A familiar assault on the BBC: a response to David Graham's report for the Adam Smith Institute

The Adam Smith Institute and the wider right could never palate the success of any publicly funded institution, so their latest reports' prescriptions for the BBC come as no surprise, argues Steven Barnett.
Steven Barnett
13 August 2010

Right-wing think tanks don’t like the BBC. Never have, never will. This latest attempt from the Adam Smith Institute to diagnose the BBC “problem” and then propose a “solution” is a disappointingly shallow and intellectually weak analysis which – surprise, surprise – concludes that the licence fee should be replaced with a voluntary subscription. 

At the heart of its convoluted argument is a simple conviction which has defined every right of centre approach to the BBC since the Peacock Committee: private sector good, public sector bad. The right simply cannot abide publicly funded institutions, even ones that manifestly contribute to Britain’s social, economic and cultural welfare. If it’s funded by taxation, they start from the assumption that something is profoundly wrong. The notion that we might just have created an internationally admired and domestically effective institution through the simple expedient of an annual fee simply doesn’t bear thinking about. Something must be done.

It is curious that the purported aim of this report is to “elevate ambitions and liberate energies”. In fact, that’s just what the BBC does. But we read virtually nothing about what this actually means in terms of vibrant journalism or creative dynamism or cultural innovation before the report moves swiftly on to the familiar narrative about radical technological change demanding a radical policy response. And so it has been for at least 25 years since cable was first laid and the Hunt Report predicted a technological revolution. There is always another revolution coming, another transformed consumer experience, another excuse for dismantling a publicly funded institution which offends the right’s sensibilities. Deja vu, all over again.

There then follows a feeble and incomprehensible attempt to pre-empt the “defenders of the system” by outlining their arguments. This refers in abstract terms to the BBC’s news, education and welfare roles while either deliberately or lazily ignoring virtually every rationale for maintaining a strong, independent, internationally admired, publicly funded institution: barely a word about value for money, or the economic and export benefits, or the enormous cultural impact of programmes that are rooted in British identity and British lives, or the contribution to innovation and training, or the value of a universally available communicative space which is devoid of commercial messages and free at the point of delivery. 

When it comes to radio, this supposedly radical set of ideas falls back on the hoary old notion of giving up Radios 1, 2 and 5 to advertising. No thought to how that would impact on the rest of the commercial radio sector, not a single mention of how a shift to commercial funding would transform the output of the stations. If the Adam Smith Institute really believes that a commercially funded Radio 1 would champion new bands, expand its playlist and give over chunks of airtime to news and documentary features, it clearly does not live in the real world. 

Fairness is a recurrent theme, in particular fairness to the poor and fairness to the BBC’s competitors. While the Adam Smith Institute shows commendable concern for those who are being prosecuted for non-payment of the licence fee because they can’t afford it, their distress might be better directed towards alleviating poverty rather than one tiny symptom of its effects. Given that income support is available to all, and that the licence fee is included in the calculations of a basic living income, there is anyway no reason for not paying it. I doubt that the Adam Smith Institute would favour an increase in state hand-outs to assist those who struggle to pay their other bills.

More in tune with the Adam Smith Institute’s basic philosophy is the report’s concern for the health of private sector competitors. Of course the BBC restricts opportunities in the private sector, in much the same way that many Harley Street practitioners have their income potential severely constrained by the NHS. We don’t premise health debates on  assumptions that the job of the public sector is to fill in gaps left by the private health insurance market, just as we don’t start debates about policing on the basis of enhancing opportunities for Group 4. We start with public policy objectives, and an essentially social democratic ideal of a public space, like libraries and public parks, which offers access to all and does not treat its users as consumers defined by the size of their wallet. 

There are many other problems with this report. It refers to an “emerging consensus” about top-slicing the licence fee as if there had been barely a voice raised in anger against the last government’s daft proposals. Did the authors not read the responses to the Labour government’s plans for funding local news consortia from the licence fee? Do they really not understand how much James Murdoch, amongst others, despises the idea because it would enable the licence fee subsidy to leak out to other organisations rather than be contained within a single easy target? There is certainly no such consensus amongst policy analysts in academic circles who have seen the same discredited ideas being recycled for over 25 years. 

And there is the same old nonsense about HBO, its wonderfully original drama, and its profitability. All of this is true – and tells us precisely nothing about the UK. HBO’s success in the US is directly attributable to the size and scale of the American market: over 300 million people and a potential universe of 115 million television household subscribers. That is five times the potential market in the UK in a country whose GDP is seven times ours. So of course it has the financial muscle to produce great drama. Which, of course, is all that HBO does. Even with its huge market potential, it does not produce high quality peak-time journalism, it doesn’t do radio or online, nor make ground-breaking documentaries nor stimulating children’s programmes. And that’s certainly not because the big networks are doing it. 

If the Adam Smith Institute really wants a better understanding of how we can learn from American experience, it should turn to one of its fellow ideologues. According to Professor Robert Lichter, president of a Washington-based conservative pressure group and paid consultant to Fox Television, the free market is not the universal panacea so beloved by its devotees. He said a few years ago: “I've never been able to figure out how competition makes cars better and television worse. In other industries, competition creates new and different products. In television, it makes all the products look the same. That's weird”. 

Weird maybe, but demonstrably true in every country which has pursued a free market, commodified view of broadcasting rather than starting with desirable public policy outcomes. The Adam Smith Institute’s “solution” would redefine public service programming as dull, worthy, low-rating programes which would be relegated to the margins. It would inevitably result in less of what people actually want. Less original high quality drama, less new comedy, less high quality news, less investment in British children’s programmes, less original investigative journalism, less innovation. And it would destroy one of the few remaining properly resourced, independent and internationally acclaimed journalistic operations. 

Rather than taking a great British institution and vandalising it, wouldn’t it be wonderful if – just once – one of those dry, economistic policy think tanks could throw off their ideological straitjackets and actually celebrate the cultural, democratic and economic benefits which the BBC continues to bring to every British citizen? But that would mean the ultimate heresy – praise for a publicly funded institution. Pigs will fly first. 

Global player or Subsidy Junkie? Decision time for the BBC by David Graham

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