30 August 2009

James Murdoch: libertarian hero?


That's how he describes the British broadcasting regulatory environment in the MacTaggart lecture he gave to the British television industry.

and he's right. A system that coerces all people with a TV set to pay up under threat of prosecution to fund a non-commercial broadcaster that is ever expanding its TV channels and radio stations, and which pays enormous salaries to attract popular stars from going to commercial TV - but thinks it is special and always demands to force the public to give it more money. The BBC. He decries the "land grab" this compulsorily funded state broadcaster has made to be everything to everyone, whilst the private broadcasting sector has strained to compete. Indeed, the decline of regional news on commercial TV whilst the BBC well funds its own equivalent is telling. Meanwhile, many do not know that Lonely Planet is now owned by the BBC - at what point should the state own a travel publishing operation?

Meanwhile, commercial broadcasting is heavily regulated as to the amount and types of advertising, so much that one channel cannot show an Indian show because of product placement of a company that doesn't operate in the UK.

In a brilliant speech he attacks OfCom, the UK's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, effectively implying it is useless by deciding whether it is ok to describe Middlesbrough as the worst place to live in England, or this brilliant piece of sarcasm about how Ofcom published:

"the no doubt vital guide on ‘How to Download’, which teenagers across the land could barely have survived without."

He decries how the state is more concerned with throttling capitalism and spreads fear of its influence whilst "Nearly all local authorities already publish their own newspapers with flattering accounts of their doings. Over 60% of these pocket-Pravdas carry advertising, weakening the local presence of more critical voices". This, he argues, undermines independent journalism in towns and cities struggling to make a living which CAN impartially report on how local government operates.

He argues that people should be trusted to make good choices:

"People are very good at making choices: choices about what media to consume; whether to pay for it and how much; what they think is acceptable to watch, read and hear; and the result of their billions of choices is that good companies survive, prosper, and proliferate.

That is a great story and it has been powerfully positive for our society.

But we are not learning from that. Governments and regulators are wonderfully crafted machines for mission creep. For them, the abolition of media boundaries is a trumpet call to expansion: to do more, regulate more, control more"

Furthermore he decries the idea that independent balanced news comes from a state broadcaster:

"On the contrary, independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency.

Independence of faction, industrial or political.

Independence of subsidy, gift and patronage.

Independence is sustained by true accountability – the accountability owed to customers. People who buy the newspapers, open the application, decide to take out the television subscription – people who deliberately and willingly choose a service which they value"

You see public broadcasters have only accountability to politicians who decide whether to force the public to fund them - that's it. It is time that there was a proper debate about the role of the state in broadcasting in the UK.

However, that debate rarely happens, and one reason is because the chief beneficiary of the status quo dominates the entire broadcasting sector - the BBC. The BBC can't be trusted to impartially engage a debate about its future, if it risks coming to the answer that the BBC is unnecessary, or should be a fraction of its current size. However, it is up to politicians and the rest of the media - the media that rises or falls on attracting audiences, customers and advertisers - to hold that debate.

For otherwise, the broadcaster that runs seven TV channels and ten national radio networks (plus numerous regional stations) will continue to say it is good for us, and please can it make us pay it more.

So James Murdoch is the libertarian hero of the day - confronting the authoritarian regulatory structure of broadcasting in the UK, which stifles the private sector, whilst allowing the BBC to be an ever growing leviathan of unaccountability. The BBC isn't good for us, just because it is convinced that it is, and makes us pay for the privilege of seeing and hearing it say so.

UPDATE: Amanda Andrews in the Sunday Telegraph says the BBC budget should be cut by a third. A good first step, I'd sell all BBC regional radio, BBC Asian Network. Radio 5 and 5xtra, Radio 1, 1 xtra, Radio 2 and CBBC. Cbeebies and BBC3.


Owen McCaffrey said...

Most of the points are good.

With regard to the BBC Independent news I would say it is not more biased than commercial news and in many cases less baised. This is because commercial news shows often have a target audience and this audience is weighted towards those with money and often also those of a particular political persuasion. Fox news in the USA is notoriously right wing whereas other ones are more left wing.

In a private market you find that news shows can be more polarized and skewed than an independent state broadcaster.

Libertyscott said...

Owen: Really? You watch BBC TV news and Channel 4 news and ITV news regularly? Ah no, you're guessing. The BBC is heavily skewed towards a statist centre left perspective, but then so is ITV and Channel 4. Sky News a little less so.

"commercial news shows often have a target audience and this audience is weighted towards those with money and often also those of a particular political persuasion"

Do tell. I thought it was weighted towards its key advertising demographic, which for television tends to be household shoppers. The wealthy don't watch much TV. By the way Fox News isn't about wealthy people, it is about a very large audience of lower to middle class people of particular backgrounds.

Have you EVER seen a debate on TVNZ about the role of the state in broadcasting (or heard one on RNZ which didn't always come to the conclusion that it was good and there should be more)?

Indeed have you noticed a difference between TV3, which has Alliance voting John Campbell on it and TVNZ? No. TV3 being privately owned.

What matters is diversity, the barriers to entry in the broadcasting market are low. Owners will have their own bias, and the state is biased too - it's just you have a more benign view of the state than I do.

If there was a state newspaper would you trust it more than a privately owned one? Why is it different with broadcasting?

Indeed, why is everyone forced to pay for the BBC whether they watch it or not, but as many as half of all TV viewers in the UK CHOOSE to pay for one of the four pay TV platforms. Isn't it about time that the BBC was funded by the people it claims appreciate it so much?

Libertyscott said...

By the way, notice how the BBC covers this debate about itself. I.e. barely at all.

It would show tremendous strength if it could report on this debate without participating - but it can't. It thinks it is special.

Owen McCaffrey said...

You yourself said that news parogrammes have a target audience. Therefore they are all biased.

So is the BBC. No-body denies that.

But your argument is to replace them with news that is just as biased but only in a different direction.

It is not a strong argument at all.

If the health of a nation's news reporting could be represented by having a variety of viewpoints then how could eliminating one of them help the situation?

Libertyscott said...

No, I simply don't want the BBC to be funded through the use of force. I want it to be funded through subscription, donation, sponsorship, whatever it takes. I object to being forced to pay for the BBC. Diversity should not be achieved through violence.

BTW: "paraogrammes"? "No-body"? Seriously, you're either drunk or having an MA in Linguistics from Waikato doesn't require high standards of literacy or grammar.