Shiny Shelf

Barbarians at the Gate

By Mark Clapham on 20 October 2009

To be honest, even as an ardent defender of the BBC, I can’t bring myself to get too worked up about the specific proposal to abolish the BBC Trust announced by the Shadow Culture Secretary, the delightfully rhyming-slang-able Jeremy Hunt, this week.

Constant fiddling with the governance of public bodies is a fact of life and, in spite of a political and business culture that believes that the ghost-like presence of ‘leadership’ will guide all activities within a giant organisation with its invisible hand, change at the top doesn’t necessarily change anything further down, especially in a monolith like the BBC.

However, there are some presumptions in Hunt’s statements that are well worth challenging, at least partially because they seem to misunderstand the entire basis of British broadcasting and the BBC’s place in it. (I’ll mainly be talking about television here, by the way, and leave radio spods to draw their own conclusions.)

Enough people have already questioned how the BBC can possibly be failing to give the licence fee payers what they want while simultaneously damaging competitors, as the former presumes that they’re failing the market and the latter presumes that they’re dominating it, so let’s not bother.

The problem lies not in how these aspects contradict each other, but in how they agree, regarding TV broadcasting as a consumer market. At it’s most basic, this attitude suggests a narrative: in the beginning, there was the consumers, and they demanded a product, and that product was TV and radio. As there was market demand, entrepreneurs emerged to feed this demand, and these entrepreneurs became broadcasters. So the broadcasters made programmes, the consumers paid for them, the broadcasters made a profit and all was well in the functioning market.

Except, that’s not how broadcasting has worked in the UK. Ever.

A little history – annual licence fees for radios were introduced in 1923, and a joint radio and TV licence was introduced in 1946. The BBC has drawn its income from that fee for the entire time. The BBC started broadcasting television in 1936, with the first independent television being broadcast in London in 1955, almost twenty years later.

In other words, independent television in the UK has always existed in the shadow of the BBC, and has always followed, rather than led.

To which critics will doubtless say – so what? Plenty of public utilities have started out being fostered by public funding, and then been farmed out to the private sector, who provide the same services but on a commercial basis. What makes television any different to the gas, or the electric, or the water?

Well, for a start all those utilities are qualitatively neutral, not a matter of taste – a good gas/electricity/water supply is the same thing whoever the provider is, it’s functional, it’s supplied consistently and it doesn’t have impurities that will kill us. Regardless of what the economists may think, television is subjectively different, it has content. It’s not just a matter of pumping out a supply of coloured dots to the nation’s TV screens.

And it’s in terms of the standard of programming that the BBC’s role has been so vital in establishing and nurturing the TV culture we have in Britain. From day one, the commercial television networks, and subsequently cable, satellite and digital TV providers, have had to enter a market where the standards were set by the BBC.

Because of the BBC the British viewer, the consumer if you must, has an expectation that they can watch predominantly home-grown drama, comedy and so forth that is of a certain standard. As such, commercial competitors looking for a slice of that audience have had to raise their game to that level, and provide domestic product of a similar standard.

In short, the BBC drew lines in the sand in terms of what British audiences could expect from their television, and the commercial sector has had to deal with those expectations as a fait accompli.

Has this led to nothing but brilliant programming? Of course not. Do the BBC deserve credit for every single success that their commercial rivals produce? No, that would be ridiculous.

Nonetheless, I’d strongly argue that without a national champion, free of commercial drivers, to lead the way, we wouldn’t have such a strong and globally successful TV industry. I’d argue that Hunt and company are exactly wrong on this – that rather than stifling the commercial sector, it is only because of the scale of the BBC and its operations that we have a vibrant TV industry at all.

For the alternative, take a trip around Europe. While there are domestic dramas and comedies in France or Spain or Germany, there are also tons of dubbed US imports, far more prominently placed in terms of scheduling and marketing.

In fact, a lot of the mainstream channels in Europe look a lot like Sky1 – US output bought in as a job lot, minimal domestic production, very little original programming. While there are quite a few good, and some very good, programmes on Sky, they’re not Sky’s good programmes – they’re someone else’s.

British TV without the BBC could, and probably would, have wound up a lot like that, broadcasters not as creative outlets but as importers, not catering to an audience’s needs but simply doling out second hand goods.

It is this kind of ‘competition’ that the BBC is supposedly crushing – broadcasters who want to just buy programmes in cheap, garland them with advertising and reap the audience without making any serious investment in original programming, creativity or standards. In the current climate, going up against domestic programmes tailored for the British market, made to a generally high standard, these bottom feeders don’t really get a look in.

In other words, it is not that the BBC is big that stops these cheapskate operations from gaining traction, it is that the BBC’s output is too good. And when anyone, especially Mr Hunt, or James Murdoch, or any of the other barbarians of the gate, talks about opening British TV up for competition, this is what they mean – they want to demolish the foundation of the domestic TV industry, take away the high expectations that British viewers have of their television, and be free to sell cheap goods to Britain.

Of course, they won’t come cheap. Needless to say the other expectation they want to bring down is that the British viewer should be able to get all this, plus radio and world reknowned internet services like BBC News, for the nominal cost of the licence fee. Instead, we’ll be required to pay as often as possible – for set-top boxes, for channel packages, and via pay-on-demand for the ‘premium content’.

The BBC is a unique asset. At a time when most British industries are flailing, it is both successful and innovative. While the BBC developed the iPlayer, providing a genuine online alternative to sitting in front of the box, ITV and company fiddled as their ad revenues fell, forever slow to catch up. Just as the BBC-driven Freeview stepped in when ON Digital collapsed, so it’s likely that licensing the iPlayer will help the commercial channels to get their programmes seen online.

We have a great TV industry, but while the BBC is prospering its commercial competitors are at risk. Crippling the BBC will not save them, it will worsen the situation, turning Britain from a successful exporter of content into a dependant importer.

Should the Murdochs and other barbarians battering at the gates ever get their way, and bring the BBC to its knees, then we will all be poorer for it, in so many ways.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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