I am on a panel at next week's London symposium of the Public Service Broadcasting Forum, 10 June 2010 - the last panel of the day on "The public service media content that merits support in the digital future, and how it can be funded".
The context is less innocent than the question. The symposium is coming together around the BBC's symbolic strategy review, rather persuasively characterised by Richard Collins as being a crafty ploy revolving around keeping a grip on as large a portion of its poll tax license fee as possible.
I supose my basic sense is that the poll tax isn't right, however attached I am to any particular piece of BBC production and however much I like the idea that there must be non-market mechanisms for societies to come together and express their culture. It seems to me that BBC output is either like Covent Garden - mostly a gift for elites - or well covered by the new fragmented media.
Apart from this basic position of principle, I suppose I think there are specific ways that the poll tax is bad. It makes the BBC a highly political machine because the royal patent charter is so valuable that it is worth defending by every means possible. And a national broadcaster has no shortage of means to ingratiate itself to the sovereign.
But maybe the worst of it is that the existence of the BBC stops so many other flowers from blooming. Media is being transformed by society and technology, which it is in turn changing. In 20 years, we will contemplate a media world with unimagined organisations, businesses, not-for-profits, loose networks. Many of them will have been born in America, and Britain will bemoan the fact that we never capitalised on our English language asset to also establish organisations with transnational reach. And the reason will be that the BBC will have provided a focus for talent and funds in an entirely sui generis system that will be fatally mal-adapted to life elsewhere on the globe. It will be one of those missed opportunities of globalisation. Like the British motor car industry that today is relegated to niche high-end engineering, the BBC is all too likely to create just the same sort of niche-only life for British media production. The real cost of the license fee is invisible in this sense: it is all the good that will fail to come about because of its existence.
But that's still no answer to what public, what service, or who deserves what kind of support ... Still need to think a bit more positively about those.