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A reactionary defence of the BBC

Peter Hitchens, the arch-conservative (small-c) journalist and detester of Blairite Britain, might be thought on the surface to have a few things in common with the scribes at this blog. Well, this article in The Spectator in which he defends the British Broadcasting Corporation, should nail that idea in short order.

Hitchens – brother of maverick left-liberal fellow journalist Christopher – shares with many people a widespread loathing of the BBC, the trashiness of its downmarket programmes, the bias of its news service, and so forth. And yet he is fiercely opposed to abolishing the BBC’s licence fee, the tax which is imposed on all current purchasers of television sets to fund that organisation.

Indeed, Hitchens seems to bemoan the rise of commercial television, cable and satellite outlets, as having created pressures on the BBC to dumb down. He yearns for the days before the mid-1950s when the BBC had a total monopoly on broadcasting. He seems to be saying that the BBC is okay so long as it is run in the way he likes. It is totally outside his frame of mental reference to imagine how quality television, however defined, can thrive in a market where consumers pay out of their own free will.

To be fair, he says the BBC should openly allow its broadcasters to admit their political biases in full rather than cover them up under a pretence of impartiality, but also ensure that for each avowed leftwing journalist, there should be a counterpart of a conservative. This may sound quite an improvement, but it is entirely unrealistic to suppose that the programme makers who run the BBC in its present privileged state would concede such ground. The beast cannot be tamed. It must be consigned to the abbatoir.

There is a broader point. Even if the BBC was a genuine paragon of truth, objectivity and high culture, its licence fee would still be unjustified. It is a tax and increasingly hard to justify in a world of diverse broadcasting channels, not to mention the Internet.

In his great book, The Constitution of Liberty, the late FA Hayek wrote in his final chapter, “Why I am Not a conservative.” Hitchens’ article is a good reminder to me why I am of the same view as the great Austrian economist.

21 comments to A reactionary defence of the BBC

  • Lorenzo

    Just goes to show that at the end of the day the only difference between conservatives and socialist is who they think should benefit from state control. They will both over tax, expand the state and cover the country in red tape.

    ps: why the italics

  • Johnathan,

    Hitchens is asking for two things. Commendably, he wants a beefed-up statutory requirement of journalistic impartiality. The present, inoperative requirement applies equally to all broadcast media and I don’t see why the sort of standard he seeks should be particular to taxation-funded state media. If it’s good for one it’s good for them all.

    Secondly, he seeks via the continued licence fee to underpin a tradition of cultural elitism. I do not believe that this is argument is sustainable, and certainly not that a requirement of impartiality exclusive to the BBC can sustain it. One has to bite the bullet on this, scrap the licence fee and concede that market forces will prevail. Broadcast media are entertainment, primarily, and appeal to C-D’s. A-B’s may find fewer expressions of their intellectual and cultural interests or find them elsewhere.

    Lastly, Johnathan, I was aggrieved by the Hayekian reference at the end of your piece. The man actually wrote, “… by its very nature it (conservativism) cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.” This, in a nutshell, is his “decisive objection” to what he undoubtedly perceived as a reactionary and historically-rooted force acting only upon the speed of change but not the nature of it. But this perception is not informed by the rush of developing knowledge, psychological and genetic, that bears upon the nature of man, society, race and politics. But for the existing political establishment and its prejudices (which one might recast as the reactionary force of modern times), this knowledge could already be influencing social policy towards broadly conservative outcomes.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Guessedworker, please explain what on earth you mean by the sentence “the rush of developing knowledge, psychological and genetic, that bears upon the nature of man, society, race and politics”. I am truly baffled. The reference to race and genetics also leaves a nasty smell.

    Hayek would have vehemently opposed State-run monopolies like the BBC, run by Reithian autocrats arguing about their mission to “shape” public opinion in a preferred direction. One of his key beliefs is that it was not the purpose of a state to direct human affairs to any one end or set of ends, but let each and every one of us determine those ends for ourselves.

  • S. Weasel

    If the BBC has to “dumb down” to attract custom, it means their constituents (the people paying the fees) want dumber fare than they’re getting. While we may deplore the tastelessness of the common man, is it right to force him to consume a more improving diet, and force him to pay for it, too?

