Money can’t buy you broadcasting value

Steven Barnett
22 August 2001

In the first issue of openDemocracy we published a defense of public service broadcasting by Andrew Graham - one of its most influential British advocates. At the same time David Elstein, our media strand’s co-editor, responded to Graham. Elstein attacked the way public service broadcasting is funded and the kind of assumptions Graham made about it.

Over the following weeks, Elstein’s critique provoked a number of responses and contributions on the state of public service around the world. He in turn summed them up and replied in issue 5. In his conclusion he challenged Steve Barnett – who had dismissed Elstein’s arguments in his column in the

Sunday Observer – to do better and join our debate.

Now Steve Barnett has, arguing that David Elstein’s fixation with cost is one-dimensional. He contends that British broadcasting must throw off the intellectual straitjacket imposed on it by the Peacock enquiry in the mid-eighties, and more recently by the Davies report into BBC funding, which point towards the limited privatisation of BBC assets.

Like Elstein, Barnett is concerned to point out that the principles of his argument are meant to apply to developed television broadcasting throughout the world, even if his specific focus is limited to Britain.

There is not much doubt about David Elstein’s current position, based on his most recent contribution. He wants to know what is the “most cost-effective way of delivering” what the market place can’t. He talks about the “cost of provision” being too high in the public sector and of dealing with “inherent inefficiency” in the public sector. He complains that there’s never any question of “reducing costs” in the BBC to reduce the licence fee, and that there is “no incentive to contain costs” in Channel 4. He advocates “low-cost regulation” as a good alternative to public funding and states that commercial channels have proved in the past that they “can achieve much at relatively low cost”. He rails against the “large-scale inefficiencies” of the current system and, he says, asks only that the public sector broadcasters be required to “provide good value for the large sums of public money they absorb”.

There are at least three problems with attempting to base an attack on public service broadcasting entirely on “value for money” arguments. First, by stripping away any reference to social purpose or societal context, David reduces broadcasting to a simple business product which requires its practioners to provide as much as possible for as little as possible.

Although he misrepresented my arguments in the Observer, it is worth restating the analogy in order to understand where this argument takes us. A penal policy dictated entirely by cost-effectiveness logic would require that any individual sentenced to a long period of imprisonment should be executed rather than kept at the state’s expense in prison. The combined cost of overheads on buildings, employment costs of warders, food and other provisions for prisoners easily exceeds the cost of maintaining a working gallows. It is wasteful, inefficient and extremely cost ineffective to keep wrongdoers locked up at the taxpayers’ expense.

In most countries, penal policy is based firstly on considerations of public safety, deterrence and fair punishment. Once these criteria have been satisfied, and prisons are deemed to be appropriate for some categories of crime and criminal, then of course there is a place for ensuring they are run cost-effectively. But these are second-order considerations, a long way behind issues of social responsibility and humanity. Once you start to put cost-saving at the top of your priorities, all sorts of unpleasant public policy issues will follow.

Cost-effective means cost-cutting

The second problem is that there is a very fine distinction - and often no distinction at all - between cost-effective and cost-cutting. In the service or manufacturing industries, there is a limit to the cuts that companies can make before customers recognise inferior products or declining standards of service and vote with their feet. In the creative industries, the effect of “efficiencies” is less obvious and far less immediate. The new comedy show that isn’t commissioned because it’s too risky or the lead actors are not well-known; the news bureaus that are closed down, the current affairs programme which confines itself to easily researchable domestic stories.

When we conducted interviews with drama and current affairs producers as part of our study for the Campaign for Quality Television two years ago, there were countless depressing stories of the impact of “efficiency savings” and the gradual erosion of creative spirit. And of course, the corporate mergers and takeovers which are now so fashionable are followed by the inevitable efficiency exercises. Anyone wanting insights into the impact on the journalism of CNN after the merger between AOL and Time Warner - and the 400 redundancies which followed last January - should try the website TedsTurnovers.com.

