We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

A miserable defence of the BBC

Sir Christopher Bland (somewhat unfortunate surname, Ed) has a debate in the latest edition of the UK magazine, Standpoint, with Charles Moore, former Daily Telegraph and Spectator editor, as his opponent. Moore – who has vowed not to pay the BBC licence fee tax until Jonathan Ross – a boorish chatshow host and radio DJ – is sacked for a certain incident, challenges the whole idea of tax-financed broadcasting. His arguments are forceful, not least the point that the BBC, as a privileged recipient of funds raised on pain of imprisonment, can and does undermine would-be commercial competitors, therby stifling potential new ideas and models of broadcasting. He points out that while the BBC claims to not be biased, it is in fact biased, and it would be better for such biases to be upfront rather than concealed. I am sure that Samizdata readers are mostly familiar with the standard liberal critique of the BBC’s very existence, so I will not rehearse the argument here again.

What struck me, however, is how lame Sir Christopher’s debating points are. Check them out for yourself, gentle reader. Pretty much most of his comments fall into the “only a fool could deny how wonderful the BBC is” and gives variations on how the sky will fall in on the quality of UK television if the licence fee system is scrapped. We get the now-standard sneer about American and foreign TV. Zzzzz. In fact, he rarely engages very energetically with Moore’s points; rather, he harrumphs that Moore is some sort of free marketeer zealot, and of course, brings out the standard BS line that anyone who disagrees with tax-financed broadcasting is a “philistine”. The lameness, the refusal to think in principles of any coherent kind, is really quite striking. It is hard not to smell a certain whiff of defeat.

The attitudes of Sir Christopher – no doubt a most civilised and agreeable member of what might pass for the “establishment” in this country – are pretty widely shared across much of the population. His worldview, his inability to understand a world in which the state did not grab such a huge share of our lives and attempt to manage it, is shared, for example, by all those who cannot consider how healthcare will be delivered without a Soviet-model system such as the NHS. Moore makes this point; he even points to the parallel between the old Church of England, and its now-abolished tithe on parishioners, be they Anglicans or not, and the licence fee, which is paid by those who either watch the BBC, or who do not. Bland, of course, just brushes it aside. One suspects that much of his worldview is shared by the likes of David Cameron.

Incidentally, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Standpoint. It is a definite plus in the UK magazine scene.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on VKEmail this to someone

31 comments to A miserable defence of the BBC

  • Verity

    Jonathan writes: “The attitudes of Sir Christopher – no doubt a most civilised and agreeable member of what might pass for the “establishment” in this country …”.

    So a member of the Nomenklatura, then.

  • Sam Duncan

    I read the article last night and my thoughts were pretty much the same. You have to wonder if Sir Christopher has seen or heard any of the BBC’s output in the last twenty years or so. He certainly seems astonishingly out of touch; surely nobody can doubt that the best TV of recent years has come from American broadcasters such as HBO, and that the Corporation has spent much of the licence payers’ money producing second-rate knockoffs? And what is EastEnders but a shameless, humourless, copy of Coronation Street? (In Scotland, we even have our very own third-hand, third-rate ripoff in River City.) I accept that the quality argument may have had some force in the past, but not in the era of Jonathan Ross and Strictly.

    Moore ran rings round him. His comparison with the Church was particularly clever, I thought, especially when he extended it to compare so-called “top-slicing” of the licence fee to the arguments for the establishment of other denominations in the 19th Century.

  • Yes indeed Sam, the notion the BBC makes better stuff than the best that comes out of the USA is completely laughable. 98% of the drama worth watching these days is American in my view.

  • DavidC

    CB: Well, it’s a bit like the ur-Catholic Church, the ideal, just as there’s the ur-BBC, and then there’s the reality: the two aren’t the same. The closer that the reality approximates to the ideal the happier we all shall be, and the BBC falls short of that from time to time.

    This is called TV medium – it wasn’t rare and it wasn’t well done.

