“Scrap the BBC!”, 2020

In 2007 I wrote “Scrap the BBC!” for the Social Affairs Unit. It was subtitled, “10 years to set broadcasters free”. Well, that didn’t happen. The next big though interim discussion about the Corporation’s future is set for 2022, preparatory for a new charter in 2027. What are the odds of major change within ten years?

I wouldn’t bet on it, not with my record. Anyway, a much bigger set of questions arises. How are we to handle the new world of media?

On BBC Radio Kent yesterday I made rather a mess of outlining my thoughts for BBC scrappage, mostly because they had developed a lot but not clearly enough for a surprise chat at speed. My bad. Here’s a go at a little more coherence.

There is no need for the government to corset and cosset broadcasters. They should be at least as free of regulation as any other media operators. As to who pays, in the future most entertainment and information will either be free (so far as the consumer is concerned) or behind paywalls. I make various propositions.

Many commentators seem to suppose that the BBC as an institution should be preserved. I don’t (so I diverge from the views of my hero Philip Booth in his otherwise excellent “New Vision”, IEA Current Controversies 71 on this bit). I think the BBC’s importance is wildly over-stated. When its current funding model collapses, the BBC might as well as collapse with it. What will then happen to its many parts?

One way or another, most of the BBC’s activities will continue, and some may even bear the BBC brand and logo. And yes, I have a view about how we can maintain and improve some of the public service material the market (subscribers and advertisers, etc) may not fund.

In the brave new world, and absent the monolithic BBC, it will become even more important to address the issue of ensuring there is plenty of serious journalism, and of making sure no-one is deprived of access to it. These are problems which exist now, even alongside the supposedly brilliant BBC. True, more service providers will freely provide their own, raw, news: the justice system, the armed forces, health trusts, schools, universities, political parties and so on will all get better at this. Fact-check NGOs will get an increased role in monitoring them for accuracy. But still:

(1) The market may fail to produce longform serious journalism, whether in rolling news, documentaries or commentary. I imagine affluent literate people clubbing together to provide it for themselves and others, in the manner of the National Trust (especially in its landscape mode) or the RNLI. Let’s call this a Media National Trust. In an ideal world it would not aim at producing a gold standard of impartiality (code for vaguely liberal mush), but at providing a “marketplace” of competing flavours, styles and opinions. Its aim, I think, would be to fund specific activities or individuals, and access to their work, irrespective of the medium whereby it is delivered. Its biggest difficulty might be in maintaining real diversity: the Bossy Liberal blob which afflicts the BBC already can be quietly hegemonic in any sphere.

(2) The poor will doubtless be flooded with free entertainment, but may need to be given free access to important material which they could not or would not pay for. The Media National Trust could fund such access, perhaps via the benefits system. Media providers of any kind might be required to co-operate with a system of widening access to important material.

(3) I imagine that the present system of bundled subscriptions (Sky, Netflix, Prime, The Times, Telegraph, FT, and perhaps, soon, the Guardian, and many others) might break down as consumers find they would rather pay for material on a “pay-per-view” rather than a bundled subscription basis. It may be that the poor could be given, along with their benefits, access to a certain number of free units of pay-per-view media material.

(4) It may well be that radio is a peculiarity in the media scene. Inherently low cost, it may be the one medium we prefer, and perhaps need, to receive over the airwaves. It would make an ideal stamping ground for the Media National Trust. It might become the medium audiences turn to when they want to hear difficult conversations, vital announcements, or material of mostly local interest. BBC Radio 4 and BBC local radio should not imagine that they are the perfect model for these operations.

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Publication date

22 January 2020


BBC; Media