27 August, 2003: Maldon Calling

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It's nice to see the Shadow Cabinet doing their bit to alienate another segment of the population -- about five million of them, this time. Here we have John Whittingdale, MP for Maldon and East Chelmsford and Conservative Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, telling us that the BBC web site is a Bad Thing, on the basis that

the same services are provided by commercial operators

-- services like background information on BBC programmes, reporting done by BBC journalists, copies of BBC programmes already paid for by the licence fee, free educational material for schools, historical news material and so forth.

Naturally, Whittingdale has a good reason for all this:

As a free-market Conservative, I will only support a nationalised industry if I'm persuaded that that is the only way to do it.

-- isn't it odd how the Right has become dogmatic just when the Left has become pragmatic? A cynic might suggest another motive; the Register of Members' Interests tells us that last year Whittingdale received, (emphasis mine)

Gifts, benefits and hospitality (UK)

6 July 2002, my god-daughter and I attended the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament as guests of Provident Financial. (Registered 10 July 2002)

7 December 2002, I attended a day's shooting at Glimpton Park as a guest of Associated Newspapers Ltd. (Registered 19 December 2002)

20 February 2003, my wife and I attended the Brit Awards at Earls Court as guests of the British Phonographic Industry. (Registered 12 March 2003)

... that said, Associated Newspapers have, by their standards, a reasonably balanced piece on Whittingdale's idea and I imagine that a single weekend of murdering cute fluffy animals isn't enough enough to change the direction of Tory policy. I suppose being Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport must be fairly dull, since Whittingdale's previous media triumphs include venturing that he's opposed to sex -- on TV, anyway.

Ah well. You won't win my vote by promising to abolish services I use every day.

Meanwhile, we have the BBC proposing to put their programme archive on the web, (a wonderful idea, which doubtless they'll stuff up by using a dumb proprietary format for the programmes, but you can't have everthing) and, simultaneously, the DCMS reviewing the operations of the BBC web site.

The review is, again, concerned with the `market impact' of the BBC's services. It's reasonable to expect that the BBC's offerings will distort the `market' in online news -- just like News Corporation's do in the newspaper market. Is this a problem?

Obviously the BBC's effect on the marketplace is only important if it is preventing the appearance of other services which provide better value for the consumer. Is this likely to be true?

We can look at other media markets, such as the United States, where there's no BBC market distortion (just the regular kind provided by fair and balanced sources like Clear Channel and News Corporation) and... we find that people in the US are increasingly reading the BBC and other European news sites rather than local media offerings.

While I appreciate the the Government is dead keen to allow News Corporation and Disney to control all media outlets in the UK that's hardly likely to improve what's on offer.

In any case, all we can do is wait for the results of the review. I note that it is possible to submit comments on the review procedure. I recommend everybody does; I have no doubt that consultation responses will be treated in the same spirit of fairness and impartiality as in previous consultations.

There is another issue we should address when thinking about the BBC: the television licence fee. Being a flat fee, this is regressive taxation and therefore Bad and Wrong. But typically, those campaigning against the fee -- such as the Sunday Times -- do so not because of a horror of regressive taxation but because they think that the fee is a good point of weakness which can be used to attack the BBC as a whole. I don't see people attacking the principle of -- say -- income tax simply because it's used to fund a particular service they don't like.

The licence fee yields about 3 billion per year, corresponding to about 100 from about 30 million television-owning households. This is a bit under 3% of annual income-tax revenue (about 0.7p on the basic rate) or approximately the cost of Britain's military involvement in Iraq.

Would we be better funding the BBC from general taxation? It's not clear. Presently you can choose whether or not to contribute to the BBC; if it were funded from general taxation, that would no longer be the case. But since it turns out that most households do choose to watch TV, it would certainly be better to have a progressive television licence fee.

(Another alternative would be to tax commercial broadcasters to pay for the BBC. However, despite being handed monopoly rights to vast swathes of the electromagnetic spectrum, benefitting from heavily-subsidised satellite launches, allowed to carry adverts and broadcast any old crap, to charge people money for watching football games that used to be available free on the BBC, and to plug their services endlessly in the newspapers, broadcasters like Sky struggle to make significant profits -- only 129 million last year.)


Before writing the above, I emailed John Whittingdale about his proposals. I didn't, in all honesty, expect a reply, but to my surprise I've now received one. To quote the most important parts of his email,

Let me be clear. It is not the policy of the Conservative Party to close down the BBC Web-site. However, I do believe that BBC interactive should be examined, along with every other aspect of the BBC's activities, as a part of the process of Charter review.

-- which is good news, though he continues, (emphasis mine)

With regard to the BBC's On-line activities, it is clearly sensible that the BBC make available its programmes through the web to allow greater access to them. BBC News also has a deservedly high reputation and I recognise that many people rely upon it. However, it is only sensible to ask whether it is right to have a state-owned and funded web-site, whether it is a proper use of public money and whether it is preventing other commercial organisations from entering the market. I welcome the fact that, almost simultaneous to my own comments, the Government announced that it had asked Philip Graf, former Chief Executive of Trinity Mirror, to conduct a review of BBCi considering exactly the same questions.

-- which is the same, troubling, dogmatism reported in the Guardian piece I quote above. Again, no argument for whether increased competition will actually improve the media available to the British public (and, incidentally, others around the world).

Just to repeat that, the idea that increasing competition in the markets in which the BBC competes will improve services available to the public is only a hypothesis. While creating markets in (e.g.) domestic electricity supply has lowered prices -- and reliability -- there's no reason a priori to assume that limiting the BBC's activities so as to encourage commercial operators to set up their own (say) news web sites will improve the standard of service available to the public. It's worth pointing out that, for instance, all of the News Corporation newspapers' web sites are crap -- The Times, for instance, charges for access to its archives and isn't properly searchable. (Not, I think, coincidentally, the most useful of the newspaper sites is the Guardian's -- run by the Scott Trust, not a fatuous corporate behemoth --or, rather, `the only vertically integrated media company on a global scale'.)

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.