Telling iPM how to fund the BBC

BBC Radio 4’s iPM show asked me comment on their finding that people might be prepared to pay (an average of) £143 for BBC services. I replied that with a National Trust of the Airwaves they might pay less and get more.

In my little book, “Scrap the BBC!” I argued that markets could provide broadcast media just like they provide print media. But I also addressed the possibility of addressing “market failure” by the establishment of Big Society institutions such as, say, a National Trust of the Airwaves.

I told iPM’s Eddie Mair that I like the idea of a voluntary body funded by subscription by the affluent, literate, concerned middle class. It could fund “elite”, “posh” or otherwise unpopular broadcasting which might not be funded by advertisers.

Let’s assume there are 10m fans of Radio 4. If only 2m of them divvy up £1 a week, that more than covers the station’s £73m cost plus “central news gathering” (the BBC central news operation). I’ve also said that 5m people divvying up £100 a year would handsomely fund all of BBC radio and BBC2 television.

Further: I think TV is much less of an equity problem than radio because on a fully digital service it is easy to give the poor pre-paid scrambler cards for their (free) set-top boxes. The state or the National Trust of the Airwaves could make these gifts. That could overcome the problem that Freeview has free rider problems.

Of course I am being mischievous. I do believe what I say: better that firms, individuals and associations sort out broadcast funding than that the state does. But I also enjoy saying that “the middle class” ought to fund “elite” broadcasting. I believe strongly that being middle class is a matter of being literate, affluent and concerned. But I also believe that it is wrong for the middle classes to avoid its duty. It ought to want to lead the nation by taking on more of the work of the state. And besides, it is fun to hoist the middle class lefties on their own petard: broadcasting is something they ought to provide for the poor if they are so darned worried about poor people being unable to access quality material.

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Publication date

30 November 2008