Measuring Value

The third problem is that the whole notion of “value for money” is one of those arcane business management phrases which are unquantifiable in the knowledge industries. On what basis would you define a programme, a channel or even television itself as value for money? David accepts that the BBC has been pursuing the objective of value for money “with some vigour”, but doesn’t attempt to offer criteria for what might constitute success or failure. This is hardly surprising, because it is an impossible exercise.

In health and education, which have both been subjected to arguments about wastefulness and bureaucracy, the debate now is about how to inject more money into the system to improve services, rather than how to suck money out to “improve efficiency”. Unfortunately, disinvestment in broadcasting does not provide tabloid headline stories of elderly people in hospital corridors or children being sent home from school because of inadequate staff cover. Thankfully there is no tangible, real-life suffering which can expose the real consequences of efficiency-savings and force a rethink of how one might quantify the impact.

There are no criteria laid down in the private sector either, but it is implicit in arguments about efficiency that the private sector is inherently efficient. This is nonsense. Anyone who has worked in or with any large corporation will recognise the massive time-wasting and bureaucracies which are involved in departmental reorganisations or feuding, the desperate territorial battles that are being fought out every day, and the executive privileges which put the BBC in the shade. That they are disguised by healthy profits and therefore happy shareholders does not make these practices any more “efficient”.

Moreover, in times of belt-tightening and increased competitive pressure, it is simply untrue to suggest that private companies invariably become transformed into lean, mean, well-oiled machines. They simply sack some people, restructure and carry on. Inefficiency, whether taxpayer funded, consumer funded or shareholder funded, is an inherent part of the human corporate condition. Yes, let’s talk about minimising it, but only on the understanding that we need to lay down proper criteria for how this might be achieved and what else might be sacrificed in the process.

Not just economic

So value for money arguments are flawed, but that is not my fundamental problem with David’s arguments. The real issue, implicit in the first point I made above, is the need to replace the economistic market-based ideology which has framed broadcasting debates for nearly two decades with something which recognises the contribution which television and radio make to the country’s social, political and cultural life.

Interestingly, it is exactly ten years ago this week that precisely such an argument was made in the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture which traditionally opens the annual Edinburgh Television Festival. It was a fascinating time. There had been, in the speaker’s words, “a remarkable sea-change… in the way that the structure of broadcasting is perceived: the shift from social values to market forces”. ITV was suffering the consequences of Peacock’s legacy, and satellite television had for over two years been offering the multi-channel environment which we take for granted today. Despite all this, the lecture was framed in terms of emphasising the “social values” of television. It is worth quoting at length because its arguments are as important today as they were ten years ago.

Channel 4, then not even ten years old, was described as having “cut through the wasteful duplication of market orthodoxy” to reach out to the minority groups and interests denied by the other three main channels. The decision to separate Channel 4 from and force it to compete with ITV – a Thatcherite move to offer advertisers real competition for airtime and ensure a more cost-efficient Channel 4 – was described as having “no coherent intellectual foundation”. And why was there so little debate about this wanton and blatantly political move? Part of the reason given was that the independents who had fought for the creation of the channel, and who had demonstrated that production costs could be cut, had been neutralised: “the highly important role they played in the economic critique of broadcasting structures only emphasizes how muted they have been in offering a social critique.”

Given the timing of this lecture – at the tail-end of the Thatcherite economic revolution and the beginning of the broadcasting revolution – the speaker was careful to acknowledge a transformed political and technological context. Any new concept of social values in broadcasting would have to “incorporate the new ideas of the eighties – value for money, independent access, multiplicity of choices”. It would have to recognise that new technology “can put 95 percent of the population within reach of dozens of free or pay channels”.

