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January 24, 2007

Scrap the BBC!: Richard D. North argues that the notion of an impartial broadcaster is one whose time has gone

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free - makes his case for scrapping the BBC and the whole notion of having an impartial broadcaster. Richard D. North further argues that those parts of the BBC which are worthy but would not be commercially viable could easily be funded via a voluntary National Trust of the Airwaves.

You'll very soon be paying an extra 3.50 a year for your TV licence fee, and by 2012 the annual price will be 151. Not bad value, you may think. It's only fair to say that Tessa Jowell's deal with Gordon Brown is neither very good nor very bad for most of the public, or for the BBC. We can expect business as usual from the nation's biggest broadcaster. But we should understand that we have had a typically British failure of nerve. We should make this licence fee round the last.

It is obviously absurd that poor people should pay as much as rich people for the privilege of contributing to the BBC. It stands to reason that 151 is a much larger sum to a bus driver than to a BMW driver. It also stands to reason that most poor people aren't very educated and don't set their alarm clocks early so as to catch the Today programme's peppery rows with politicians. Nor do a high proportion of them nip home from the pub to be sure to catch Martha Kearney on Newsnight.

I know, we're not supposed to harbour such thoughts. They imply that there are still differences in society. But the alternative is to go on stinging poor people to pay for stuff they really don't consume. What's more, the bits of the BBC which are likely to appeal to the less educated could be provided by advertisers' revenue at no cost to the consumer. There's no doubt that the market will produce a flow of entertaining and outrageous material. But it is worth wondering whether the state should involve itself in ensuring we all pay for Strictly Come Dancing's berth on BBC1. Don't tell the kids, or granny, but it wouldn't matter if the market slipped up and didn't bring us Big Brother or Brucie.

But we worry about the posh stuff. The fair approach would be for the, say, 10 million affluent and literate middle class who really love the better end of the BBC's material, to pay for it. Since these middle class people are, many of them, very socially aware, they could also take pleasure in letting poor people listen and watch for free. At 50 a head, these worthies could give the nation most of BBC Radio, and the news, and the current affairs output, and large swathes of BBC2 and BBC 4 and BBC 3 (have I missed any important bits of the BBC's burgeoning empire?). At 100 a head, it must be presumed that the service could make the present service look threadbare. We know such things can be done, because the National Trust works with these kinds of subscription levels (and lets poor people tramp on its landscapes for nothing).

One merit of this approach would be that the BBC (probably renamed, perhaps the British Broadcasting Club) could be as commercial as it liked. At the moment, there is a real anxiety, perhaps especially in the case of the BBC's online content, that the public is made to pay so the corporation can unfairly compete with alternative providers. One day, the BBC's service might - probably will - be allowed to take advertising. In the meantime, it can use the licence fee to build brand loyalty whilst other potential providers - newspapers, wire services and other pioneers - have to dig into expensive capital to get started.

It's going to be quite easy to scrap the licence fee, once the general public realises that there are plenty of other ways to get a well-funded, lively, broadcasting service, and even a service which is rather serious.

There will be a bigger struggle when we come to argue that all broadcasters, not just the BBC, should be freed from the need to be impartial. The left loves the BBC's mantra about an independent broadcaster (it dates from the earliest days of the corporation). When one points out that the British print media is fantastically vigorous and various, and could be a model for a multi-channel broadcast world, a great howl goes up. Partly, the left thinks that newspapers are owned by tyrannical capitalist barons and that this must lead to a conspiracy against "The People". The historical record, let alone our current newspapers, disprove that. Surely, when there are several different sort of ownership of broadcast media, there'll be a similar flourishing of opinion. We badly need it.

The current mindset of the BBC and Channel 4 (a state-owned channel, by the way) is a green, soft-left liberal fudge. This has become the motherhood and apple pie default waffle which is served up instead of a decently-argued, fully-opinionated varied diet of opinion. It's an amazing thought that broadcast journalists are terrified of the freedom to express their own views. Perhaps they are frightened of having to defend them.

Broadcasting is funded and regulated in a way which made sense in 1926. Thirty years later, the birth of ITV made a nonsense of them. Now, fifty years after the beginnings of a multi-channel world, we should be longing to set broadcasting free. It would be a decent goal to do it by 2016, when the present, brand new charter runs out.

Richard D. North is the author of the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

To read Richard D. North's piece in the Yorkshire Post on scrapping the BBC, see: It's time to say goodbye to Auntie.

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The BBC needs 10 years supply of extra strong mouth wash!

Posted by: Van Dola at January 25, 2007 06:11 AM
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