Broadcasting regulators: they’re creationists. They want to control everything. Well, OK then. Let’s try and follow this through. I give you an allotment gardener. As it happens, this gardener only likes to grow potatoes in his patch. In the neighbouring allotment, we find another gardener, and she likes to grow as many different plants as she can; from aloe to zinnia, it’s all in there. Which of our two gardeners is a creationist? Can’t say? I’d suggest, then, that calling broadcasting regulators creationists is a mis-analogy. Disbelief in natural selection – note, that’s natural selection – has almost nothing to do with preference among kinds. So maybe better to leave creationism out of it.
Mis-analogy number two: the monopoly:
There is a land grab going on â€“ and it should be sternly resisted. The land grab is spearheaded by the BBC. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling. Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market.
Murdoch junior’s insinuation is that the BBC is a rent-seeking organisation that is attempting to build itself into a position of market control. Now the BBC is in some sense a monopoly, in that it receives most of the public broadcast funding available in the UK, but James Murdoch conveniently ignores the fact that the BBC is also a state agency limited by charter, and has been so since its founding nearly ninety years ago. License fees don’t go up when the BBC decides the time is right, and they don’t go up by an amount it thinks it can get away with. Instead, government decides what the BBC can do (although it only sets broad parameters) and also decides what revenues it will receive. Regulation is already in place, to say the least.
What’s more, what ‘land’ is there for the BBC to grab? There’s a range of broadcast technologies and – as far as I can tell – none of them are mutually exclusive. My (non-specialist) understanding is that they work pretty much as follows:
(1) Terrestrial broadcast
Rights to terrestrial broadcast spectrum are regulated by the state; a portion is reserved for the BBC (and ITV and Channel 4) and the rest is auctioned. Since digital broadcasting allows more information to be broadcast in a smaller part of the spectrum, there’s actually more ‘land’ available now than there was before;
(2) Satellite broadcast
Here the bar to entry is not a shortage of spectrum but the cost of launching satellites, installing dishes, etc. and this is a hurdle that Sky, the company of which James Murdoch is non-executive chairman, has already jumped; the BBC has no ambitions to be a player in satellite broadcast, although Sky does carry BBC channels;
(3) Cable broadcast
In the UK, cable TV is constituted of a number of local geographic monopoly suppliers, none of which is the BBC; Sky does not provide cable TV service in the UK, although, as with the BBC, some of its channels are carried on cable;
(4) Internet broadcast
Here, the potential monopolists are BT and the cable TV companies, through their control of the infrastructure; however (in stark contrast to satellite and cable) the internet is arranged so that the means of access is transparent to the user, and anyone anywhere can have a web site, and that includes Sky and the BBC.
From this brief survey, I’d note two things. One is that there is plenty of space and opportunity alongside the state broadcaster. The second is that the organisations which control the various bits of infrastructure don’t necessarily control what is communicated using that infrastructure. Even though most would say this is a good thing, it’s possible that James Murdoch thinks it’s a bad thing; hence his suggestion that the BBC is “dumping” news (note also the “state-sponsored”, as in ‘state-sponsored terrorism’):
Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.
But as the internet reveals, popularity isn’t always a function of resources. With news, many people want what they read, hear or see to be free from the crasser kinds of bias, which is perhaps why the BBC’s internet news site is as popular as it is. Now the BBC may have its own biases, but here’s the choice; do you want (a) the biases of several thousand middle class media professionals, left more or less alone to do what they think best in the context of their charter, or (b) the biases of a squadron of merchandisers? If you prefer (a), I’d argue that only a tax-funded organisation can deliver. If you like the BBC’s web offering and make use of it, this is what you are voting for. If you prefer (b), then presumably you’ll be content to consume a fair bit of advertising and product-driven editorial, which is exactly what James Murdoch has in mind:
The UK and EU regulatory system also tightly controls advertising: the amount per hour, the availability of product placement, the distinction between advertising and editorial and so forth.The latest EU-inspired rules on scheduling of advertising restrict the number of ad breaks permitted in news programming. Television news is already a tough enough business. These proposals could undermine commercial viability even further.
In summary, look who’s talking. Given half the chance, the Murdochs would make it so that all news is Murdoch news, and bastard crap at that. We can at least take some comfort in the implicit compliment to BBC news reporting. If everyone is following the BBC in preference to the Murdoch product, the BBC must have something going for it.
Update: Murdoch senior’s News Corporation (via its subsidiary News International) has been accusing of the BBC of empire-building for several years now. Here’s a 2006 article which talks about “unfair advantage” and the lack of a “balanced media ecology”. So clearly this is something they’re going to keep chipping away at. But if they’re talking about the internet, I don’t see any grounds for complaint. As I said, anyone can set up a web site. If it’s good, people will visit.
Also, I should have attached Exhibit A: News Corporation’s Fox News.