Martin Le Jeune: The Conservatives should trim the BBC and make it concentrate on areas that the market fails to offer
Martin Le Jeune is a former head of public affairs for Sky and is author of To inform, educate and entertain? British broadcasting in the 21st century, which was published this week by the Centre for Policy Studies. You can download it here.
All the big broadcasting innovations have come under Conservative Governments. Like them or loathe them, that’s true of the start of ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Five. Where the natural tendency of Labour Governments is to restrict broadcasting innovation to protect the BBC (and because too much choice would "confuse" the voters), Conservatives have tended to be open minded – and to recognise that a little more challenge to vested interests is no bad thing.
It was a welcome sign when David Cameron suggested the freezing of the BBC licence fee last week. But Jeremy Hunt, the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has kept his cards close to his chest so far on broadcasting – apart from some conventional pieties about the importance of public service broadcasting and the need to keep Channel 4 going through some funding fudge.
More radical thinking is possible. An incoming Tory administration has a big opportunity to challenge two of the great myths of the British broadcasting establishment: one, that the BBC has to do everything; and two, that we need more than one public service broadcaster.
The first is politically treacherous but logical enough. The BBC has access to huge amounts of cash – well over a billion more than all the other public service broadcasters combined, and a serial record of copying innovations. No sooner has a new service – be it pop radio, breakfast TV, 24-hour news, educational websites – emerged then the BBC lumbers in and occupies the territory, usually crushing the competition with weight of superior resources – our resources, in fact.
The question must be asked whether we should continue to have a state broadcaster which tries to do what the opposition does, or should it not rather concentrate on the areas that the market fails to offer? Such a BBC would be smaller and cheaper, but it would also be better – producing the kind of programming of which we have too little. For example, original children’s programming, UK drama and documentaries. Given the sheer vast quantity of material now available in the multichannel sector and on the internet, a more focused BBC would seem a very sensible thing.
Second, do we really need state-supported (ITV) or state-owned (Channel 4) alternatives to the BBC? The government seems to think so, as does the regulator Ofcom. But their arguments are weak. There is a lot of competition to the BBC from a whole range of other channels and websites. If the market does more and more, the logic is that the state should do less. We should focus our attention in making sure that the BBC delivers, not on creating artificial competitors when real ones exist.
The problem with broadcasting policy-making in the UK is that politicians and regulators have become fixated around organisations, instead of consumers. We should be pushing for a system in which the interests of consumers are paramount, and their freedom to spend their own money on what they choose is the number one consideration. Freedom is a good thing, in broadcasting just as in the wider economy.