The greater (and shorter) decriminalisation story: it's the physics of broadcasting, stupid

Brian Winston explains how the hypothecated tax and the BBC have gone together for the last 92 years like love and marriage: ‘you can’t have one without the other’.

Brian Winston
26 March 2014

The BBC has a wonderful story to tell. It is not unblemished but its record as a cultural institution, a source of information and a life-enhancing educator is nonpareil. However, this was achieved on a funding basis which implicitly and constantly threatened (and threatens) its ability to function in such wise.

It's the physics of broadcasting, stupid, that originally put it in this danger. 

A century and more ago, when wireless telegraphy was being diffused initially for communicating with and between ships at sea, it was seen as, essentially, a two-way technology. But to work, spectrum management was needed; otherwise, literally, an electrical tower of gabble would emerge. A series of international conferences worked up the treaties which required national authorities to license these 'transceivers' and ensure they operated on distinct bandwidths. WWI brought the 'transceiver' into widespread military use on land and so, in the years following the peace, the concept of state-control via licensing became deeply embedded -- so deeply that it conditioned the diffusion of receive-only wireless devices: the radio. These too were deemed to need licensing although, obviously, they could not interfere with each other.

And this was the blessing and the curse that attended the BBC's birth in the 1920s. As a blessing, it created the revenue stream that has ensured the achievements of which the Corporation can be so proud -- 'the world's least worse broadcasting system'. As a curse, it has also meant that throughout its history the BBC has always had to watch its back. At best, the threat is constant political interference backed up by the stranglehold the license system gives the politicians. At its worse, it means that any old Andrew Bridgen (and pals) can, at  stroke, remove the one thing essential to non-commercial public service -- the certainty of a non-commercial revenue stream. And they can do so trailing clouds of glory as the defenders of impoverished single mums and old ladies.

It can be argued -- and easily -- that we should never have bought into this situation in the first place in 1922 and 1927; but we did. And we need to understand the price we continue to pay for the service then created: unless the mums, old ladies (and all of us) are threatened with the consequences of (hypothecated) tax avoidance, there is no certain funding stream. And, thus, no certainty of culture, information or news from a non-commercial source. The physics have moved on but licensing has not. It is the BBC’s weak spot as it has been from the outset. Decriminalising is all too easily the thin end of the wedge. It cannot but suggest that the end of the Corporation is nigh and brave would one be to deny that such an outcome would be distressful to the neo-liberal mind-set.

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