    Public broadcasting in the US is a lefty delight: they get about 10% of their money via taxes, and the rest partly from voluntary grants by pious, right-thinking corporations, partly from quarterly beg-a-thons. A triple crown!

    The pledge drives are cathartic exercises in guilt and arm-twisting, during which public TV shows entirely different fare – usually beloved old movies. And you’ve got to think…if you guys know we want to watch old movies and show us that when you’re trying to sneak a hand in our pockets, how’s come you show us opera and sociology the rest of the time?

    Heard on public radio this morning, an actual listener comment: “One of the things that defines a democracy is a free press. Without public broadcasting, we would have no free press in America, and we would cease to be a democracy.”

    The mind reels.

  • As usual Guessedworker has spewed out a load of jargony gobbledegook and hints that somehow this supports his fatuous and oft repeated ‘social conservatism’. I doubt even he knows what he is talking about most of the time, it never appears to make sense to anyone who reads it. He habitually deploys the scientific word ‘sociobiology’ in order to cover up the increasingly obvious truth that his deluded scribblings are merely the vapid emmanations of a mind clouded with bigotry.

  • Paul Marks

    Peter Hitchens also supports government control of the railways. He blames the problems of the railways on private ownership – he has not even noticed that the railways have been renationalized (under the new “network rail” nobody can buy or sell any ownership – the whole thing is a government creature).

    Mr Hitchens supports government control of the railways as traditional. This is false conservatism as, in Britain, the railways were created by private enterprise and were only taken over by the government many years later.

  • R.C. Dean

    Commendably, he wants a beefed-up statutory requirement of journalistic impartiality.

    Feh. I don’t see the need for any statutory requirements of journalistic anything. Whatever happened to a free press?

  • Eamon Brennan

    Paul Marks wrote:

    …in Britain, the railways were created by private enterprise and were only taken over by the government many years later.

    Correct me if I am wrong here Paul (this is not an area I have a lot of knowledge in) but was there not a great deal of compulsory land purchase involved in developing the railways in the first place.


  • Tom Campbell

    Can we just nail this idea that the BBC is a left wing organisation? It’s actually far to the right of my beliefs (somewhere between social democracy and democratic socialism) and those of a good proportion of the British people.

    True, it is more liberal than a few right wing lunatics and newspaper owners, but that hardly makes it a centre for Bolshevik activity – it just broadly reflects the population at large. For those of us genuinely interested in a free press and a vigorous media industry, the cross-media private conglomerates must be a far greater concern.

  • Tom Campbell,

    I think the consistent cheer-leading of people like our own Polly Toynbee (and, yesterday, American socialist Joe Conason) pretty much nails the idea that the BBC is a left-wing organisation.

    Actually it is beside the point. They can be overtly Leninist for all I care, as long as their income is not extorted from people by force (which is currently is).

  • Tom Campbell

    Nothing wrong with the licence fee being mandatory. We have to pay for TV one way or another (adverts, subscription etc) – far better to make everyone contribute to a single organisation, so that we can all enjoy: far higher standards of television entertainment; education and training content; news coverage unmediated by right-wing billionaires; training for the industry; access opportunities for emerging talent etc etc. (I suspect that, understandably, you only have a limited knowledge of the range of services provided by the BBC.)

    All for £2 a week! A bargain. Personally, I think it should be much higher.

  • S. Weasel

    Geez, Tom, if you’re going to troll, at least show a little finesse. Bald provocation is so…boring.

  • Tom Campbell,

    I care not a fig for the range of services they offer (and I am more familiar with that organisation that you imagine or suspect). They are not entitled to a guaranteed income extracted under threat of criminal sanction.

    That isn’t ‘choice’ or ‘public service’ it’s feudalsim.

    “All for £2 a week! A bargain. Personally, I think it should be much higher.”

    You are free to contribute as much as you wish to the BBC. Send your cheque to this address:

    BBC Television
    Wood Lane
    London W12 7RJ.

    Don’t delay now. The Beeb needs your money.

