Media & Culture

Quis Custodes NAO?

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The Auditor General has reported that the £113.5 million “Britain is GREAT” advertising campaign already achieved a £1.2 billion payback with a further £0.5 - £0.7 billion to come in the next five years. In other words, for every £1 we taxpayers invest, we can expect at least £17 back. The National Fraud Office is forever telling us that if an investment looks too good to be true, then …….

It is indeed sensible for 17 departments/quangos to share a single campaign with clear objectives, rather than each do its own thing. Furthermore the campaign appears to be creative and well executed.

The NAO comments buried in the review wisely indicate concerns with the methodologies. For many of the FCO/UKTI performance measures, for example, it says something like “Difficult to link directly to GREAT campaign particularly if UKTI has a long-standing relationship with that company.”

The amateur nature of the review is indicated by the lack of understanding of technical terms such as return on investment (ROI), metrics, and brand equity. ROI, for example, is the cash received from an investment as a percent of the cash invested. It cannot usually be applied to advertising without considering its effect on the underlying asset, generally called “brand equity”, a term misused here to mean the value of an ad campaign.

The review ignores the voluminous academic literature on “country of origin effects”, i.e. the impact of the country’s name on economic choices by the target market. At the very least, the specific performance indicators should be reported with “after” compared with “before”. Instead we get broad generalities such as “3.9 UKTI and FCO have a five year target for return on investment for several of its metrics.” We are not told what changed by how much nor the methodology for transposing those changes into cash returns.

A key performance measure for VisitBritain was all the people indicating an intention to travel to the UK whether they saw the campaign or not. That was translated into, for 2012–2014, “£360.3 million validated by the Cabinet Office and included in ROI figures.” The NAO notes a concern with that but still accepts the Cabinet Office “validation”.

Finally, one must have misgivings from all the data for this report being collated from those who spend the money and who have clear self interest in wishing to spend more. Most advertisers I know research the target market directly.

Overall, the role of the NAO in this review reads more like that of a cheerleader for government expenditure rather than a rigorous audit of value for money. For an organisation that generally does such a thoroughly good job, that is disappointing.

It's trivially obvious that this was bad law in the first place

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Laws that are passed in a wave of moral panic always, but always, turn out to be bad laws. And so it is, to absolutely no ones' surprise, with the laws over pictures of people in the nuddy being sent over mobile telephones. Some seem to be recognising at least a part of it:

More than 1,000 under-18s have been investigated for sexting since 2012, with many ending up with a conviction under child pornography laws which can affect their education, work and travel opportunities in adulthood. The group’s report said: “The drive for crime recording integrity is needlessly drawing other children and young people into the criminal justice system, impacting on their long-term welfare and future career opportunities.” It called on the Home Office to re-write rules which set out how police record such incidents as crimes, as well as other “low-level” incidents such as fights between children who live in local authority care.

It is worse than this report states, of course it is. Not only are those under 18 who send such pictures possibly criminals, with life long records, those who receive them can be, and sometimes are, prosecuted for the possession of child pornography. A criminal record for such being something that we'd not really wish upon anyone.

To state how absurd the situation is, well, it's absurd. Take a 16 year old girl, entirely legally in a sexual relationship. She may offer her enbonpoint to her lover to be gnawed, kneaded, caressed and kissed, yet if that lover is over 18 and possesses a picture of said breasts in their natural state they are guilty of possession of child pornography. Yes, there are mitigating factors available but the standard penalty is 5 years jail for this.

A 16 year old sends her girlfriend a semi naked selfie and it's 5 years in the jug?

This could only have come about as the result of one of the more absurd moral panics.

What's really at the heart of this is:

The practice of sending nude or explicit photographs over the internet has become “normal” among teenagers who rarely think through the consequences, the agency added.

Delving into our vague memories of Karl Marx, the level of technology determines social relationships. And this is simply one of those times that a change in technology has led to a change in such relationships. Teenagers are, as anyone with a reasonable memory will recall, remarkably interested in sex. The ubiquity of cameras has changed how they express that interest.

