“Scrap the BBC!” (2016) on BBC radio

This month saw the publication of the 2016 government White Paper on the BBC which as part of the 2016 Charter renewal process, will set the purposes, funding and governance of the state broadcaster for eleven years.

I was wheeled out on Radio 5 Live and a couple of BBC Radio Scotland shows to defend my view that the BBC ought to be got rid of. Almost all the arguments I used in my book, “Scrap the BBC!”: Ten years to set broadacsters free in 2007 seem germane now. The book’s main fault was in supposing that by now, 2016, we would be further ahead in freeing ourselves of fear of losing the BBC. Indeed, the White Paper is at the very most merely a small step toward a reduced, let alone an abolished BBC.

In one matter, the appetite to be rid of the flat, 12-month licence fee, I have better evidence than I did in 2007. It is an area, see below, in which I have a bit of a beef with Steve Hewlett, the country’s leading media guru.


Before we get to that, here is brief rundown of what I said on some other BBC issues….

I noted that this latest iteration of Government policy seemed like a retreat from the preferred if muted view of the DCMS’s (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) secretary of state, John Whittingdale (so far as we know it), that the BBC should begin quite seriously to accept that its days are numbered. Instead, we had some very polite moves toward very limited experimentation with some subscription services from the Corporation and some increased demands that it be open to outside contractors. On all sides, there was a good deal of discussion on governance issues, none of which seem to me to be of much interest (and on which I broadly take the Michael Grade view).

My attack on the BBC is driven by a strong feeling that we no longer need to regulate (or support) the content of our broadcasters and that doing so sits oddly with the much-vaunted freedom of our press, publishers, theatre and anyone else to say what they like, within the laws of slander and so on.

On one of the Radio Scotland shows I said that people were probably beginning to realise that funding the BBC by a compulsory flat fee on anyone using a TV (and now the iPlayer) is absurd. My argument was that the more people pay to watch non-BBC material, the more they will wonder whether they want to go on paying a flat fee for the BBC. Steve Hewlett went on to riposte that such arguments have a long way to go, granted that the vast majority of TV is still watched live, as it is broadcast. I am almost sure he mentioned a couple of figures above 90 percent for such “traditional viewing”.

That had me searching for some evidence on the matter.

I found the Ofcom Communications Market Report 2015. At page 5 (“Developments In Viewing Beyond Traditional TV”) it says that 70 percent of viewing of “audio-visual” material is of traditional (live) TV, but with the old watching 80-odd percent live, but the young watching only 50 percent live. (I think audio-visual here includes short-form stuff such as YouTube, which one may think of as ad-supported material, like ITV’s.)

This data surely reinforces the credibility of my view that as time goes on, and the more people time-shift with PVR or catch-up or online or box-set, whether on-TV or not, the more they may doubt the channel-driven, bundled, long-term subscription model, and the more they will be happy with, and even expect, pay-per-view micro-payment.

I also found some data from BARB which seems to support my general view that generationally there will be a huge shift from TV being delivered and viewed live by bundled channels paid for by long-term contracts (licence fees or long-term subscriptions) and toward pay-per-view (casual use of Netflix, and box sets, for instance). The BARB data suggests the shift from live is already happening, especially amongst the young, and especially for drama, arts and documentary material (rather than for sport and news, for obvious and various reasons). The BARB data says that an average 13.2 percent of TV viewing is “timeshifted”, by which it seems to mean that 13.2 percent of TV transmitted (rather than online) is recorded for later use. This may explain the discrepancy between Ofcom’s 30 percent average and BARB’s lower figure (presuming that Ofcom include online material, whether on TV or non-TV screens). I have not checked with Ofcom and BARB that my interpretation of the data is right and may do so if there are enough rainy days to keep me indoors in the next few months.

I think there is much in what Steve Hewlett says about people’s affection for the BBC (I would add, perhaps more for BBC material than for the BBC as an instituion) and its cheapness (I would add, especially for those who consume a lot of it). I certainly stress, with regret, that there is a strong streak of conservatism in the public suport for the post-war statism of funding and providing many services, including health, education, pensions, and welfare services. Indeed, I focus my main attack on statism on the smallish issue of broadcasting because the BBC is already semi-detached from the state (therefore easiest, one might say, to fully detach it); but also because the system subborns exactly the class of people who should most seek independence of the state in their work, namely journalists and artists. (Of course, the left argues that the state protects creatives from the corporate ownership which would otherwise subborn them, to which I reply that a National Trust of Media would be an interesting model to make up for any market failure, or for corporate hegemony.)

However, my argument ought to garner support from anyone pragmatically concerned about the fate of journalism. Customers seem quite reluctant to sign-up for access to online newspaper content, and it seems reasonable to suppose that buying journalism piece-by-piece may soon seem much more attractive as a model, just as – by my argument – they will prefer to make micro-payments, programme-by-programme for other media. Oddly, you may say, Sky may then face much the same sort of pressures to un-bundle as the BBC ought to.

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Publication date

17 May 2016