OpenDemocracy and the BBC


Prompted by our latest report Global player or Subsidy Junkie?, Steve Barnett of OpenDemocracy gives an impassioned defence of the BBC.

Ultimately I think his article rests on the following arguments:

  1. The BBC is good and people like it
  2. Without the BBC our media would be worse
  3. Without the license fee we would not get the BBC

As someone who doesn’t have a television, I am not really in a position to give my opinion on argument (1). From talking with other people this appears to be one of those ‘Marmite issues’ – you either love it or hate it. Either way, I think it is fair for Mr Barnett to argue that a lot of people do indeed like the BBC and don’t mind paying the licence fee. Argument (2) is impossible to prove. We are not in a world without the BBC and a lot of people already pay extra money upon the cost of the license fee to use other media services.

It is the logic of argument (3) at which his position falls apart. If indeed the BBC is good and people like it and the alternative is worse, why would people not continue to pay for it as a subscription service? Unless Mr Barnett is wrong about (1) and (2), I don’t see how (3) can hold. If, as he believes, the BBC is such a desired institution, why can’t he and others who value it also pay for it, leaving those who would rather not be forced to do so, to pay for what they want to watch? However, if it turns out that he is wrong, we will know that (1) certainly does not hold and that it was wrong to force people to pay the licence fee.

This is indeed the ideological argument that Mr Barnett suggests. It is based on classical liberalism: the ideal of a limited government and the liberty of individuals. As David Graham shows in his report, there are other arguments for changing the funding stream of the BBC, but Mr Barnett does not adequately deal with these in his article. This is because his position is also ideological, one that allows for the state to have the power to force people to support a national media company.

To be worthy of the name, OpenDemocracy should not be defending the government’s involvement in the media at all.