Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 3 July 2009

The BBC is its own worst enemy

I am a huge fan of the BBC. I was literally born and raised on it as one of my main sources of entertainment and information. As I have grown older, its excellent news coverage, documentaries, analysis and the plethora of insightful programmes on the national treasure that is Radio 4 have helped make me the politically engaged person I am today.

I absolutely feel that this country is a better place for having a publicly funded broadcasting organisation like this. I think if we ever lost it, even many of its critics would find that they didn't know what they had until it was gone.

Having said all this, that doesn't mean that I am happy with the way things are with the BBC. There are certainly things that it does that I think it should not be doing. Lots of them if I am honest. It seems to be a fairly bloated organisation (as can often happen with public institutions) and I feel sure could be reduced in size whilst retaining its unique characteristics.

Here are the sort of things that I think need to happen:
  • I think they should get rid of BBC3. There is very little of worth on that channel that could not be provided by commercial channels (and the small number of good things could be broadcast on BBC2) and it gives the BBC's opponents an easy target by just listing some of the programmes on it. I have just had a quick look at what has recently been broadcast on 3 on the iPlayer and I can see several that fall into this category: "Claire Richards: My Big Fat Wedding", "Kirsten's Topless Ambition", "When Diets Go Wrong", all of which sound like headlines from the front cover of Heat magazine. This is not what publicly funded broadcasting is for I am afraid. E4, Nuts TV, Dave, Sky, ITV and many other channels can and do provide this sort of thing already. Why is the BBC competing?
  • Radios 1 and 2 (and possibly Radio 5 live) should be spun out into commercial channels. I loved Radio 1 when I was growing up and am a big fan of Radio 2 now but what they provide is very similar to that available on commercial channels and their presence as publicly funded behemoths in this space distort the market. They can surely survive as commercial entities? Again, this is not what public service broadcasting should be about.
  • In general the BBC should stop pursuing ratings in exactly the same way as commercial channels. They should stop trying to ape commercial successes like "X-Factor" and "Saturday Night Takeaway". They need to be distinctive otherwise they will eventually lose the argument for their continued existence.
There are other areas that should be reformed such as pay for senior executives (how can my namesake Mark Thompson really justify earning almost 1 million pounds per year?).

There are many things that the BBC does brilliantly and I would not want to see lost. Here are a few examples:
  • Almost all of Radio 4's output
  • Almost all of BBC4's output
  • Newsnight
  • Natural world documentaries (David Attenborough, Dr Iain Stewart, Coast etc.)
  • National TV news
  • Comedy
  • Local TV news
  • Costume/period dramas
  • Light hearted drama (e.g. Life on Mars)
I could go on but you get the point.

One final thing. There has been talk about top slicing of the license fee recently. The idea is that a small amount of the license fee (e.g. 3% or 4%) is given to other broadcasters in order to provide public service programmes, especially locally based ones. The BBC and its champions have reacted with horror to this announcement but why? The BBC should not necessarily have an absolute monopoly on public sector broadcasting. If other agencies/companies can provide services through being allocated a small chunk of the license fee then why is this such a terrible thing? One of the arguments I have heard against this is that it could lead to further slicing of the fee later once the principle of the BBC solely getting the fee is breached. This sounds suspiciously like the slippery slope fallacy to me and is not good enough frankly.

The BBC needs to change and ditch the dross and unneccessary stuff in order to protect the valuable output that the commercial sector struggles to or cannot provide. The fact that the BBC still doesn't see this and is determined to stay as big as it can get away with and insisting that its funding needs to remain as it or even grow shows that it is its own worst enemy.


Kalvis Jansons said...

A great post, and I agree with it completely.

Mark Thompson said...

Thanks Kalvis.

Your cheque's in the post BTW!

Duncan Stott said...

The biggest difficulty for the BBC (and its survival) is that there is no media organisation that sticks up for it. It can't stick up for itself due to its remit of impartiality, and the rest of the media is in competition with it. Blogs are about the only place you can find pro-BBC comment.

I generally agree with what you have said, and certainly would echo the need for a public-minded broadcaster that focuses primarily on quality of output rather than quantity of viewers.

Can you feel a 'but' coming?

The BBC can't carry on as is. The licence fee is deeply illiberal. Expecting everyone (rich or poor) who owns a television to pay a flat-rate tax for a service they may not even use can't be justified. I would opt for BBC One, News and radio to be funded through general taxation, and all other services funded through subscription.

