Principal Instrument 

1 September 2001

Russ J Graham says the BBC is the best

Complaints are often made these days about the lack of a level playing field between commercial television and its public service “rival”, the BBC. These complaints come in many forms and are levelled against most – if not all – of the BBC’s many activities.

Several Internet Service Providers and other portals have registered complaints and even threatened court action over BBC Online. They maintain that it is unfair that BBC Online even exists, and the very presence of a non-commercial alternative threatens their own offerings by competing but being funded by the licence fee.

The new digital television competition also complains about ‘unfair’ challenges. BBC Choice is in the same market as Bravo, Trouble and even Rapture. BBC News 24 goes head-to-head with Sky News, Bloomberg, CNN and newcomer ITN. The BBC’s plans for digital channels during the day based on their extensive knowledge of broadcasting to children and young people have been attacked by Disney, the suggestion being that the free market will, can and does provide channels aimed at that market.

TalkSPORT, the re-incarnated talkRADIO operating on medium wave complains that BBC Radio Five Live not only unfairly competes with its own offerings, but regularly unfairly uses licence payers money to buy sporting rights that the station wanted themselves.

Most recently, ITV’s David Liddiment has complained that the BBC’s self-regulation is unfair compared to the apparent burden that ITV must carry. As usual, this complaint is couched in compliments – the BBC is the best, most innovative, highest quality broadcaster, but…

The problem here is a false premise that the public – having heard it from all ‘rival’ sections of the media for twenty years – have bought into. The premise is that the commercial companies should provide whatever the market will take, and the BBC should do the rest – anything else being, as ever, unfair. But the constant crying of ‘foul!’ every time the BBC puts up a stall next to their own – or when they erect one next to the BBC and complain anyway – is bogus.

Either these commercial companies wish to compete or they don’t. If they do want to compete with other providers, then the BBC will be amongst those providers. That the BBC is non-commercial is neither here nor there – if the commercial competition is good, people will use it. If it isn’t, or the BBC is simply better, then the BBC is not to blame – the commercial provider is and should improve their programmes.

However, if the truth is different and the commercial providers simply don’t want to compete with the BBC (or anyone else) then they should simply say so. But they should consider the reverse of the equation – if they don’t want competition, they should not expect the BBC to back out gracefully. Instead they should go and find a market without the BBC or any other providers who they feel threatened by and start the monopoly they seek there. They could, of course, stay in the same market and try to do better than the BBC, but it’s easier to complain the competition away in the name of fairness than it is to actually compete and win.

As if seeing ITV’s regulation complaints 30 years before they were made, Lord Hill mentioned the threat to the BBC’s independence in the final BBC Handbook of his chairmanship of the Board of Governors. “I do not believe,” he wrote in the 1972 edition, “that the campaign against our independence will succeed. But the danger is there. The BBC has had to fight to maintain its independence more than once in its history. It will fight again if necessary. And, if it should come to a fight, I am pretty sure that the millions who do not think about our independence because they take it for granted would be firmly on our side.”

The government actually has a simple way of shutting up the hard-done-by (and exceptionally wealthy) commercial competition, with a useful historical precedent. The government White Paper on Television Policy (Cmd 9005 published in November 1953) paved the way for what would become the Television Act of 1954. This act set up the ITA, and with it brought commercial television – and domestic competition – to the BBC for the first time. This made clear that the BBC, despite now having competition, would continue to be the principal instrument for broadcasting in the United Kingdom.

This phrase by implication made all commercial competition a secondary service to that of the BBC. Whilst this may seem odd now, it’s worth trying to find arguments against this phrase. There aren’t any – or at least none that stand more than a cursory glance.

The insertion of the phrase ‘principal instrument of broadcasting in the UK’ into the next Broadcasting Act, or the next BBC charter, would help silence the commercial complainers. The government could help by approving the BBC’s plans for digital expansion quickly – or better yet, handing over responsibility for deciding on these things to the BBC’s board of governors, who are more qualified to decide than a partisan politicians regularly lobbied by the Corporation’s opposition.

Of course, the question must be asked of us, the licence payers and owners of the BBC – would we want the BBC described as broadcasting’s principal instrument? If not, we need to consider our reasons why not. Have twenty – or more – years of constant whinging by commercial providers influenced our views against the BBC? If so, the BBC’s days are numbered.

If not, then perhaps Hill is right. Perhaps we will rise up to the defence of the BBC when it most requires it. “The vast majority of people in this country don’t go around saying what a good thing it is that the BBC is independent,” noted Hill, “They take it for granted. It is one of the facts of life.” Perhaps it’s time to stop taking it for granted and to start standing up for the BBC. We need to defend our national broadcaster against those who would remove our choice of viewing, listening and web browsing in the name of giving us more choice.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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