  • Nuke Gray

    Maybe australians get different shows, but my impression is the other way round- that the best shows are British. (Doctor Who, Top Gear, documentaries of all kinds such as all those Attenburough nature shows, Horatio Hornblower, etc.) I certainly agree that the americans are doing some great comedy shows (2+1/2 men, Scrubs, etc.).
    But that may just be the shows that reach our shores. Sadly, I don’t think we’ve got anything to match either of these, now, though the old ‘Mother and son’ comedy has some good moments.

  • I’d say that the US make better dramas, while the BBC makes better documentaries and period pieces, and it’s about a tie on comedy. I’d put that down more to the British obsession with grimness than any particular funding model though – I rarely watch British drama because I rarely feel the need to be told that life is unrelenting toil, depression and death.

    I’d say that the quality of US television programmes is the equal of anything, but the quality of US television as a whole is sub-par because of the massive amount of advertising involved. I like the influence the BBC has in the UK in limiting that, though the fact that I generally pre-record programmes and skip the ads makes that a small factor nowadays.

  • James Waterton

    I agree with Sam Duncan and Perry. Top quality American drama absolutely annihilates the best British output in terms of creativity, style and plot. Consider Lost, The Shield, Dexter, and practically anything that’s been produced by HBO (Sopranos, Entourage, The Wire, Oz, Rome, Deadwood – the list goes on and on and on and on…) in the last decade or thereabouts.

    Even on comedy, Americans have shown that they can be as subtly witty, wry, quirky and cynical as the Brits – see Arrested Development in particular. And Futurama. Curb Your Enthusiasm is good, too. Of course, Southpark is as essential as ever.

    No one’s denying that both nations produce their fair share of schlock – perhaps US schlock (probably from 20 years ago) was what Sir Christopher had in mind when he was getting all sniffy. Hell, perhaps US schlock is worse than UK schlock – I’m not an avid viewer of schlock, so I couldn’t arbitrate that one. Nevertheless, the best TV these days is certainly coming out of the States.

    Full disclosure: I must admit that I was also an anti-US, pro-UK TV snob like Sir Christopher until I, y’know, actually started watching some of the stuff that’s coming out of the States these days.

  • On coming to “power”, Sean Gabb and I would close the BBC. I don’t quite know what method Sean would employ, but for my part I want it shut quickly and painlessly and with the minimum fuss at 02.00 am one morning. For public relations reasons it will have to be the first Enemy-Class-Object to go off-line. There is no place in a libertarian world for a “State Broadcaster”; this is a tautology. I would…

    (a) freeze its bank accounts,
    (b) turn off the electric power,
    (c) stop the salaries and pensions,
    (d) lock down the buildings,
    (e) open the archives and auction them publicly (Sean would certainly do this too.)
    (f) the Ministry of the Interior could then be shut too.

  • RayD

    As Dellingpole points out, the fact that writers on current affairs programmes are introduced either as “journalist” or “right-wing journalist” does rather give the impartiality game away. Are there no left-wing journalists? Apparently not.

    The rationale of the BBC went out the window once society swapped self-improvement for self-indulgence. It can’t educate, because viewers don’t want to educated, and it can’t impartially inform, because it is a player, not a spectator on the political stage. That only leaves entertainment, and by what right do you force one man to pay for another’s East Enders?

  • Gareth

    Nuke Grey,

    If that was Hornblower with Ioan Gruffudd it was an ITV production. If you’ve seen that on the BBC in Australia that is because BBC Worldwide doesn’t think twice about buying programmes made by the BBC’s UK competitors. BBC Worldwide filters out the rubbish so you don’t have to!

    On the issue of bias I will illustrate it with the prickly issue of Israel – reports will vary between Israel is bad and Israel is not so bad.(What about Palestine?) The claim to impartiality comes from having some of both. Each report itself should be impartial shouldn’t it? Even handed, a fair and considered assessment of a situation. Otherwise they are playing to two opposite audiences. That isn’t impartial, that’s being two-faced.

  • John K

    Sir Christopher is the most enormously self regarding of grandees. I doubt he watches television himself, but he may have a receiver for his servants to watch.

  • Dr. Who and period dramas. That’s it. And these can be easily auctioned off just before David turns the power off. I am not a Brit an am not paying the license fee, but doing away with the BBC might make getting rid of our Israeli equivalent just a bit easier.