Shrug. It hardly seems like a good reason to criminalise the behaviour of an entire generation. The social mores of what is done and how will be sorted out by the society that is doing it and really, no one needs to be jailed for it. Perhaps that process won't be entirely crisis or problem free, but jailing people over sexting isn't going to help matters in the slightest.

The Sun told a porky pie, and here's why it doesn't matter

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One of the points Owen Jones makes in The Establishment is that our country’s media is scandalously bent in favour of the free-market ideologues that monopolise newspaper ownership:

Whereas just 36 per cent of voters opted for the Tories at the 2010 general election, 71 per cent of newspapers by circulation backed David Cameron’s party.

Jones’s argument is that this lack of democratic accountability allows Rupert Murdoch and co. to wreak havoc on public opinion, leading astray the gullible and politically illiterate general populace.

The Sun’s recent attempt to convince us that 20% of British Muslims possess jihadist sympathies has forced fresh life into this debate, with questions raised as to the extent to which such flagrantly spurious material is any longer ‘acceptable’.

And yet, Jones’s argument is self-defeating – his statistic demonstrates that newspapers are not a primary determinant of the political climate in Britain. Those who call for regulation in response to this recent debacle fall prey to the same assumption: that people blindly believe what they read in the tabloids.

Jones’s position falls further apart when you look into extent of media bias in the first place – interestingly, 20th Century Fox movies appear to receive no special treatment in reviews from News Corporation outlets.

On the other hand, however, there is evidence to suggest that newspapers have some purchase at least. This 2007 study reports that those who received a free subscription to the Washington Post were 8 points more likely to vote Democrat. This does indeed seem a sizeable increase, and thus to demonstrate the important role of newspapers in determining how we think. But this figure surely shrinks to insignificance when you consider, firstly, that it’s a lot easier to decide whether Muslims are all evil ISIS-apologists than it is to decide between the two fairly similar political parties in the US, and secondly, that the Washington Post is a lot more respected than The Sun is.

Even if we were to concede that newspapers pose an almighty threat to the freedom and diversity of thought, it seems unlikely that in this particular case many people believed the half-truth they were being fed – the backlash from the rest of the media was a lot noisier than the original article.

The outrage in response to The Sun’s laughable figure-manipulation is misplaced and patronising. Just as we should afford a platform to the expression of racist or sexist ideas, we should allow newspapers freedom to present their own angle on things: the truth will out.

Time to do your duty and tell government what you really think

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The government is calling for views on what should be done about ticket scalping:

The Review is focusing on the secondary ticket market for re-sale of tickets for UK sporting, entertainment and cultural events. The Call for Evidence is to enable the Review to look more closely at consumer issues and secondary ticketing.

The Review would particularly welcome responses from event organisers, primary and secondary ticket sellers, online resale market businesses and enforcement bodies. However, anyone can respond, and all responses will be considered.

We suggest that you write to them and tell them what you think. There are those who think that something must indeed be done:

There’s something seriously wrong with the way UK ticket sites and touts operate: tickets for Jeff Lynne’s ELO went on sale at 9am this morning, and by 9.20am there were 4,264 tickets listed for resale on GetMeIn alone.

We of course do not think that there's anything wrong with this at all. And therefore we think that the government should do absolutely nothing in this area. Indeed, we cannot imagine any circumstance in which people should not be allowed to dispose of their legally held property as they see fit. If instead of using a ticket to shimmy down on Monday they decide to throw it into the ocean why not? It is theirs, belongs to them, it is their legal property. Restrictions on what they may do with it simply reduce the essence of it being their property.

It may well be true that acts and or venues aren't pricing tickets so that the market clears. But that's their problem, not something that needs action to ensure that the arbitrage that does clear the market does not take place.