Even within a broadcasting environment so vastly different from the spectrum scarcity and social welfare consensus which governed it until the beginning of the eighties, the speaker called for an all-embracing BBC. “[J]ust as important as the BBC’s funding is the principle that it cover the full range of television programming. For the BBC to retreat into a public affairs ghetto… would permanently impoverish the nation’s viewers. The BBC needs to attract a substantial share of the audience to justify its funding: but in attracting that audience it, more importantly, sets standards and offers competition in every category of programming.”

The BBC’s range should include drama, comedy, sport, and variety as well as the traditional public service fare because such a range of programming should “be seen to offer a rounded picture of the viewer as citizen, with television as society’s prime source of information, entertainment and cultural stimulation in the broadest sense”. And in order to achieve that range, to be able to make The Generation Game and Casualty as well as Panorama and Horizon, the BBC needed scale and funding to match: “To deliver such range, and to generate so much in the way of new ideas and new production, requires the BBC to have ambition, competence, size, secure funding, creative talent and room for experiment and failure”.

Noticeably absent from that list - though explicitly acknowledged earlier in the lecture as one consideration amongst many - was value for money. The speaker ended with a self-critical rallying cry, asking for an acknowledgement that “we collectively failed to offer a coherent statement of the social purpose of broadcasting when faced with a government policy that explicitly placed competition and choice ahead of quality…. an agenda driven so aimlessly by technical possibility, commercial desire and arid consumerism must surely awaken those of us who work in broadcasting to the value of what we do, the need to express that value and the urgency of defending it”.

Reclaiming social value

It was stirring stuff, all the more so because it came from an illustrious ITV executive who might not have been expected to defend the BBC and because it was so out of tune with the politics of the time. And there’s the irony. Ten years on, despite the market rhetoric of increasing numbers of Labour cabinet ministers, sentimental expressions about the social value of broadcasting are now much more politically acceptable than they were in 1991. The rallying cry at the end of that lecture would be far more congenial to the culture ministers of today than those of even John Major’s government at the time.

Unfortunately, while the political climate may have become a little more enlightened, the industry climate has moved swiftly in the opposite direction. Today’s broadcasting executives are not often heard discussing how they can best define and then pursue broadcasting’s social purpose. They are heard discussing the bottom line, product enhancement, export potential, deal-making, efficiency-savings and value for money.

They have, perhaps, lost sight that broadcasting - even in the era of broadband, digital and DSL - can still be an enormously powerful, creative, democratic and unifying cultural force which is capable of having a material and positive impact on real people’s lives. Whether it is a new comedy that launches raw acting or writing talent, a documentary that exposes some corruption or wrongdoing, a soap opera that sensitively covers a difficult social issue (and offers helplines and support literature in the process), a consumer programme that gets up the noses of powerful advertisers or a current affairs programme that gets up the noses of powerful politicians, these programmes can and do make substantial contributions to enhancing the kind of society we live in. How we protect those programmes and the creative structures which help to produce them ought to be our first priority - not finding a way of giving back some of the licence fee.

Just as that illustrious ITV executive sought to launch a debate about the social value of broadcasting for the nineties, I propose that we do the same for the new millennium. Of course there are new platforms, new delivery mechanisms, the Internet, TiVo, WAP phones, Palm Pilots and all manner of technical wizardry which can send sound and pictures around the world. The fact remains that in Britain we spend 25 hours a week watching the bog standard TV set, of which more than 80% is devoted to the five terrestrial channels. A debate about how to define and safeguard broadcasting’s social value today is just as relevant, just as urgent and a lot more interesting than another tedious debate about how to extract value for money from broadcasting’s public sector.

I am proposing that, while accepting the legacy of Peacock within today’s restructured broadcasting system, we finally eject the ideological baggage that underscored that report and start the search for a new set of principles more in keeping with the social welfare tendencies of Blairite Britain. To help me launch that search - or at least start the debate about new principles of social value in broadcasting - I would like to call on the formidable intellectual resources of the man who called us all to arms exactly ten years ago with that excellent MacTaggart lecture - David Elstein.

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