There is an alternative to privatising the BBC - turn it into the National Trust of the airwavesby Alan Peacock / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
I have a possible solution to the unresolved debate between Tim Congdon and Gavyn Davies about the future of the BBC (April). Both authors are kind enough to refer to the earlier efforts of the Peacock Committee (1986), but my own thoughts have progressed somewhat since our radical proposals shocked the broadcasting establishment, and successive governments cherry-picked their way through our recommendations leaving the BBC to heave a sigh of relief.
Congdon argues that the development of the broadcasting market leaves the BBC indistinguishable from other large players, but endowed with a financial advantage through the licence fee which is no longer justified. So privatise it. Davies says that this financial advantage is required for the BBC to spearhead the digital “revolution” but, more important, to save us from the “market failure” of commercial broadcasting. So continue to support it with a tax on reception, plus exemptions for the poor.
The BBC itself has presented new arguments for immunity from market forces, based on the claim that it is a “focal point for the identity and culture of the nation.” The licence fee must be supplemented to develop digital services “to improve access to British culture and creativity, particularly for the many who can afford neither pay-per-view nor ticket prices” (BBC response to Davies Committee). This takes me back to the days when dear old Covent Garden claimed to be the “flagship” of the performing arts.
There is a strong case for some form of public finance for cultural and educational programmes which would otherwise be hard to finance by commercial means, but this is not an argument for confining such finance to the BBC alone. Cultural monopolies create cultural ghettos which are anathema to innovation in the performing and creative arts; competition is a useful motivating force in cultural as well as other services. That is why the Peacock Committee suggested a kind of Arts Council of the Air, to which all players could apply, competing for funds for non-commercial projects. Unfortunately arts councils have gained an unjustifiably bad reputation-for, among other things, the arbitrary element in funding allocations. (One solution to the latter problem, given a recognisable quality threshold for bids, is to pick winners out of a hat-or perhaps a Grecian urn-rather than for such bids to trail through committees of the great and the good.)
But even if the BBC’s case for privileged access to government funding has disappeared, that does not mean that it needs to become a wholly commercial concern. There is a precedent in the field of culture in the form of the National Trust, a non-profit-making charitable corporation financed by a mixture of charges for entry to properties, sale of produce, interest on investments and, of particular interest, membership fees paid by 2.5m members who have a say in running its affairs. This variation of privatisation warrants serious investigation.
The BBC would have to charge for its services, like other broadcasters, but those who are alienated by the idea of a commercially-run organisation could express their preferences by becoming subscribing members-supporting its activities and taking part in its governance. Whether or not the BBC would need to rely on advertising revenue is an open question, but there can be no objection in principle. There would still be tricky matters such as whether or not a BBC Trust would have the kind of special relationship with the government enjoyed by the National Trust, and what to do with the BBC’s immense capital stock of historical archival material which, some would argue, should be in the public domain. But the essential change would be to force the BBC into working for its living in competition with other big players, albeit with the advantages arising from its enormous experience and the potential benefits arising from charitable status.