  • Kevin B

    Quality of programming is a non-issue here. I’m fed up with the “Give us the money or we shoot David Attenborough!” threat. (BTW, Please do. Miserable anti-human old bastard with his best programs behind him.)

    No, the licence fee model is the issue and it’s a complete non-starter. Make the beeb operate subscription channels and if it can’t attract enough subscribers, maybe it can close BBC 9 or Radio East Grinstead.

  • pete

    Bland doesn’t believe what he says about the BBC. He wants the BBC to survive in its current form because it gives cushy jobs to people of his sort and he doesn’t mind if it has to waste billions of taxpayers money making trash like Eastenders and Casualty to make itself popular with the TV watching classes.

    Bland is as cynical as it gets, and typical of the priveleged classes when then need to defend the status quo.

  • Paul Marks

    If Sir Christopher Bland and “the majority of the population” like the BBC so much they can fund it – via VOLUNTARY DONATION.

    They do not need to steal money (via threats of violence) from poor people (like ME) who may well hate their leftist/collectivist organization.

    And I do hate your organization Sir Christopher – it not only has a leftist bias (in everthing from news to “comedy” shows), it tells blatent lies (about history and other matters) and responds to written complaints with meaningless double talk.

    However, the “independent” television stations in Britain are little better – due to the regulations that govern them. Which is why I mostly watch Fox News (because watching it does not make me want to put my fist into the television screen – as watching the BBC or C4 news, or other programmes, does).

    In radio both BBC and “independent” radio are utterly vile – even Classic FM interspaces its music broadcasts with establishement news reports, and the inane comments of its presenters (giving their leftist views of current films and so on).

    But at least I do not have to pay a special tax for Classic F.M.

  • pete

    The BBC probably does make a tiny bit more quality TV then any commercial rival but that is hardly a reason for paying it £3.5 billion per year, £3 billion plus of which is used to make exactly the same dross which all TV comapnies make.

    If the state is to be involved at all in broadcasting it should tax us only for distinctive, high quality TV, not junk like Eastenders and Casualty which is available elsewhere on commercial channels.

    A licence fee of £10 per year would finance this, but of course it wouldn’t finance much of a high life for all those countless BBC types who live off the back of the population’s insatiable appetite for junk TV.

  • First of all, I agree, it is the most incredible power, and if from time to time it’s abused, that is to the detriment of society. But it’s not often abused. Second, I believe — but you do not — this separation creates the genuine independence of the BBC, and contributes to its strength as a broadcaster.

    Well that makes it ok then.

  • Derek W. Buxton

    The BBC should be scrapped, it infringes the Charter which supposedly governs it every day time after time. It comes out top in the “lying for the EU” league and is the major supporter of global warming and wind farms, all to raise money for their favourite party’s politicians. There was a programme last Sunday evening which contained a plug for wind farms which was totally biassed, no opposite view appeared at all. There were a number of lies involved too and a parish councillor who admitted accepting bribes to pass plans for a wind farm.

  • After how many minutes then, following a libertarian election victory, shall I interrupt the lekky-supply to the transmitters?

    (We’d probably be able to sell those too, to Russian radio “hams” – their TXs are allowed to input quite obscene amounts of radiated-power, over there!)

  • Sunfish

    I like David Davis’ idea.

    Thursday, 3:40PM, some important BBC office. An announcement over the PA system: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please? All employees have twenty minutes to clear out all personal belongings from your desks and lockers, and to vacate the premises. Please surrender your keys and building passes to the security guard and be out of the building by four.”

    Followed by one of two things:

    1) A crane with a wrecking ball at 4:05PM, or

    2) The auctioneer coming first thing on Friday morning.

  • I would also auction off some of the more visible employees, or sold them directly to TASS – but I presume that would be un-libertarian…

  • Radix

    Dr Who is proof that the BBC doesn’t just need to be closed down, it needs to be buried under several metres of concrete. As soon as I heard the way they’d murdered the original theme music I knew it was going to be bad. But I didn’t think they’d go for the world cheese record, complete with syrupy music cues to indicate that the ‘characters’ are about to get a bit weepy. And if I ever again see David Tennant running around with his eyes opened as widely as possible to signify danger/excitement, I’m going to do a Keith Moon with my tv.