I also disagree with Radio 1 becoming commercial. Away from daytime, their output caters for tastes that aren't covered by any other station. Find me a show like Gilles Peterson or Mary Ann Hobbs on commercial radio.

Mark Thompson said...

Duncan - interesting points. I am certainly receptive to ideas about other funding models but I am wary of subscription based services. Some of when the BBC does in not commercially viable but still vitally important and this stuff might get lost if it were not publicly funded.

As for Radio 1, well maybe the reason why it is hard to find the equivalent of Mary Ann Hobgoblin or Giles Petersen is because Radio 1 is there like a black hole distorting everything around it. On a commerical Radio 1 I am sure they could still do this sort of programme and perhaps commercial channels would be able to instead or as well.

Ed said...

"As for Radio 1, well maybe the reason why it is hard to find the equivalent of Mary Ann Hobgoblin or Giles Petersen is because Radio 1 is there like a black hole distorting everything around it. On a commerical Radio 1 I am sure they could still do this sort of programme and perhaps commercial channels would be able to instead or as well."

Couldn't one just as easily say that about all the things you've specified that you think deserve to be protected? Why shouldn't Radio 4 be commercially funded, for example? The listening figures aren't an order of magnitude lower than those of, say, Radio 2.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

[revised version of previous comment]

There is an open government consultation on at the moment about the way the license fee is spent and whether or not the BBC should get all of it.

We've republished the document in a form you can comment on at
or vote on the consultation questions at

Tim Almond said...

"Some of when the BBC does in not commercially viable but still vitally important and this stuff might get lost if it were not publicly funded."

Such as?

I'll give you See Hear and the Open University, and those should be funded from general taxation as a public good. The rest should be a matter of choice.

Joe Otten said...

So you're saying that the BBC should make more of the sort of programmes you and I like, and less of the sort that other people like.

asquith said...

Let's not forget the Foreign Service. Those who live in countries which don't have a free press rely on it for unbiased information- recall its work in Iran.

Those right-whingers who think whatever doesn't agree with every single one of their views is biased should go to countries that really do have state control over expression & see that the BBC, reporting impartially, makes itself their foe by repeating facts.

I agree should be pruned though. If we're paying for it, it should be worthwhile stuff that for some reason can't pay its own way, not utter shite like Eastenders or whatever it is.

Mark Thompson said...

I knew this would be a hard argument to make when I first posted it!

Right, here goes.

Ed - Fair point (I was sort of rushing when I did that response) although what I was trying to get at is that there are lots of radio stations that generally play very similar music to Radio 1 (the same does not apply to most of what I listed as the "good stuff" that the BBC does in my post.) The airwaves are awash with them. What I am probably guilty of though is commenting on programmes that I have not listened to. Maybe MAH and GP are minority tastes that would struggle to find slots in a commercial station in which case Duncan has a fair point too.

Tim - The stuff I listed in the post for a start plus loads of other stuff. You say the rest should be a matter of choice but there is a real danger that some or lots of this would go if there was no BBC and all the commercial stations engaged in a race for the most viewers. I do not think ratings should not be the only arbiter of worthiness and I fear that would be the case in a purely commercial broadcast environment.

Joe - That's a bit unfair. What I am trying to argue for is that the BBC should cater for things that would possibly not be catered for (or at least not as well) in a commercial environment. There is a decent intersection though between that and the sort of things I like (and you by the sounds of it) but there is plenty that the Beeb does that I am not particularly interested in but would still want it to cover (e.g. off the top of my head Proms, Opera, Architecture).

The wider point about how it is funded though is still one I struggle with. It does feel like a Poll Tax and I wonder if there could be a better way to fund it whilst still giving the access to all that a subscription based system would prevent.

Oranjepan said...

Did you see Little Dorrit? Bloody awful!

I agree it should be kept but given a shakeup - BBC sets the standard which other channels are measured by, so it should raise the bar not lower it.

Mark Thompson said...

Oranjepan - no I didn't because I am not keen on costume dramas. I still however think that the BBC should do them because lots of people do like them.

asquith said...

Were there to be a subscription service for domestic consumption (maybe not such a bad idea, but I still don't embrace it) I would demand that the World Service be funded by the FCO as it currently is.

That is one ambassador which this country shouldn't have to go without.

If we did away with New Labour's authoritarianism & offered asylum to (for example) Iranian dissidents, & extended the protection of a secular liberal state to the likes of Salman Rushdie & all those like him, perhaps we could regain the reputation we once had as a bastion of liberty.

