final time to respond.

I can see why in theory a charter and the trust/tax issue would force the BBC to act objectively. No doubt they try to act objectively. But two things mitigate against that. Firstly the speed with which the news cycle moves makes being objective difficult. Sorting out both sides of a story takes time. Time is the enemy of news. Take too long and it's history instead. Secondly the BBC, like all news organisations, is run by humans. Humans have biases regardless of how well they try and repress them. It's impossible to stop them coming through, even if they are subtly and even if the content is overseen.

As for subscriptions, the WSJ and New York Times both run successful subscription sites. Otherwise plenty of others run ads. Annoying? Yes. Worth the annoyance? Yes.

I must admit I've not waded through the whole of the Hutton report so I can't argue the toss on that one. I'd be surprised if it was a long way off base, because by now I'm sure every member of the BBC has been through it with a fine tooth comb looking to rip it apart. No one comes out of the mess looking good, even Tony and Alastair. But it certainly seems the BBC and the journo are mostly to blame.

Finally my main point is broader than just the news. What public broadcasters do is much broader than just the news. That's my point - they effectively compete with private enterprise but under different rules and with different motives but for lesser effect. News is just one example of that.

posted by: Simon on 01.30.04 at 07:14 PM [permalink]

i don;t see why the fact that the bbc is funded by public subscription (or tax if you prefer) makes it any better or worse in terms of bias than any other news organisation. as simon said, it's run by humans, with all the natural bias that goes with that. the source of it's funding is irrelevant.

i agree entirely with rob. the licence fee is a bargain for the pleasure of avoiding all the dross that is thrown at you incessantly on the commercial channels which rely on advertising. it also means the bbc does not have to worry about the ratings of programmes in the same way as commercial broadcasters. they can make a programme because they think it is worth making, not because it will appeal to the lowest common denominator. if you live in the uk you can see that the difference in quality between bbc and commercial programming is huge. the bbc can afford to take a risk on idea bombing. it's competitors can't. it is noticeable that almost all britains succesful braodcasting exports have come from the bbc - the office, only fools and horses, fawlty towers, the bbc wildlife documentaries, panorama etc etc.... sky and itv (the commercial braodcasters) just produce mindless drivel aimed at your average moron - candyfloss for the brain - long on contrived giggles, short on substance.

on a final note - it is interesting that the present labour govt has consistently claimed that the bbc is biased against them, exactly the same thing the previous conservative govt claimed.

the politicians in the uk simply like to throw mud at the bbc cos most of the political scandals are found by the bbc - they can afford to invest long-term resources into investigative journalism.

i would trust the bbc over any other news organisation in the world

posted by: giles on 02.02.04 at 10:29 AM [permalink]

I'm always amazed by the sentimental attachment those from the UK have for the BBC, and the heat of their defenses of its decidedly illiberal funding mandate, whether we call it a tax or a 'fee' or some other euphemism.

Why shouldn't a major media source be funded and run this way? How is it different from a privately run corporation? It's simple: the BBC has an undeniable advantage over all other media sources in the UK in the sense that it has no need whatever to sell its product. You'll argue back that, in addition to sparing the consumer the ads, this frees the BBC from outside compulsions that might undermine its objectivity. But the Hutton report shows just the opposite: the BBC lacks accountability at all levels, and has brazenly exploited the imprimatur of objectivity British people undeservedly grant it, as they assume it's got to be trustworthy, the way it's run and it's independent and all.

So if it's so great, and The People Of The UK love it so much, where's the problem with eliminating the compulsion to pay for it? Just let people pay their 118 pounds or whatever it is voluntarily, and won't its quality win out in the end? Why the need to force people to pay?

I agree it's produced some great shows over the years, but it's impossible to conclude that they couldn't have been developed outside the tender nurturing of the Beeb. If you assume they couldn't, you're saying something deeply insulting about the British public in general, i.e. that they really aren't capable of recognizing quality unless it's imposed upon them by their benevolent betters. Or is that really what people think?

Oh, and don't assume that the BBC is much respected outside the UK these days. They've spent just about all of that coin, and bought little but shame of late.

Simon is right on the mark on this one, I think.

posted by: mr tall on 02.02.04 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

Giles: if you think the BBC is worth the money, then by all means send them the hundred odd quid a year as a fee. But by compulsion the Government makes the licence fee a tax AND gives the impression the BBC is above bias. Make the fee voluntary and make the BBC compete like any other company. I'm sorry if you won't get your marginal English comedies (which I'd miss too) but if there weren't enough interested in it then the program shouldn't have been made. That's what subsidies entail. The BBC's brand has been tarnished by the Hutton report - getting back to being above reproach and all that will take plenty of effort and reform. From within.

But the problem remains - the Government shouldn't be funding, even via a licence fee, a public broadcaster.

posted by: Simon on 02.02.04 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Simon: I don't why you say that the licence fee gives the impression that the BBC is above bias. There simply is no connection - ITN is also expected to be objective and receives no money from the licence fee.

Mr Tall: I have read some nonsense about the BBC on various blogs recently, but your comments are probably the most pompous and ludicrous so far - frankly, I don't think you know what you are talking about. Let's not forget that the Hutton Inquiry was about one journalist reporting one story, and the fuss was precisely because the BBC is so well-respected and trusted.

