As support for the licence fee starts to fray, the BBC has come up with a new concept of "public value" which places it in the same category as public services like health and education. But it isn'tby Barry Cox / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
In June, the BBC published the report “Building public value,” laying out a case for the renewal of its status and funding as its contribution to the government’s review of the royal charter and the licence fee. Decisions about both have to be made by 2006. Central to this defence is a new concept of “public value,” both as justification for the existence of the BBC in its current form and as a series of tests which could be used to monitor the BBC’s performance.
Much intellectual effort has gone into defining this concept, and elaborating its relevance to the BBC. This effort is a recognition that the BBC faces more serious threats to its traditional structure than at any time in its history, largely because the development of digital technology is undermining conventional broadcasting and creating vibrant new commercial alternatives. As a result, the assumption that we need a state broadcasting institution financed by a compulsory poll tax no longer commands universal assent.
To meet this challenge, the BBC is trying to put itself into the camp of other public services – health, education, parks, museums and libraries. This seems smart. No one seriously suggests privatising our parks, museums and libraries, and while there are important debates about how health and education are delivered, the majority think that the state will have to fund most of these services for the foreseeable future. If the BBC can persuade us to see its operations in a similar light, it will have gone a long way towards securing its future.
However, it is not true that broadcasting shares the fundamental characteristics of these other public services. In the past, large-scale public funding of the BBC was justified because the usable radio spectrum was a scarce public resource managed through international agreements between governments. Governments therefore had to decide how it would be used – and the US decision to exploit it commercially was radically different from the European decisions to go down a predominantly public route. But digital and other technologies developed over the past 20 years have hugely expanded our use of the wireless spectrum and enhanced the capacities of the wired cable and telecoms infrastructures. As a result, governments are retreating from their dominant position in the communications industries, and individual consumers and citizens are increasingly able to choose what they want to watch – much in the way…