Chris Jury explains why we should defend the BBC against the free-marketeers.
The period of public consultation on the BBC Charter renewal has already been undermined by the announcement that from next year the BBC will be responsible for the cost of providing free TV licences to the over-75s. This in itself represents a 20 per cent cut in BBC funding. But Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has made it clear that this is the very best the BBC can hope for and that far more significant changes are being considered.
In response, the Federation of Entertainment Unions has launched the Love It Or Lose It: Save the BBC campaign. Much to our surprise, the campaign has met with sullen indifference and even hostility from many on the left, based on the assertion that the BBC has a malevolent right-wing bias and is simply a propaganda tool of the Establishment.
It is undoubtedly true that for at least the last 20 years the BBC has mirrored the prevailing neoliberal economic and political orthodoxy and that “the suits” have seen their salaries rise to staggering levels in exchange for imposing cuts on
everyone else. But this has happened across the public and private sectors, so why would we expect the BBC to be any different? And does anyone seriously think that turning the BBC into a fully commercial media company will improve its political bias?
Ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, every BBC Charter renewal has seen the its legitimacy challenged using the catch-22, free-market argument which says that if the BBC makes popular mainstream programmes then it is unfairly competing with commercial businesses that should provide such programmes.
But if it only made niche public service programmes a universal licence fee would not be justified and the only way to resolve this dichotomy is for BBC content to be paid for directly by individual consumers through a mixture of commercial subscriptions, pay-per-view and advertising. Thus the size and function of the BBC would be determined by the market, not by politicians.
In response, many quite rightly argue that for licence payers the BBC is incredible value for money. For 40p a day you get 11 TV channels, 18 radio stations, iPlayer, the website, three orchestras and one of the most highly regarded news services in the world.
But the free-marketeers simply respond by saying: “Great! If it’s such value for money then consumers will voluntarily pay for a commercial subscription, right?”
And they claim that “free” consumers, making “free” consumer choices in a “free” market will force the BBC to provide the programmes that the viewers actually want — and that these “freely” made consumer choices are a far more authentic expression of the collective will than any choices made through democratic institutions ever can be.
This is of course the same “public bad, private good” logic that is used to attack the NHS, education, social services and everything else in the public sector.
But it is a profound misrepresentation of how business actually works. The purpose of any commercial business is not to provide goods or services to the public but to make money for its owners.
Indeed, the law has established that for public companies traded on the stock market, this is their only legal purpose. And it may surprise you to hear that the business of commercial TV companies is not the making and broadcasting of television programmes but the selling of advertising and/or subscriptions.
In business terms, the content of TV channels is simply a cost that has to be endured in order to generate the income from the real business, which is selling advertising and/or subscriptions. The profit comes from charging more for advertising and subscriptions than it costs to acquire the programmes.
This is not of course how viewers experience television. To viewers, its programmes are cultural objects, just like books, plays, songs, symphonies or operas and they carry huge significance and meaning. To a passionate Whovian, Dr Who is not a consumer product. It is an imaginative window into a life-enhancing world of infinite possibilities. To a regular viewer of Eastenders, the characters and world of the story are part of their own experience of social life, not simply a branded consumer product like washing powder.
Being informed by television about the arts, wildlife, history, news, science or how institutions work from the inside transforms lives on a daily basis. It informs career choices for the young, stimulates people to take action by joining organisations and it enriches all our lives by allowing us to observe and share experiences across space and time.
We experience television as a transformative cultural experience and for most of us television is the principal, if not the only, opportunity we get for such experiences. Television, and what’s on it is hugely important to us as individuals and to the health of our society. Making money for the owners is not the primary aim of the BBC, nor is selling advertising or subscriptions.
Its purpose is, or should be, to use the latest broadcasting technology to inform, educate and entertain the British public as democratic citizens and to do so without pressure from corporate advertisers or the government — hence the licence fee, which is actually a noble and praiseworthy attempt to provide value-for-money for licence-payers and a non-commercial income for the BBC while keeping the government and commercial corporations at arms length.
For a democracy to be meaningful all citizens have to be informed and educated to a level that allows them to analyse and critique competing economic and political theories and policies, to engage with civic life and to make informed choices at the ballot box.
The BBC is not simply a provider of consumer media content; it is, or should be, one of the foundational institutions of our democracy. A fully commercial BBC would owe no allegiance to Britain or its democratic citizens but only to its “customers,” and the only influence they could have would be to subscribe or not to subscribe.
So the questions we need to ask about the BBC are not whether we like this programme or that programme, or whether this or that presenter is a Tory bastard.
We need to ask whether we think our democracy would operate more effectively if the BBC became a commercial business, whether cultural life and the public expression of our shared cultures would be enhanced or whether television news and comment would be more reliable.
Just like the NHS, the questions about the future of the BBC are ideological. Do we believe that free markets are the only just and efficient way to provide individuals with all their wants and needs? Or do we believe that collectively owned public institutions are crucial to mitigating the inevitably brutal, destructive and chaotic effects of the marketplace?
Culture is both individual and universal and, of course, we make personal and individual choices based on which cultural objects we prefer. But the result of these choices is far more than simply an aggregate of these choices. It is what we call “our culture,” all of us live embedded within it and, like it or not, television has for the last 50 years been the defining and determining expression of our culture and will, in some digital manifestation or another, be so for many years to come.