I would write more, but I think it would be a waste of time. After all, neither of you pay the Licence Fee, so I can't see how it matters to you whether the British public are happy to carry on with this arrangement or not.

posted by: Chris on 02.02.04 at 08:54 PM [permalink]

Sorry if I've offended, Chris -- didn't mean to. I'm sure I'm not as well informed as you, but I've certainly followed the story in some detail, and have read many, many criticisms of the BBC's objectivity (and seen many examples of questionable reporting myself) over the years. I agree, though, that it's likely not fruitful to continue debate over this.

Mr Tall

posted by: mr tall on 02.02.04 at 09:27 PM [permalink]

Oh, Mr Tall, I'm disappointed - I thought we were going to have a big fight about this!!

The objectivity of the BBC is frequently questioned, but that's par for the course - if news organizations don't upset anyone they're not doing their job!! I don't trust any single source of news, and one great thing about the Internet is the diversity of opinions you can find nowadays.

posted by: Chris on 02.02.04 at 11:31 PM [permalink]

Chris, Mr. Tall might be giving up, but I'm not!

Firstly as an Australian taxpayer of many years standing, I've paid my fair share of public broadcasting. Everyone is focussing on the BBC due to Hutton, but the same applies to the ABC. Indeed given the large proportion of BBC programming that is shown on ABC, I practically contribute to the BBC too.

Why the Hutton report is so damning is the chain of command compounded the original errors of the reporter, by leaping to his defence before checking the facts. The director-general took a month to bother to find out what the fuss is about. You're right that the fuss is so big because of the BBC's reputation, but that is also a large part of the BBC's own marketing - that it's an unbiased news source.

However I agree with your thoughts that no-one should rely on one news source, although I'm not sure that upsetting someone is part of an unbiased news organisations job.

HOWEVER my main point in the original post was not narrowly focussed only the news. I still cannot see what public broadcasters do that can justify Government support. News is but one example of that.

posted by: Simon on 02.03.04 at 11:02 AM [permalink]

Well, Chris -- I aim to please!

Seriously, I don't want a big fight, although I don't mind little ones! I did read back over my comments and note a certain, ahhh, stridence.

Perhaps my poorly-managed tone masked my genuine interest in this subject: I guess to many of us non-Brits, the devotion many UK people have to the BBC is a bit mystifying. Sometimes it seems almost religious: there's such an element of national identity and culture wrapped up in the BBC that I wonder if it's hard to step back from it at times and see the big picture.

From my understanding (and in line with Rob's comments above), the BBC's charter essentially demands objectivity in its reportage. Am I right to assume that you -- and other Brits -- would define this as political objectivity as well as an an attempt to report news events as factually and accurately as possible? In other words, is part of the BBC's mission to remain above partisan bickering and point-scoring?

If that's so, then why has the BBC become so solidly stocked with 'Guardianista' types, as we who are less reverent sometimes call them, i.e. why doesn't the BBC management actively advertise in, and hire from, the Telegraph and the Spectator as well as the Guardian/Independent? Shouldn't they be compelled by their charter to do this? Rob says that the BBC makes 'every effort' to guarantee objectivity, but I don't see much evidence of this when I watch/listen/read its website. Why do all of the BBC's 'questionable calls' seem to fall on one side of the right/left divide, and never on the other? I don't think there's any grand conspiracy, but rather a corporate culture in which homogeneity of outlook blunts the edge needed to sift through competing viewpoints.

I realize this argument is less meaningful when we're talking about any of the other British media, or any privately-run media corporation wherever it may be. But the BBC claims to be special. I'm certainly not saying it's any less objective or accurate than, say, the Guardian, or the Telegraph for that matter. Both are good papers; I read both on occasion. But I know where they're coming from. They've got an editorial slant, and they don't hide it, and I'm fine with that. You are so right in that the Internet is the greatest boon we've ever had in comparing sources and sifting evidence. This power has never been avaible to us commoners before.

Anyway, don't want to belabor all this -- you know it. I just know that if I were to live in the UK, I would be irritated at having to pay that fee, in that I would see the BBC as not fulfilling its charter these days. Perhaps it did so better in the past -- but then I've only been viewing/watching it for the past few year, so I really wouldn't know.

One other note: in the states, we've actually got a much smaller incarnation of the same issue, of course. Public TV in the US is notoriously left-wing (with the same rather unconvincing --to me, at least -- claims of 'objectivity'), and the funding it receives from the taxpayers is the sometimes the target of mild ire. But US public TV is extremely low-profile, and deep down very few people really care much about it. things are clearly different in the UK!

So back to Simon's actual question: do we need publicly-funded media? Seems to me it's a clear 'no'.

Mr Tall

posted by: Mr Tall on 02.03.04 at 12:18 PM [permalink]

I've not got time to respond in full, but Andrew Gilligan writes for the Spectator, Daily Telegraph and Mail on Sunday. Andrew Neill is another prompt right-winger who is a regular on the BBC.

My feeling is that right-wingers think the BBC is too left-wing, and left-wingers think the BBC is too right-wing. You can always find "bias" if you know what you are looking for!

posted by: Chris on 02.03.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

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