Monday, April 05, 2010

Erosion of private property rights in the UK

Three issues in the past few days have exemplified how the notion that private property rights are sacrosanct has been seriously eroded in the UK. They are around pay TV, mobile phones and bed and breakfasts.

First, Ofcom, the UK media regulator deemed that the UK's most successful pay TV operator - BSkyB - must be forced to sell content from its Sky Sports 1 and 2 channels to competitors at 23% less than it currently chooses to do so. The reason? "Sky exploits this market power by restricting the distribution of its premium channels to pay TV providers." This "reduces consumer choice." "

Now BSkyB has brought more choice to British TV viewers than any other broadcaster. It offers 615 TV channels, and people pay for it voluntarily, unlike the BBC which is paid for by state enforced demand notice. The story of BSkyB is how it started operation to the UK without a licence, because it was operating entirely from outside the UK. It easily bet the state endorsed BSB, bought it out and became an enormous success story, against the odds (the story is in this book). It lost money for many years, never seeking a penny from taxpayers, and became successful because it took risks, it bought broadcasting rights for major sports events and people wanted to pay for it.

In other words, it was a great British entrepreneurial success story, something to be proud of. So what does the state do? Kneecap it. It wants to boost the competitors, the lacklustre Virgin Media (which bought out the poorly performing cable TV companies NTL and Telewest), BT's (once the focus of Ofcom diktats till it was cut down to size) Vision service and even the barely known Top Up TV. What it does is say the broadcasting rights Sky bought from various sports codes are NOT Sky's, but the "people's", so it is helping out Sky's competitors.

What will be the result? Sky's competitors wont bid for the sports broadcasting rights, so the price paid to the distributors and clubs will be lower, since Sky will only be bidding against the beleagured commercial networks ITV and 5, and state owned Channel 4 and the BBC. It means Virgin Media, BT Vision and Top Up TV will have to make less effort to appeal to viewers, they can be clones of Sky.

It is another example of pseudo-entrepreneur Richard Branson seeking the gloved fist of the state to take from his competitors to help him out. A charlatan indeed.

Remember, what did Ofcom ever do to increase consumer choice? The UK has one of the most vigorously competitive pay TV sectors in the world, one which has not been subject to the ridiculous rules on price and content that is seen in the US, and the content rules in Australia. As the Daily Telegraph says "the UK desperately needs strong media conglomerates that can compete internationally. In a globalised digital era when Google is eating ITV's lunch, that means we must stop being so parochial and let British companies grow and succeed.That might mean, say, Sky and ITV gaining an uncomfortably strong domestic position. But – like a monthly subscription to Sky Sports – that's a relatively small price to pay."

However, dare the politician speak up against the wide open mouthed "consumer" in favour of the property rights of the producer.

The second issue is about mobile phones. In the UK four companies operate national mobile phone networks of their own - O2, Vodafone, Orange/T-Mobile and 3. In all they, and their wholesalers (for example, Virgin Mobile uses the Orange/T-Mobile network), have 121% market penetration. In other words, there are mobile phone accounts for every adult and child in the UK, and a fifth have a second! With a vigorously competitive industry, multiple network providers, you'd think the free market could reign. Oh no. Ofcom, yet again, sets the price those companies can charge other operators (including fixed line operators) for terminating their calls.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the current price is 4.3p/minute, it is to drop to 0.5p/minute by 2014. Allegedly it is partly due to EU pressure, as clearly it thinks it has some moral authority to set prices for contracts between private companies. Orange and Vodafone are unimpressed saying respectively:

"If these measure are put in place they will stifle innovation. Any incoming government should be mindful of what these ill-considered proposals mean for the future of their country. Handsets may no longer be subsidised, you may have to pay receive calls."

and "A cut of this magnitude deters future investment, makes it less likely that the UK will continue to lead in mobile communications and is at odds with the Government's vision of a Digital Britain."

Of course the bigger question is "Why the hell should the state interfere in contracts between companies in an open fully competitive market"?

Naturally, those advantaged by it are happier. "3" is a relatively new network, so its customers make more calls to competitors than it receives. BT, long been battered into submission by the state for being the former monopoly (and which has withdrawn from a long line of overseas investments in recent years) has also welcomed it.

What WOULD happen if Ofcom said "Set the price you wish"? Well the operators would negotiate rates based on what they thought their customers could bear. Their customers don't want to be on networks nobody wants to call after all.

Again, the UK has spawned one of the world's most successful mobile phone companies, with Vodafone the largest mobile phone company in the world by revenue, and second largest by subscribers. It's UK competitors are French-German, Spanish and Hong Kong owned, and it has thrived. New Zealanders might note that without it they would have waited far longer for text messaging, prepaid mobile phones and competitive pricing with Telecom.

However, what incentive does Ofcom have to NOT meddle?

Finally, a gaffe. Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling was recorded, off the record, by an Observer journalist saying that those who run bed and breakfasts from their homes have a right to turn away gay couples. This is contrary to "human rights" laws which say otherwise. His point was that there should be respect of people of faith who have genuinely held beliefs. His point is the wrong one.

Now, he has since felt the need to backtrack on this, pointing out he voted for the said laws which ban such discrimination, and he voted for civil partnerships to be allowed. There is little sign he himself holds so-called "homophobic" views. Of course, those on the left are out like sharks to claim the Conservatives "haven't changed".

The point he should have made IS about private property rights. It is your home, you decide who enters it. If you run a B&B then you should also be able to turn away anyone, for whatever reason or feeling you have. Simple as that. If you, as a prospective customer or visitor don't like it? Then use free speech to say so, but don't expect the state to come banging down the door to force anyone to let you in.

You don't have a right to enter anyone's property without the owner's permission. Now had Grayling said that, he might have escaped some of the dirt thrown at him. If you had children and ran a B&B, you might not ever want single men staying, or you may not want priests or whatever. You don't need to justify yourself, it's your property.

Sadly, in the UK today, the argument of private property rights is peripheral. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats actively reject such rights and will surrender them at will. However, the Conservative Party hasn't the wherewithal to argue differently.

It's about time there is a choice that does!

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