Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The BBC, and Fearing the Future.

I'm sure we'll all be so happy to know that the chief executive of BSkyB, Tony Ball, doesn't like the BBC. After his rant about it to the Edinburgh TV festival, that was clear enough. But the real question is why it was news. After all, Mr. Ball is something like Rupert Murdoch's incarnation on earth, or at least in Britain. It is only to be expected that a Murdoch minion would use his moment in the spotlight to hammer and blast at public broadcasting. The language and culture of Ball's speech was familiar. It was all about choice and freedom and value-for-money, nice meaningless words that tend to end up meaning their opposites. Because if Murdoch stands for anything, it is the combination of economic liberalism in words with monopoly in deeds. This has been one of the great themes of our time, of course, as the powerful have spent the last 30 or so years attempting to make the world look like the assumptions of classical economics. Had all the standard assumptions - that members of a market have no power to influence it, that we have perfect knowledge, that products are homeogenous and unbranded, no barriers to entry or exit - borne any relation to reality, it might all have worked. But, of course, they don't - people are crossgrained and frequently irrational, branding has never been more pronounced, and monopoly power has rarely been as ruthless. Rupert has spent his career decrying any restriction on the freedom to trade, demanding the destruction of public broadcasters, regulations and the like - but only so as to then re-erect the barriers.

The classic example was of course football. With the aid of massive cross-subsidy, Sky bought up the rights to all the sporting events anyone cared about, all the while hyping it to the sky (where else?) - then, once a fairly large number of dishes had been sold, began to up prices and shift ever more content across channels, moving from the packages sold with the dish to ever-pricier extras. That is to say, "competition" had consisted only of the creation of a monopoly and the construction of a never-ending succession of toll booths on the road to Wembley. The same landgrabber's approach is visible throughout the Sky empire. Get a monopoly. Loss lead. Then turn on the screws. Mr. Ball's Big Idea is apparently that the BBC and Channel 4 should be forced (someone always seems to get forced) to sell all their decent programmes at the end of each year. As ITV is apparently on its last legs, and Channel 5 will soon be for sale to Rupes once the Comms Bill goes through, it's clear who would buy them. It's also clear, given the compulsion of the BBC to sell and the utter lack of other buyers, that Sky will get them for peanuts. So - public money creates, Sky profits. If you want to see the next series of Spooks, you'll have to cough up. Free money for Murdoch, and the perfect foundation for a later declaration that the BBC "isn't working", doesn't get the ratings, should be "modernised".

This should not be underestimated. Should Blair survive this autumn, we can expect a government revenge campaign against the BBC. Charter renewal will be used to force pro-Murdoch conditions on the corporation. Intensive and tiresome propaganda cheerleading in the rightwing press can only be dreaded. The question is the model of the attack - will it be Railtrackisation (some form of deliberately unworkable public-private pissup), Royal Mailing (regulatory and financial bullying "to prepare for competition", making operations impossible) or industry-ing (mass layoffs, closures, piecemeal sellout - the nuclear option)? My money at the moment would be Mailing - if you should hear that Ofcom will "regulate" the BBC, watch out!

I recently looked at the collected Steve Bell cartoons for 1987, and I was horribly struck by the fact that they seemed quite right for this week. A British prime minister of utter dishonesty but given to fits of emetic moralising over trifles, an imbecile US President high on war and goddery ("Yes! I was a martyr to my Twinkie habit until I discovered Moral Majoridy.....Now my head is clear of chemical junk and FULL of DANGEROUS RIGHTWING CHRISTIAN HORSESHIT!"), a general sense of impending doom, a government bent on building as many motorways as fast as possible...it's like I hallucinated all my life since '87 and time has been standing still. Was anybody else as depressed as I was by the decision to widen the M25? Roadbuilding was so much the hallmark of the rotten grimgrey Major years, and the centre of so much of the stewing opposition to them. This was a government that was obsessed with pouring concrete over the most beautiful parts of the country so that philistines could sweat in more traffic jams on their way to stack up more debt in giant US-owned shopping malls, whose answer to anyone who didn't like it was to pass a law that tried to ban a particular kind of music and march up a thousand cops, and who compared themselves to the Romans whilst they were at it. No wonder they seemed like mutants. And now wonder it felt like such a victory when Blair shitcanned their roads programme in 1997. Now here we are - back to square one, with mobile phones, Dubya, debt and not much else. Everything keeps happening again and it's worse every time!

One factor that might save us, though, is the class question. Destroying the railways was one thing, but there the people involved were mostly oh-so-unsexy, unreconstructed, male working-class strivers. Fresh meat for the market state. The BBC, however, has been something like the Church was in the 19th century - the career of choice for the younger sons and daughters of the educated middle classes, absorbing great swathes of recent graduates every year and positively dripping with public respect. British politicians since Gladstone ("an insular country subject to fogs and with a powerful middle class") have rarely come away from a row with the suburbs with all their limbs. Tackle the BBC again? Now that's gonna hurt.

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