Tessa Jowell’s mutual BBC

Tessa Jowell has proposed that the BBC must be preserved and that it should be a mutual owned and controlled by the licence-fee holders. This is a socialist romantic’s vision and it mirrors rather well my “right-wing” proposal for a National Media Trust.

Ms Jowell, writing in The Telegraph ( “BBC crisis: let the public run our national broadcaster”, 13 November 2012), outlines the case for the BBC in almost all the terms I aimed to dismiss in my book, “Scrap the BBC!”. She claims it is: irreplaceable; an indispensible part of the ecology of broadcasting; in its entirety a necessary response to market failure. She then goes on to suggest that the BBC ought to be owned and controlled by some unspecified democratic process involving the 26.8 million licence fee payers.

My first response is that this is a barmy solution to the problem of the BBC. The main argument against it is that it would create the requirment for us all to take part in a new political process in order to defend whatever tendency in the BBC was being threatened by the factions one did not approve of. To unpick that a little: because the BBC would remain a monolith of staggering importance, the battle over its nature would become all but compulsory.

My own idea, for a National Media Trust, is much more realistic. It does not suppose that the NMT would be unique or exclusive or control a monolith. It does invite the reasonable thought that the literate, numerate, pubic-spirited middle class could be inspired to find such a Trust an exciting way of funding such media activity as was subject to market failure. It doesn’t at all preclude the idea that there might be a media trust with broadly leftish – and another of broadly rightish – ideals. But neither does it assume that one NMT couldn’t be highly pluralistic.

I suppose Ms Jowell is happy with her vision of a BBC monolith run by the masses, presumably on populist lines. My NMT would be elitist by comparison: it might do de haut en bas, and be generous to free-riders, but it would presumably be very conscious of a public service remit. I imagine the NMT would mostly sponsor serious material and let the market take care of mass entertainment. Good luck with squaring that circle, Ms Jowell.

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Publication date

13 November 2012


On TV & Radio