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Posts Tagged ‘Media’

Boris and the BBC

In Home Affairs, The Media on May 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox –@polar_ii

Boris Johnson, now that he has safely returned to the Mayoralty, launched a devastating attack this morning on the BBC. Read it here. “It’s statist, defeatist, leftist,” splutters Johnson from the top of that red Curly Wurly in London, the ArcelorMittalOrbit (see picture).

Boris was more impressed with a giant red Curly Wurly than the BBC

Boris goes so far to suggest that a free-market loving, Eurosceptic Tory be given the reins. Well, aside from the fact that the BBC is already run by a Tory, Chris Patten, this won’t actually change anything. The BBC has a culture produced by its secure bastion of public funding, its privileged position in the media market and the sort of people that work for it.

You see, the BBC is run from the public purse by way of the license fee. The £145 or so everyone who has a TV pays to watch a TV. The BBC therefore has a guaranteed source of income. It also has editorial independence, so it can be as bold as it likes when it produces programmes. Where Boris sees impracticalities in the BBC Arts Editor’s response that the Curly Wurly ought to be ‘taller’ and ‘free’, the BBC clings to this noble ideal that tall things can really be both tall and free at the same time; that programmes can be state of the art and hard hitting while being ‘free’ for the taxpayer.

But of course, the BBC isn’t free. We all know that. We’ve even said that already. It costs everyone £145 per year to fund the BBC. That funding is ring-fenced. It’s a reassuringly large and certain stream of income, one that other competitors in the media market don’t have. Where everyone else has to rely on advertising revenue, which is awarded in proportion to viewing figures, the BBC can afford to produce niche programmes like See Hear that would never be viable in the big wide world of the market.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s really good that we have a public service broadcaster that produces programmes like See Hear. Programmes which inform and challenge and provide a genuine public service. But much of what the BBC does not provide a public service that the market does not already provide. Whilst I’m sure fans of both series will disagree vehemently, Eastenders and Coronation Street are pretty much the same thing. Sky News does pretty much what BBC News 24 does. Heart and BBC Radio 1 are pretty much indistinguishable.

This creates a problem. The stability of the BBC in the market makes it difficult for non-BBC competitors to break into the market. Take current affairs radio. BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live have pretty much cornered that market. Iain Dale makes a valiant effort on LBC. But that doesn’t serve outside London. The status of programmes like Question Time (BBC 1), the Andrew Marr show (BBC 1) and Newsnight (BBC 2) (not to mention the Daily Politics, This Week &c) mean that anyone with any serious interest in public affairs is glued to various BBC outlets for much of their waking life. Tim Montgomerie has done more research than I can comfortably conceive to show that the BBC enjoys an effective monopoly on Radio, TV and online coverage. Put aside the argument that the BBC exhibits biases for one moment. If this sort of monopoly was held by a private sector news agency, even one that had neutrality written into its memoranda and articles, regulators would be profoundly unhappy with it.

Now, I don’t particularly want to wade into the debate about BBC bias. I think Boris is quite close to the truth when he says that the BBC’s public funding creates a culture which favours left-liberal ideas. Andrew Marr has further noted that, since the BBC hires a disproportionate number of LGBT people, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and young people, the ethos of the BBC will be unconsciously skewed towards left-liberal views. Jeff Randall, its former business editor has made similar remarks. As has Antony Jay (£), writer of Yes Minister. As has Rod Liddle, former editor of Radio 4’s Today Programme. As has Peter Sissons, former news anchor. People criticise the BBC for being too right-wing, such as MediaLens, though these voices are much quieter and by far in the minority. But the flow of criticism that the BBC is biased against centre-right views is sustained enough and vocal enough to have undermined trust in the Corporation.

But Boris’ solution is wrong. The solution is not to appoint a Tory. Firstly, because that’s already been attempted several times, and hasn’t got very far, but, more importantly, because it overtly politicises an institution that is, at worst, only subconsciously politicised, and ought to be neutral.

So here are three solutions. The first is to make the BBC subject to media regulators and competition law. The thought behind this is that the effective monopolies the BBC has on radio particularly, but to a lesser extent TV and online, are squeezing out other players in the market. The more players there are in this market, the broader the range of views and sources available; the more people will be able to vary their viewing. In a well-functioning market, competition also acts as a spur for all competitors to do better, improving the overall quality of, in this case, broadcasting.

Second, offer programmes which are a public service, but too niche to survive in the market, such as perhaps ‘See Hear’ or ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ to the wider market. If the BBC can make a programme for deaf people, so can Sky or C4. They might even be better at it. Contracts could be tendered for a year and sold to the broadcaster with the best proposals for using a designated funding grant from government. The government should also ensure that they go out on terrestrial channels (or when the digital switchover is complete, Freeview channels), since the public service element shouldn’t require additional payment above and beyond existing taxes.