  • A_t

    I think the consistent cheer-leading of people like our own Polly Toynbee pretty much nails the idea of freedom of speech as a left-wing conspiracy.

    etc. etc. Just because they love it, doesn’t mean it’s beholden to their side.

  • I agree with David, the quality or otherwise of the BBC is entirely beside the point, what is at issue is this business of making criminals of people who own televisions and refuse to pay the licence fee.

    As it happens I quite like the televisual output of the BBC, I enjoy many of its programmes and I even like its news and current affairs, unlike many who comment on this blog I’ve never felt it to be particularly outrageous in any bias. However this is just so much irrelevant personal aesthetic preference, extorting money from people is wrong whether the money is given to the BBC or whoever. As the BBC exists only from extorted money it must be abolished and the pieces left for scavengars to pick up and make whatever use they will of them. That is what justice requires.

  • HTY


    You’re extrapolating from a single example to cover a large number of people.

    I know plenty of libertarians who have lost their marbles. (Let’s not forget that libertarian saint, Mr. Rothbard, who stated that “the United States was solely at fault in the Cold War, and that Russia was the aggrieved party.”) Should I extrapolate from them to form my idea of libertarian in general?

    Not every conservative supports government broadcasting.

  • Modern Liberals and Conservatives are two sides of the same coin. Both groups want to modify human behavior (individual and collective… presumably for what they consider the better) using the power of the state.

    Sure… Left and Right they have different ideas about how and what the state should muck with in people’s lives, but they consider it at least okay (and sometimes an almost religious imparitive) to DO SOMETHING.

    Never think that “Reducing Government” is going to hold water with a modern Conservative when it is time to axe their particular, pet program.

  • Paul,

    I apologise for offending you so. You really must calm down, though. You do yourself no credit by being as shrill as the worst political correctionist. I would fear for liberty in any society preferred by you.


    You are, perhaps, not fully aware but we live in quite interesting times in the genetic sciences. I am not going to labour the point now but there has and continues to be good research that bears on the debate between egalitarianism and individualism. At present, the egalitarians are holding their ground on faith alone. Prof Steve Jones, for example, who is at the Galton and our leading geneticist has not admitted that any aspect of intelligence if heritable. He is. of course, a paid up member of the Labour Party. During next year, perhaps, a key research programme will be completed (The Haplotype Map). It is practically unavoidable that it will have some bearing on the underpinnings of socialism in all its forms. I think most observers expect those underpinning to be fatally weakened.

    This isn’t a process that will be conducted out of the spotlight. It should enter public knowledge and inform political debate for the foreseeable future. Of course, if that doesn’t excite you I am sorry. But my guess is that within two to five years you personally will take account of this emerging knowledge in forming your own views. I certainly hope so.

  • A Crawford

    There’s a pretty sharp difference between public broadcasting (PBS) and public access (or community access) in the US. I think most libertarians in the US are in love with public access tv (in communities that have gotten their acts together well enough to run channels)… for a quick definition, google with “public access television” and Congress.

  • Mike Power

    The BBC annoys me intensely sometimes. It’s coverage of the war hasn’t been to everyones liking. The licence fee is an outmoded and offensive means of raising funds. But let’s ponder a couple of things. There hasn’t been an effective opposition in the UK for years. From Day one of the Blair government ministers and spokespersons, coached in spin and obfuscation, did everything to avoid giving straight answers. I listened to it for years and it drove me potty. What it did to BBC interviewers I can only guess at. Those who think the BBC is on it’s last legs are indulging in wishful thinking.
    It will be here long after Blair and Bush, and their successors, are forgotten. What we have witnessed over the last few months is the last great attempt at spin by this mendacious bunch of disemblers. They are going for the big one and they are going to fail. Get your “Honest, I never liked Blair anyway” bumper stickers now.

  • Johnathan

    Guessworker, I am still at a loss to know what the heck genetics has to do with my reference to Hayek’s comments in the chapter of CoL, “Why I am not a conservative”.

    Seriously, it right like a load of incoherent, vaguely dodgy bs. Maybe I am missing the point but I don’t think so.