  • Nuke Gray

    Gareth, we usually get British shows on the ABC, a government commission. It usually buys them from its’ friend, the BBC (Big Brother Corporation). So I always assume that a good British show on the ABC comes from the BBC. My apologies to ITV. (That would explain the odd episode lengths, they’re planning for commercials, which the ABc doesn’t have!)
    As for the BBC after a libertarian takeover- I think it should be privatised, forced to compete honestly with commercial networks, and maybe getting major income from the rental side of the business- show a program once on TV, and then never repeat it, so customers have to rent it from the local BBC store.

  • slowjoe

    Bland immediately brings up Andrew Neil in the interview as a right-wing fig-leaf.

    What cover would the Beeb have if he left? And should someone have a word?

  • Classical liberal

    Andrew Neil isn’t even particularly right-wing. He is a broadly libertarian free-market type, but Thatcherism is only one strand within conservatism (this is just one of many things about conservatism that Leftists don’t understand).

    The BBC contains precious few paleo-conservatives (think Peter Hitchens), constitutional conservatives, and national security conservatives.

  • Paul

    Why doesn’t the BBC go paid cable since it is so great and everybody wants it? What are they afraid of?

  • Verity

    David Davis – Why not, as I have been advocating for years, just blow it up? Controlled explosion is the technical term, I believe.

    Allow five years for the toxic waste – or perhaps a year longer in the case of Jo Brand – to get diluted, and then sell off the land for building expensive condos. As I have written many times, but that will not stop me from repeating it here, the following day, there should be a tribute explosion of the UN.

    This would free up a lot of valuable space for condos on the East River with lots of helipad parking on the roof. And get rid of illegal parking on the East side.

    I cannot see a downside.

  • Nuke Gray

    But if you destroy the BBC, won’t that retrospectivily mean Hitler wins ww2? And how will you organise and Resist when Eutopia tries to control Britain? You need the BBC!

  • Rob

    Bland’s arguments are thin and lazy because he and his ilk haven’t had to argue for the past twenty years – dissent has simply been shouted down. The intellectual muscles of rational debate and thought have atrophied.

  • Kim du Toit

    I actually love the BBC drama shows (Wired in the Blood, Spooks etc), I’m fond of the more laid-back comedies, and I absolutely love Top Gear. But to insist that you need coerced public funding to create quality TV shows is patent nonsense.

    I’d stack the HBO/Showtime lineup (Dexter, Sopranos etc) against any British TV series, and then point out that the HBO/Showtime ones are made entirely from voluntary subscribers’ funding (there being no advertising on those cable networks). I suspect that any British TV production company could do the same in terms of quality, if not perhaps in scale or quantity, if funded in the same manner.

    More to the point: while I don’t know the numbers, I’d be prepared to wager a decent amount that the overhead : revenue ratio of the BBC is far greater than that of HBO, especially in the “salaries and benefits” line. When you have an assured revenue stream like the BBC, waste and bloat are inevitable.

    By the way, Top Gear is one of the most popular shows on cable’s BBC America — and yes, BBC America does carry commercials — but I have to say that I doubt that Top Gear would get any advertising revenue from any car company on U.S. TV, because the lads are, shall we say, somewhat unguarded in their criticisms. Certainly, BBC America’s Top Gear has NO automotive advertising that I can recall. But I bet a whole bunch of advertisers would lick their lips at the chance if the show aired on broadcast TV, given the show’s demographics.

  • Forget to mention TG in my previous comment.

    I doubt that Top Gear would get any advertising revenue from any car company on U.S. TV, because the lads are, shall we say, somewhat unguarded in their criticisms.

    That would be a feature, not a bug, as it would ensure the show’s credibility. Anyone remembers what was the deal with NPR’s Car Guys’ financing? And I agree that TG would have no problem getting any other kind of advertising.

    In any case, whatever is currently good/popular on BBC can easily be sold out in it’s present form, and the rest would be history, if even that.