Which leads me on to my third, most radical idea. Abolish the license fee and find the money by a rise in income tax. Why should we do this? Firstly, it is an effective tax cut of £145 for anyone who doesn’t earn enough to pay income tax; the very poorest in our society. Secondly, it removes the injustice of what is essentially a poll tax, paid with no regard to people’s income. Thirdly, some people make perfectly valid complaints about how they’re paying the license fee to watch ITV or C4 and never watch the BBC, yet still have to pay to fund the BBC. Why should access to ITV and C4 be contingent on paying for the BBC? Access to the BBC is certainly not contingent on paying for ITV. Either the license fee should be distributed around all the terrestrial channels, or there should be no license fee.

One other advantage of moving the BBC from the license fee to general taxation is that it will appear on the government’s wonderful new tax returns, which show where the tax is going and in what proportion. The BBC had a budget of £3bn last year. It’s trivial compared to welfare at just shy of £200bn. But allowing people to see how much the BBC costs them relative to say, healthcare or education might make them question if they really value it. It might make the people who want to see the BBC fully privatised decide that it’s really not that much money to pay for no adverts on TV, Radio and Online, with generally good content. It might even make the BBC staff realise that big and brilliant things can’t really be had for free.

So there’s the manifesto for the BBC. Competition and regulation, individual public service broadcast contracts and the abolition of the license fee. The BBC still has its funding and the independence to make brilliant programmes (above and beyond the programmes the government directly commissions). But this way, it’s fairer, clearer, and allows for much greater media plurality. Even Boris can’t be against that.


A cynical take on referendum campaigns

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, The Media on February 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

By Sean Wyer

Cross-posted from They Say it so Seriously…

Britain’s first referendum in a while is fast approaching. As you probably know, the one option is AV (alternative vote) as opposed to our current ‘first-past-the-post’ system. In the spirit of being a good citizen, I thought I would make sure I was making the right choice, so I didn’t ruin the country by accident.

I was aware that the referendum isn’t an issue contested by people, but by ideas, so maybe their websites would make me think.

The people campaigning against the alternative vote didn’t really have any ideas. They just talked about loads of irrelevant public-services-related items that people need, such as bullet proof vests and maternity units, which don’t have anything to do with voting systems, but some ‘PR expert’ in an office seems to think we’ll believe them if they say ‘vote yes in the referendum and loads of people will die’ (paraphrased). Which is probably a lie. They also said (also paraphrased) ‘it’s too complicated for normal people to understand’. Which isn’t actually an argument, and succeeds in condescendingly insulting the public’s intelligence.


I thought the other side might be less terrible at convincing me. If you look really hard, you can actually find some information on their site, but it’s obvious they’re pretty much the same as the other guys, just funded by people who will benefit in the future if their side wins, which means they’re basically an advertising campaign. Their website pulls the age old trick of having a war vet talking about democracy, which seems like a desperate move, using ‘selling stunts’ instead of actual politics.


Both sides essentially admit that they don’t have a convincing enough political argument. They make it obvious that the people funding their campaign will enjoy plenty of success (or maintain it) if they win, because both sites have an air of desperation and power-hungry marketing techniques about them.

Don’t know if either side deserves/will get my deciding vote.


Referenda? Good.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on July 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm

By Stephen Wan

I’m looking forward to next year’s referendum on electoral reform (if and when it happens, granted the act passes with a parliamentary majority). I happen to think referenda, and direct democracy in general, is a good thing. Not always perhaps, but most of the time. I am dismayed at times by people who argue against referenda, since their arguments strike me as elitist, with an underlying assumption that people don’t know what’s good for them, or that they are blind sheep easily swayed by the dark forces of the media. I happen to believe people aren’t as unintelligent or naive as they’re willing as the A.R.E. (anti-referendum elite) make out. I will therefore be arguing for why a referenda in general, and particularly the referendum on AV, is a good thing.

Firstly, I’d like to point out the ever-decreasing influence of the media. In general, people no longer blindly accept a newspapers’ stance or view of things – at best, they get to set the agenda, and tell people ‘what’ to think about. An excellent blog piece by Stumbling and Mumbling highlights the discrephrency between who the media supported, and who the public eventually voted for. Whilst not conclusive (a truly definitive piece of evidence would need a survey of the % of readers of their voting intentions before and after a newspaper backs a party), it does indicate the likes of Murdoch may not be as influential as they would like.

Secondly, I think it is worth taking a rather liberal assumption in the rationality and open-mindedness of most people to debate. Not everyone is a bigot (eh Gordon?), and most people are willing to look at the other side of an argument before coming to a reasoned conclusion. Its our belief in humans as rational actors that influences our economic thought (people as utility-maximisers). Why not consider the same in political thought?

Thirdly, the passage down a route saying people don’t know what is good for them, and thereby have dictated to them how they should be ruled, is a scary route to take, reminding me of Plato’s Republic’s “guardians”, an elite upper class who are unchallengeable and rule by virtue of their superior position, both morally and intellectually. Whilst a meritocrat myself (in obvious cases such as medicine, law, policing etc.), I fail to see how one group of people have an obvious advantage over others in terms of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ for the country. Any suggestion that it is better for Parliament themselves to dictate how the people are ruled, (as Danny Alexander apparently wanted during the Lib/Lab talks after the last election), follows this same train of logic, which reaches a worrying conclusion.