Panem et circenses

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We think it's very nice of the Guardian's subeditors to offer us this opportunity to point to and giggle at Polly Toynbee:

Only the BBC could give us Bake Off and Strictly. We must protect it

Polly Toynbee

Because someone, somewhere, was always going to attach that headline above to it.

Yet there's more to this than just a giggle. For it betrays Polly's very patrician idea of what the State is for. It is to provide the entertainments, the diversions, which stop us plebs from rising up and throttling said patricians. Rather than our view of what said State is for, which is to do those few things which both must be done and can only be done by government.

And what really grates is that at least the Romans insisted that it was the patricians that paid for the bread and circuses, Polly's insistent that we must be charged for what she insists we must have:

If the BBC is to be truly independent, it should have written into its charter a permanent guarantee that it will always get a licence fee uprating to cover inflation – so as to keep off the interfering hands of governments, and all the threats and snarls that besiege it from Westminster.

In 100 pages, the BBC defends in detail its need to do the things heavily targeted by its enemies as ripe for selling off. But no commercial channel approaches Radio 1’s 65% new and live music, or the breadth of Radio 2’s specialist niche music. Radio 3 has depth and range but only 10% repeats, compared with unadventurous Classic FM’s 40%.

Read this document when it goes online at midday today and be amazed at what our public broadcaster does for so little cost. It’s a fine reminder of what you get for £12.13 a month,compared with Sky’s average bundle at £61 a month.

If we want it then we'll buy it, thank you so very much, Lady Bountiful.

Not enough people watch Game of Thrones

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That might just sound like the subjective ramblings of someone who's into blood, guts, quality drama and gratuitous nudity. But economic theory suggests that an inefficiently low number of people are enjoying George R.R. Martin's fantasy epic, along with other cultural gems such as Wolf Hall, Mad Men, and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The BBC's current system turns its rights over to private distributors who profit from the sole right to sell it on. Instead the Corporation could act as a 'national netflix,' negotiating purchase of the UK distribution rights to content, and making it available to the public for free.

Such a radical proposal makes sense because of the strange economics of the digital age. The cost of producing an episode of Game of Thrones is high – the first season alone set HBO back $50 million. But the cost of producing an extra copy of that episode is almost nothing. There are lots of people out there to whom the episode is worth only 50p, whereas it costs $4 on iTunes.

This argument applies to a lot of digital media – to e-books, to search engines, and to blogs. Google have found a way around it by monopolising the market and raising revenue from the vapour rising off viewers' eyeballs. (Advertising). The Adam Smith Institute raises funding from wealthy, libertarian-minded donors. So far the best that TV has to offer is streaming services like iPlayer and Netflix, and the option of online piracy.

It would be anathema to suggest the government getting involved in the business of search engines. Producing the kind of unique institutional culture that Google has is very difficult for a private company to do, and almost impossible for the government. But a quality institution – the BBC – already exists. It already provides online media to millions for free, and iPlayer is an immensely successful streaming platform.

One concern might be the weakening of incentives to produce great shows. But in an age of piracy, producers are already finding innovative ways to finance projects that don't require shutting out potential viewers.

Nationalising content rights might not seem very pro-freedom. But the current copyright laws provide content producers with a monopoly, preventing people from enjoying content that costs nothing to produce. In this case, government intervention can promote freedom.

Theo Clifford is winner of the 18-21 category of the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition. You can follow him on @Theo_Clifford, and read his blog at economicsondemand.com.

What an excellent argument against the BBC licence fee this is

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Not that Ms. Reynolds means it this way of course, she thinks she is producing the concluding argument for the retention of the BBC's licence fee:

Anne McElvoy makes several sound points (“‘The Beeb is not facing involuntary euthanasia’”, Comment). Her easy assumption, however, that BBC radio operates with an unfair advantage – “a serious radio competitor, for example, has never got off the ground…” – must not pass unchallenged. Commercial radio in the UK competes seriously and successfully wherever there is a mass audience to be attracted. It does not, however, compete in “serious radio” because the audience it would attract (for features, documentaries, drama, comedy, etc) is not sufficient to justify the higher costs entailed. What “serious radio” commercial competitor would, for instance, underwrite her regular Radio 3 arts review, Free Thinking, or her Radio 4 series on Charlemagne and his legacy, or even the show where she has now also become a regular, Radio 4’s Moral Maze? Meanwhile, as a frequent visitor to New Broadcasting House, it cannot have escaped her eagle eye that further cuts to BBC radio budgets will seriously threaten the continued existence of any kind of “serious radio”.