I remember reading that Voltaire & friends admired England because it was so much freer than their native country. How our hearts would swell with pride if people still thought the same now. Actually, despite the last 30 years, there are far worse countries & refugees from there are glad to be living here.

To my mind the World Service (which for some reason I mistakely called the Foreign Service) performs a similar role.


This is a very good post and your comments especially on BBC3 and Radios 1 and 2 are extremely valid. I had not considered this notion before but it makes good sense.

Good stuff.

For my part, I'd like to see all the tired and tedious 'feedback' from the viewing and listening public stopped. What a pointless waste of everyone's time.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

This, from Duncan Stott above is the key point: -The licence fee is deeply illiberal. Expecting everyone (rich or poor) who owns a television to pay a flat-rate tax for a service they may not even use can't be justified.

The licence fee is a form of poll tax and for many low paid/unwaged it represents the sum equivalent to that spent on survival for a week or more. Since the fee was introduced, consuming television and radio output can and is often achieved without accessing any BBC output. To be made to pay regardless for a broadcast service that one does not use is an outrage.

Further, it has not been “the Reith BBC” for a long while but the all time low post the Hutton Enquiry when it had become “the Gilligan BBC” showed that its fall from grace had gone very far. The Dyke person essentially bet the BBC’s reputation without first himself verifying that its position was unassailable. That did much to finish the BBC - worse it aided the alleged war-criminal Blair to escape justice. That episode shone a light upon the BBC and upon its serious failings. It is entitled to fail, but not to expect me and others to unwillingly fund that failure.

A more minor point but one that irritates me - once upon a time, the BBC distinguished itself from its competitors by not including annoying advertising: now it even interrupts its own programmes to advertise itself.

dazmando said...

I almost agree but the problem is that if the BBC didn't do some trash then the people who watch that kinda thing will say 'where are the programs for me'. I think they would have a point. If your no interested in anything but any you pay for the service then you should get some of thoses programs.

I would also add that I expect some trash programming to disappear as big brother on C4 is really not that popular now and people are getting board of doing up home programs or buy homes etc etc

BTW you fotgot to mention the amazing BBC web site with so much content.

And I have to add the BBC coverage of Wimbledon has been first class

I myself love the BBC its one of the best things we have.

Joe Otten said...

Er, Dyke and Gilligan were right, weren't they?

I don't see any reason to confuse the quality issue - the BBC is very good - with the license fee/poll tax issue, which is a bit of a scandal.

But for the BBC to become just like every other media corporation would be a criminal travesty. So opponents of the license fee have got to find something to say other than just abolish the license fee.

Alex said...

I hear what you're saying about BBC3 and Radio 1 etc, but think about it for a minute. Can the government really be expected to judge each individual BBC channel, or even each individual programme, to see if it fits the bill of being what the BBC is for (i.e. culturally important or whatever)? Isn't that just the sort of over excessive bureaucracy we condemn New Labour for?

For me, while I hate most of what's on BBC3, as long as channels like BBC4 exist, as long as the BBC is producing quality, cultural, historical, scientific etc programmes at a much higher rate than private sector broadcasters do, or even would do without the BBC's competition, (which I think we can agree at the moment it does), then there's no reason for the government to delve in and go "Well that channel is utter crap, get rid of it". However, if the BBC isn't fulfilling it's obligations to produce the right sort of programmes at the right sort of rate, that's when the government should get involved.

Arguments about BBC3 meaning that the BBC gets too much money is of course another matter, but if you gave it less money, would the law of unintended consequences mean that not only would BBC3 not have as much money to play with, but BBC4 too? I don't know on this one.

Disagree with you on Radio 5 live. Sport surely comes under the cultural raison d'etre for the BBC, no? Moreover, the government has a requirement for certain events to be broadcast live on free tv (e.g. Wimbledon finals weekend), and there are similar requirements for supposed lesser events to have highlights or radio coverage, so radio five live plays its part there.

You're right that that argument against "top-slicing" is a slippery slope fallacy, but I am still against this top slicing nonetheless, for a different reason than the fallacious one. Why should the money go to some other company, to perform the same services that a single company (the BBC) could already do? It would be like taking money away from the Ministry of Defence, and giving it some other group so they can build the nation's tanks, leaving the MoD in charge of everything else. What would be the point in doing that? It can be done just as easily as without moving the money elsewhere, and it giving money elsewhere means less freedom (i.e. government decrees how much should be spent on tanks, whereas before the MoD decided, and now government decrees how much should go towards local tv, whereas before the BBC decided). Isn't that exactly the kind of centralization and bureaucratic red tape we should oppose?