Samuel Brittan objects to a piece of high-minded special pleading for an ever rising BBC licence fee for an ever shrinking BBC. Quality programmes need a better defenceby Samuel Brittan / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Soldier on leave in 1915 (on seeing a young Oxford don in civvies): Tell me sir, what are you doing to defend the civilisation for which I am fighting?
Don: Don’t you understand? I am the civilisation you are defending.
The fly leaf to this booklet explains that it is the third in a series of public policy reports commissioned by the BBC. It is the work of Andrew Graham, of Balliol College, Oxford and Gavyn Davies, of Goldman Sachs, and looks with alarm at a future in which the viewer (and listener?) will be able to pay for whatever programmes he or she likes from a multitude of sources.
Some of the authors’ concerns are legitimate. For example, the main consumer electronics manufacturers supplying set-top boxes for digital television may well have to rely on proprietary technology devised by Murdoch companies. Economies of scale at this stage of the transmission process will make it difficult for other competitors to enter. So there is a potential monopoly problem.
Second, desirable though it is in enlarging freedom of choice, pay television will destroy a “public good” which broadcasting has created. Both the BBC and ITV permit viewer access without having to pay at the point of entry (the overheads being met by the licence fee or advertising), so there is no direct link between the amount of broadcasting “consumed” and the amount it costs to produce. This is one of the attributes of a public good: one person can have more without anyone else having less. In this context, it means more people may watch more “good” television than they otherwise would-or than they will under a pay television regime.
Instead of sticking to the monopoly dangers and public good problem, this booklet becomes a highminded appeal for taxpayer finance to support shared values and experiences, as the cement of democracy.
The whole point of liberal democracies is to find ways by which people with different values can live together. This is admittedly not possible without some common elements, if only a belief in toleration. So the authors’ argument cannot just be dismissed as paternalism. But the common experiences on which the authors dwell-such as last night’s match as a conversation opener-arise spontaneously rather than from planning by “the great and the good.”
The Peacock committee on the future of broadcasting, which reported in 1986, took the view that mass…