Gillian Reynolds

Radio critic, Daily Telegraph

London W2

The point being that there really are things that must be done and can only be done by government and the power to tax. Radio not being one of those of course. There's also a weaker argument that there's things it would be nice to have and where it's worth taxing the masses to produce a benefit to said masses. But what there isn't is a space for the argument that the proles must be taxed in order to provide something of only minority interest. For if something does not justify the costs then we should not be doing it. If producing "serious" radio costs more than can be gained from doing so then this is an activity which makes us all poorer.

The BBC licence fee is a tax of course. And we're really sorry to have to point this out but the point of mass taxation is not so as to provide sweeties for some small section of the metropolitan intelligentsia.

That not many people are interested in "serious" radio is an argument against the tax funding of it: that it doesn't, as claimed, cover the costs of its production is an argument against doing it at all, not in favour of taxing those who are uninterested in it.

Yes, let's take BBC financing out of the political arena

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We finally have what looks like a very sensible idea about the financing of the BBC:

Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, has pledged to ensure that last week’s hasty deal with government to secure stable funding for the corporation will never happen again.

Writing for the Observer, Lord Hall, who has been forced to accept responsibility for the £750m cost of free licence fees for the over-75s, argues that key negotiations about the financial basis of the BBC must now be taken out of the political arena for good.

If one is to use the power of the state to take our money at gunpoint risk of a jail sentence for non-payment then it is right and just that the amount to be extorted and how be part of the political process. For that's what that process is: the series of decisions over who may use that power of the state and how.

So, it would appear that the head of the BBC now agrees that the BBC should no longer be tax funded, but should perhaps charge a subscription, carry advertising, whatever. For that's the only way that BBC funding can righteously or justly be divorced from the political process, by not using that process to gain said funding.

Sadly we're just kidding. What is being meant here is that the BBC should continue to use said state power to extort from us all but that none of those beastly politicians, the ones we elect to decide who may use that state power, should have anything to do with it. Just an open hand into our wallets.

Which isn't, we have to say, quite how we think the system should be working. You can ask for our money and if we like what you're doing then you'll get some of it: as all private sector businesses have to do. And if you demand our money with the weight of politics behind you then you're going to have to put up with being controlled, or at least limited, by the politicians.

What you don't get to do is use the power without accepting the oversight. Not while there's still pitchforks and burning brands available to the citizenry you don't.

Yes, first thing, let's defund all the artists

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We fully support the thrust of this article. Indeed, we've been saying much the same thing for years no, defund the arts:

Just the threat of the Tories forming a majority government was enough to start those in the arts squealing about cuts. Well, those living rich on state handouts would panic, wouldn’t they? But as a theatre critic, I have a simple plea for culture minister Ed Vaizey: stop all public funding of the arts, now!

I don’t say that because I believe the burden should be transferred to corporate sponsorship or American-style philanthropy. I say it having just come back from the Norfolk and the Norwich Festival where I sat through a show called What Will Have Been - an awful mix of contemporary circus and dance that could only exist through state funding.

The show was described as “ground-breaking,” as such shows always are, but it had much in common with every other piece of dreary, pretentious, self-consciously "arty" subsidised theatre that I have seen in 20 years of reviewing for The Stage and the former What’s On In London.

