Wednesday, February 25, 2004

That Great BBC plan!

The Conservatives have issued a new "report" on the future of the BBC. It was prepared by one David Elstein, the former chief executive of Channel 5, and was commissioned while IDS was still in charge. Many people forget just how aggressively US Republican the IDS Tories were - very close to the neocons, enjoying dinner dates with Wolfowitz, bashing public broadcasting - and this might be a salutary reminder, now the BBC front has temporarily gone quiet. We ought to think why - is it simply exhaustion, or did the unexpected violence of the public reaction play a role? It seems at least to have influenced Michael Howard, who reportedly decided to distance the party from Elstein's proposals on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Elstein was at pains to argue that he did not suggest that the BBC should be abolished. However, his proposals are so drastic that one question is enough to explode this - what would be left? Apart from abolishing the licence fee, he suggests that the Board of Governors would go, that the BBC's production activities would be shut down, that its commercial activities would be privatised, that its TV channels would be privatised and that money from the "voluntary subscription" that would replace the licence fee would be distributed by a public broadcasting authority to any channel this body felt was worthy. What would be left? Is this not abolition?

Radio would supposedly survive, although exactly how without any apparent funding is not clear to say the least. And why? Surely not because privatising Radio 4 would make Conservative voters fall off their perches with apoplexy? No. Who could possibly attribute self-interested motives to Mr. Elstein? Perish the thought! After all, his plan would quite incidentally eliminate commercial TV's main competitor whilst handing it sizeable sums of cash, not to mention the opportunities offered by the sudden lay-off of masses of trained BBC staff - what could possibly motivate a commercial TV executive to advocate such charity to his own business? At the same time, it is hard to see the logical rigour of classical Conservative thought here. Why should any State funding go into the sector at all? Is the proposed PBA not just another quango, a "national board" like those cursed by the Tory policy documents prepared for 1979?

The answer is not hard to spot. If the licence fee were to go, and a voluntary subscription were to be introduced, who would pay? Mr. Elstein would doubtless point to cable and satellite TV, but these have the difference that they actually offer goods in return for payment. Given that the BBC would disappear from television on the date of privatisation, who would bother to pay for just another cable channel? Apparently, this PBA's budget would be supported by those who out of altruism or more likely inertia failed to stop paying their TV licences. Clearly it would dwindle rapidly. In the first few years, I suppose, there would be enough for a handsome bonus to those firms who bought the BBC's assets. But within a fairly short period of time, the funds available would have become insignificant.

And, if there was no money in it, who would bother to apply for funding for "worthy" programming? Not when they could run I'm A Celebrity: Watch Me Shag! Sponsored by Really Cheap Aerosol Cheese with much better advertising rates. It is a sop - pure bait and switch. Even if something was permitted to survive, it would be unable to produce its own programmes, and must needs buy in. Neither would it be able to sell them. I am sure these freedoms would be maintained for Five. It would not be able to engage in commerce, and would not receive much if any state funding. Not many voluntary subs there.

As a final marker of nonsense, Mr. Elstein appealed to what I call "Vulgar Globalism" on (ironically) the BBC last night. This is the practice of announcing that your proposal is necessary and inevitable "in a globalised world" or "in the internet age" without giving any connection between the two. He declared that, in the internet age in a globalised world or words to that effect, it was ridiculous to have paper TV licences "when non-payers can be cut off instantly". Note the 2 key logical flaws - first, that it becoming easier to collect the licence fee is a reason to scrap it, and second, that an argument concerning administrative technicalities is an argument against the principle of public broadcasting. Nonsense.

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