Good telly: too important to leave to the BBC

by Stephen Tall on October 11, 2006

What is the Lib Dems’ policy on the BBC? asks Martin Hoscik in a stimulating article on Lib Dem Voice. My answer: unthinking, conservative and wrong.

Let’s start with some liberal first principles: freedom of the individual, the democratic accountability of public institutions, and the merits of free and fair market competition in raising standards.

Which is why I am baffled by our party’s approach to public service broadcasting, with the Lib Dems passionately defending a state-run megalith, answerable only to a quango, immune from the rigours of the bottom line, and funded by a regressive poll tax.

Martin’s article explodes the myth, favoured by the Lib Dems’ culture spokesman Don Foster, that good telly is created by better regulation. However, his article perpetuates the myth that good telly has been created by the licence fee. That was not, and is not, the case.

The good telly, for which Britain is still famed, is the product of competition between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. ITV was founded in the 1950s precisely because it was recognised the danger of having a monopoly supplier of public service broadcasting. Similarly, the complacent duopoly of the BBC and ITV was broken up in the 1980s by the arrival of Channel 4, with its explicit ‘minorities’ remit.

Think of great drama – Brideshead Revisited, Inspector Morse, GBH – ground-breaking documentaries – 7-Up, Death on the Rock, Dispatches – cutting-edge comedy – Brass Eye, Spitting Image, Smack The Pony: all the product of commercial television. To argue that only the BBC can be entrusted to make great telly is to do a real injustice to the generations of independent producers who have helped shape our popular culture.

Yet those telly programmes are the product of a different age, an era when terrestrial channels were all there was, and when telly was the major past-time of the nation. Neither assumption now holds true.

Digital television has vastly expanded the choice available. Much of it may be what we would call ‘rubbish’ (code for ‘telly we don’t like or watch’): a lot of it isn’t. Around the world there is far more good telly being made than ever before – the vast majority of it without any state funding.

The old telly economy, which created those gems each of us fondly remembers, is dead. And yet the new economy which is emerging threatens to turn back the clock 50 years, with the BBC once again the dominant, effectively monopolistic, supplier of public service broadcasting. As advertising diminishes in line with audience share, the commercial channels have begun to chase ratings more ruthlessly than in the past: there are going to be more X-Factors, fewer South Bank Shows in the future.

The Lib Dem response to this appears to be to put all our eggs in the BBC basket: trust in the licence fee-engorged Auntie, and all will be well. It won’t be. First, because monopolies – whether public or private – are bad for the consumer, growing lazy, complacent and detached. (Yes, there are exceptions, ‘natural monopolies’ – telly isn’t one of them.)

Secondly, because the BBC is itself declining in popularity – one-fifth of 18-34 year-olds don’t tune into any BBC station in any given week. The BBC is enormously good value if you watch or listen to it regularly: it’s a rip-off if you don’t. The universal reach which justified the licence fee is soon going to become a distant memory.

And, of course, internet television is breaking through, whether in the form of YouTube or 18 Doughty Street. As close to a perfect market as you can imagine, such technology will increasingly make a mockery of the idea that you can only watch telly if you’ve paid the government a flat fee each year.

The market for telly has been transformed in the past decade. It will be even more unrecognisable in another decade’s time. And yet, perversely, the Lib Dems are attempting to hold a line on the licence fee, pretending not only that its existence will guarantee good telly, but also that it will remain politically possible. We would be better off thinking through what the broadcasting landscape will look like – and how we would wish to see it look – once the licence fee comes to an end.

This party is sometimes accused – by critics from within and without – of being little more than a glorified think-tank. Yet it’s the opposite that tends to be the case: far too often the Lib Dems are afraid to challenge received orthodoxy in how public services can best be delivered, preferring instead to stick to the trite-and-tested trick of accusing other parties of legislating or spending too much or too little (delete according to taste).

So dazzling is the broadcasting future in front of us that we seem to prefer to contemplate it facing backwards.