There is a difference here though in the reason why we would immediately stop all such funding. We don't think that we are capable of, nor that we should be, deciding what art others might wish to enjoy. So our argument to defund the arts does not rest on the idea that much of what is funded is dreadful, stale, boring or even simply not to our taste. Given the existence of Simon Cowell there must be people who enjoy things that we find dreadful, stale, boring or even simply not to our taste.

Given that multiplicity of tastes out there the only way we can possibly justifiy any spending on such artistic endeavours is for the people who enjoy the specific form of it to pay for that specific form of it. We'll not argue for subsidy of Dr. John if you don't argue for subsidy of whatever it is that you enjoy and we do not.

There is then one further argument, that there are some forms of art (say, ballet and opera at the highest level) which we are told simply cannot exist without subsidy. Patrons of those arts would simply never pay enough to make the spectacles viable. Which is simply another way of stating that such spectacles make us all poorer. Those who see them are not willing to pay the cost of their production. Thus the benefit gained from their existence is less than the resources put into their production. That is the same thing as stating that they are subtracting value.

And we really don't institute government to make us all poorer.

So, close down the Arts Council, abolish all tax subsidy of the arts and make the nation richer in the process.

An interesting idea to change copyright

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We wouldn't like to give anyone the idea that we think that the Green Party are anything other than somewhere between wildly misguided and entirely deluded on all matters. However, they have made one suggestion which is most certainly worthy of greater consideration. That's to restrict the terms of copyright:

The Green party may be forced to backtrack on its proposals to limit UK copyright terms to 14 years after a howl of protest from prominent writers and artists including Linda Grant, Al Murray and Philip Pullman.

The Greens’ manifesto said the party aims to “make copyright shorter in length, fair and flexible” with the party’s policy website saying it would “introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”. Representatives of the party said on Thursday that length could be revised after a consultation.

There have indeed been howls of protest from just about everyone who has ever made a penny or two from stringing words together. As most of us here have made a penny or two from stringing words together as well perhaps we might add a little bit of grown up talk to the discussion?

The entire point of copyright (and also of patents) is to acknowledge that free markets, pure free markets entirely unadorned, are not the optimal solution to every problem. We'll argue with anyone about the idea that they are the optimal solution to more problems than anyone currently allows them to be but we're still insistent that this does not mean that they are perfect. And the issue of creation, whether of new ideas, new works of art or simply entertaining schlock is one of these areas. It's difficult and time consuming, expensive in other words, to produce new material in any of these fields. It's extraordinarily easy to copy it once that has been done.

This means that in a purely free market system it will be very difficult to profit from creation thus we think there will be less creation than we might want. So, we add protections for the creators. We have, simply, entirely invented this concept of "intellectual property". That provides the incentive to create.

However, there's also the point that we like derivative creation as well: someone creating atop the bones of what has gone before. And too long a, or too restrictive terms of, protection will limit and hinder this. So, some protection of creation is desirable and too much is not.

But note where this leads us. It is that original creation that we wish to encourage. And, if we're honest about it, writing a book now is not influenced in any manner at all by the thought that a literary estate might still be earning from it 70 years after the authors' death. The Sherlock Holmes stories only recently went out of copyright: does anyone think Conan Doyle was in the slightest influenced to write by what the stories might earn in the 1980s? Or take the lengthening of sound recording copyrights from 50 to 70 years just recently. Does anyone really think that Cliff Richard was incentivised to record "Living Doll" by how much it might make him in 2010? Sure, in 2010 he was very interested in the subject as he campaigned on the issue but what we want to know is what pushed him in the first place, not what he thinks post facto. Given that he did the recording under a 50 year protection does rather show that the 70 year protection was not necessary to encourage that original creation.

So, therefore, we probably shouldn't have the longer protection.

14 years might be too short a period of time. From memory that was actually the time period in the early 18th century, and it could be renewed at least once. Full marks to the Greens for actually recognising this as an interesting area for discussion. But we would have thought that reverting to that 18th century was a bit odd for them. For they normally want us to fast forward to the Middle Ages don't they?