Ben Bradshaw, the Culture Secretary, has stepped into a simmering row about the BBC’s expansion policy. He says it is “at the limits of reasonable expansion.” Set up originally by six private companies to broadcast radio programmes, and nationalised in 1927, the BBC has been a public body ever since. Although it attracted praise for the quality of its commercial-free broadcasting, the BBC has tried throughout its history to monopolise broadcasting by squeezing out competition.
It opposed the introduction of ITV in 1955 and of commercial radio subsequently, following the success of the offshore pirate stations. The BBC has never hesitated to use its publicly-funded clout to compete with private ventures dependent on commercial finance. Local radio stations, set up to fill a gap in the market, soon found themselves in competition with BBC versions, financed out of the licence fee, which cut into their audience and the commercial finance it brought.
The BBC looks at what others are doing commercially, and copies them, trying to maintain its dominant position by undercutting commercial operations with its “free” licence-payer-funded alternatives. The BBC has no need to finance such operations by market share because it has the compulsory licence fee behind it. Everyone who uses a television has to pay it, and bullying big brother tactics and intimidating commercials ensure that most of them do.
Part of the problem is that with media diversification in the internet age, the BBC still wants to do everything. It fears its dominance will be undermined by new technology unless it keeps a finger in every pie. This is very evident in its news services. Seeing the news audience move from broadcast news to internet coverage, the BBC has responded with “free” internet news to compete with and undercut those who need a market share and commercial backing to sustain their own news output.
In response to a proposal to award a small part of the licence fee to local news alternatives, Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, has urged a cut in the licence fee rather than see any of it go to help competitors. Mr Bradshaw’s intervention is timely. Just occasionally, in the way the BBC treats its prima donna celebrities, do people glimpse how their licence fees are splashed around. Less visible is the ruthless way they are used to squeeze out commercial media competitors.
The BBC is rightly praised for some of its output, but it has traded on that goodwill to distort the media market to maintain its own dominance. It is time that its use of licence fees was subjected to close and independent scrutiny, and that alternative funding models were explored.
Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.
I respectfully disagree with Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, over his views on the City and its finance industry. He regrets there has been “no repentance for the excesses which led to the economic collapse,” and describes a feeling of “diffused resentment” that bankers have failed to accept their responsibility for the crisis.
While the archbishop is entitled to express his views, I am sure he will not mind me pointing out that these are somewhat uninformed views. He admits to not being an economist, saying the crisis has taught us that “economics is too important to be left to the economists.” I am sure he will not mind me pointing out, either, that financial services are not founded on greed. For the most part they represent honest trading by well-intentioned people whose skill lies in the efficient allocation of resources. This skill, internationally, has lifted more people from the blight of poverty and hunger than any other force in history, including religion.
Few economists think that the crisis was caused by greedy bankers. In increasing numbers they are coming to the view that recklessly loose credit created by politicians and central bankers sent false signals to the financial industry, causing them to act inappropriately and take on undue risks. Dr Williams describes a sense of “muted anger” at the bonus culture, pointing to a gap between what people are paid, and the worth of what they do. He might just as well criticise the huge rewards gained by footballers and pop stars, but the fact is that their pay reflects what people are prepared to pay for their services. The “bonus culture” is no different; it reflects the economic worth of people whose financial skills can add value to transactions.
Of course we can learn something from the crisis. Perhaps that banks should be encouraged to align bonuses with long-term returns rather than with short-term turnover. We can also learn that when governments try to “smooth” downturns for political advantage, it simply stokes up future calamity.
Everyone admits that there have been bad eggs in the City, as there have been in the Church, and perhaps in every walk of life. That is why we need institutions and practices to restrain them, and to improve these when they fall short. But to taint the financial industry with “idolatry” is to veer dangerously close to populist sloganeering.
Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.