Saturday, 19 July 2008

I still believe in the BBC - but not in its bosses' arguments

By Sam Leith


"C'mon, guys," was essentially the argument Mark Thompson advanced here in defence of the licence fee. "It's only 40p a day. And look at all the totally great stuff we do with it. Would you really want Jonathan Ross turfed out on the street? How would you feel when you met the tympanist from the BBC Orchestra busking outside White City Tube?"

Mr Thompson is someone to whom - to adapt Burns - the giftie was alas not gi'en, to see himself as ithers see'um. All across the British Isles, knotted purple veins pulsed on the foreheads of this newspaper's freedom-loving readers, and red threadlets crazy-paved the whites of their eyes. "Hey guys," he might as well have written. "We're extorting money from you under threat of imprisonment, but it's not very much money so you might as well stop carping."

  • His haughtiness, his apparent failure even to understand why some people object to the licence fee, seems to me to be the most damaging thing of all to his case. The BBC cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, we are told, its chat-show hosts and senior executives must be paid telephone-number salaries because we are competing with the commercial sector; on the other, we are told that they must be paid from a compulsory tax, because the BBC is not competing with the commercial sector.

    On the one hand, we are told that the BBC deserves its funding because it is hugely popular; on the other, we are told that its programming would wither on the vine were its popularity to be tested in the marketplace. On the one hand, we are told that it has a "unique link" with its adoring viewers; on the other, we are assured that so strong and affectionate is that link that it needs to be maintained by the full majesty of the criminal law. There is a word that describes all of these arguments, and it rhymes with "rowlocks".

    But tempting though it is to move from that realisation to a wholesale call for abolition, I think there is an argument in the other direction - not a perfect one, but one that touches on something many of us feel.

    The anti-BBC ultras will always say: let the chill winds of the free market decide. But many of us - however we see the intellectual clarity of their case, and despise the bloat of the Beeb - will feel a pang of anxiety as we look about us at the witless wasteland of so much commercial broadcasting. Is that what will be left?

    The BBC is an organ of the state. Lincoln suggested that it is the purpose of government to capture "the better angels of our nature". State schooling, National Insurance, and the NHS all attest to the idea that there is such a thing as a collective good. So why should what you might call "informational health" automatically be outwith the remit of the public services?

    I do not mean that the job of the BBC is to spend a fortune fielding chat-shows against their big-money commercial equivalents; nor that it should, at the other end of the scale, be chasing niche audiences down digital rabbit holes.

    I mean, rather, that certain things - be they aspects of political scrutiny such as Question Time, or live broadcasts from Parliament - could justifiably be the province of a state broadcaster; as could other less commercial programming that would seek to inform and explain.

    Above all, I'm thinking about news reporting. This is something that is very, very expensive to do well - and it is something the BBC, however bedevilled by accusations of bias, at present does do excellently. The balkanisation of the commercial media means fewer and fewer organisations are able to invest in original reporting or proper verification: cheap, quick and sexy increasingly trumps fair, honest and scrupulous. A properly independent BBC, funded by all of us, could be exempt from that trend.

    A well-informed electorate is no less a public good than a physically healthy one. So if Ofcom is, as yesterday's report indicated, set to recommend a smaller licence fee and by implication a smaller BBC - one that would capture the better angels of our nature rather than competing with the worst - I'd say that deserves consideration. And if it puts Jonathan Ross out on the street…well. We shall be forced to contain our grief.

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