Delivering the prestigious MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, James Murdoch (youngest son of Rupert – wonder how he got his job?) has attacked both the BBC and Ofcom, complaining that they’re stifling the media market in the UK.
The context here, of course, is that News Corporation wants to start charging for online content, and have been complaining for years that the BBC distorts the market by providing so much news for free. This is the position of many other newspaper groups.
On the face of it, this is a reasonable enough complaint, but if you think back to our discussions about what newspapers do well, you’ll recall that they’ve not been good at breaking news first since the General Strike of 1926. The BBC delivers a peculiar product: they go out of their way to appear “balanced” and unbiased” and they spend very little time analysing the background to a story or giving editorial opinion on a story – both of which are things that newspapers have always done very well. If you want someone to take sides, read a newspaper.
Now the so-called “balance” of BBC reporting can be ripped to pieces by anyone versed in deconstruction techniques, but the question of its existence is really down to us. As long as we continue to trust the BBC and remain willing to pay the BBC Tax (Licence Fee), the BBC is fine. Most people think it’s doing a good job. Furthermore, countries around the world look at the BBC with envy. In the current media market, the BBC is able to continue to make programmes, continue to innovate technologically, and – most importantly – continue to keep the rest of the media honest.
The crucial point is that if it wasn’t for the BBC’s attempt at “balance”, we’d be surrounded by biased reporting under the influence of powerful advertisers. If you don’t think that’s true, look at the YouTube clip above about a Fox news report that was quashed when a powerful corporation sicced their lawyers on Fox and advertising dollars were threatened. When you own 25 TV stations and rely on advertising for your profits, this is inevitable. You can spend hours on YouTube looking at Fox News reporting. Some of it is preposterously bad, beyond satire. Some of it is frightening and seems to come from a very dark place. The Obama “terrorist fist bump” is a case in point.
Speaking of very dark places, this appears to be where James Murdoch lives. He repeatedly uses the phrase, “State-sponsored news” when describing the BBC. To deconstruct that for a moment, we’re more used to hearing the phrase “state-sponsored” in the context of terrorism. “State-sponsored” is what you expect from North Korea, Libya, and other states in the so-called “axis of evil”. Even to see the world in these black and white terms (that there is such a thing as “evil” opposed to the “good”) is to live in a comic strip.
“Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it,” he said.
“State-sponsored news” is what you used to get in Communist Russia, when the daily newspaper called Pravda (“Truth”) was put on display for all to read – even those who couldn’t afford to buy it. For Murdoch to equate the BBC with this kind of thing reveals a world view that is distorted to the edge of madness.
These people seriously want to crush the BBC and replace it with Fox-style news. Now, I don’t particularly love the BBC. If you reduced my licence fee in proportion to the amount of BBC output that I actually consume, I’d probably end up paying about £10 a year for a bit of Radio Five Live, Doctor Who, the web site, and the occasional documentary. But I happily pay the extra £100 because the BBC is still one of the aspects of life in the UK that’s good, something to be proud of.
What we need to resist – with every fibre of our beings – is the occasional attempt at political interference in the BBC. The scandal over the “sexed-up” dossier is a case in point. Politicians should keep their noses out of the BBC’s business. We pay for it, we pay for them, but we don’t pay them to run the BBC, we pay them to run the country.
Furthermore, banish from your mind the very idea that you need to get rid of the BBC to make news that’s worth paying for. Newspapers have never been in the business of making a profit from the cover price. The cover price of a newspaper barely covers the cost of printing it, let alone all the journalism inside it. Journalism has always been paid for by advertising. To blame the BBC for the loss of advertising revenue is a complete red herring. The advertisers have gone elsewhere because it’s more efficient to target a consumer searching for Acme Gadget on Google than it is to advertise that Acme Gadget to a mass of people who aren’t in the market for one right now.
Mass market advertising disappears as soon as you find a better way to deliver targeted advertising.
Now, the BBC isn’t perfect, and I don’t think they should be delivering – for example – “nice”, dumbed-down, simplified narrative dramas, which is what you get when you try not to offend advertisers. Instead, they should model themselves after HBO and other broadcasters who don’t need to chase advertising, and deliver nasty product like The Wire and the Sopranos. On the other hand, they need to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, because we’re all paying for it. It’s not easy being the BBC, but I’d rather live here, in Adams Family Britain, than the dark place occupied by James Murdoch.
Read the full text of his speech (PDF) here.
And just for balance, Clarkson shows a bit of contempt for his (studio) audience.