Fourthly, I’d point to the classic education and political participation advantages of referendums. What direct democracy allows people to do is to become engaged in politics, and have an opportunity to learn more about how our electoral system works (and better yet, a say in how it is done), leading to personal self-betterment and an engagement in politics that is needed now more than ever following the decrease of trust in Parliament and elected politicians in general (take a look at the witch hunt with Zac Goldsmith for example). Why anyone would want to keep politics a field reserved solely for the professional politicians is a mystery to me.

Of course, there is a role for representative democracy in general, to tackle the more mundane issues that require specific technical understanding (food safety regulations), or more complex issues that are too sensitive for the general public (security). I won’t claim to know the dividing line between the two, but I do feel that constitutional changes like electoral systems, devolution and (when/if it comes) the abolition of the monarchy do come within the purview of policies to be decided by general referenda. If one seriously takes the idea that the people are not to be trusted when it comes to deciding issues like the electoral system, one wonders how the electorate are to be trusted even with electing our politicians – are they also not subject to ‘media influence’ every general election as well?

I’d like my final point to be one on legitimacy – a change in the way this country is governed and how it elects its people can only have authority if the vast majority of the electorate decide. We need this referendum if we want to change the electoral system, (or to put on hold the idea of changing the electoral system for a generation or so), in a way that very few people can find lacking in sovereignty. Ultimate power lies in the general will of the people, and therefore only they, not the MPs, can choose which system they are ruled under.

Before I end, I’d like to take a quick dig at my all-time least favourite politician, Alex Salmond, who appears to be treating the electorate as idiots. This is, of course, on the issue of the date of the proposed referendum, the 5th of May, which falls in line with the Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh elections to their respective assemblies. According to Salmond:

“These elections are of profound importance to our citizens and I believe they have the right to make their electoral choices for the respective devolved chambers without the distraction of a parallel referendum campaign on the UK voting system”.

Unfortunately, Salmond seems to think voters are incapable of holding multiple thoughts in their heads at the same time. What exactly does Salmond mean by a distraction? That a change in the electoral system is an unwanted nuisance, that might mean Salmond gets less time on TV strutting his pompous self around thinking he’s the big man (I do seem to recall him trying something similar during the general election). Also, although I happen to believe that democracy is priceless and worth any cost, there are apparently some monetary advantages to having it on the same day (to the tune of £17million).

Anyway, that aside, overall I approve of the position of the government on the issue of the referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system, which I think is the right thing to do, and that people who seek to deny the electorate a chance to vote on changing the voting system need some pretty serious arguments to back them up, ones I have yet to see. As for whether I will be voting for or against AV is another matter, one I’m going to have to think about for a bit longer. Nonetheless, I’m glad of the possibility that I’m going to have a say in it at all.

Who would want to be a “Career politician”?

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 at 1:29 am

By David Weber

In today’s climate, it seems a question worth asking. In fact, forget that: in the climate of the last decade, or even longer, it seems like a question very much worth asking – not least because the press inundates is with stories of the inexorable rise of the “career politician”.

This is tied, inexplicably, with the fall in the power of the politician in reality. It really began with the economics crises of the 70s and 80s, when the shift of successful economies (yes, even Scandinavian welfare economies, despite their reputation among some as left-wing havens) towards a model of lower taxation and regulation. Global capitalism became increasingly to be seen as sensitive to fiscal policy, of greater importance than a government’s ideal social and economic outcomes.

Whether this is still the case is of course now fiercely debated, although I personally think that global capitalism is as likely to be dead as I am, at the time of writing this article (for the sake of clarity, I am — at least feel — in excellent condition). It is certain that the crash has challenged some of the stricter notions of neo-liberal economists, and fired the blood of closet Keynsians, but the general response of governments to the near-collapse of Banks strengthens the theory that there has been a trend of power away from national governments to international business.

Indeed, despite claims that Brown has run a high-tax economy over the last decade, he was careful to tailor income tax rates at least to the European average (if towards the higher side towards the end of New Labour’s decade and a bit in power) as an active policy. Neoliberalism had by this time become so entrenched in government that raising income tax on the lower paid was seen as a more acceptable adjustment than raising it on the higher-paid in 2007 (thankfully, with disastrous political consequences).

But if politicians have lost de facto power over tax rates, this is nothing compared to the extent to which they have lost power over persuasion, and promoting their own agenda. The rise of 24-hour media (which certainly has been inexorable), and the ever-improving science of electioneering, which I talked about in my previous article, have vastly squeezed the ability of politicians to act on their own conscience, far more than they improved their ability to win elections. In a recent article in the Times, Daniel Finkelstein backed up the view of my previous article that the Tories have a lot further to slide before they lose, whilst showing how devastating the effect of political science on elections really is. In 2005 — the election, incidentally, that the Tories lost — painstaking methods narrowed down an entire electorate to the 2000 voters who were judged as most crucial, who were then love-bombed — sent handwritten letters and a steady stream of propaganda. What room is there for genuine representation in a system where the crucial players are as few as these? More to the point, what room is there for genuine power? No minor politican would want to challenge the rules of the game in such a way, which means that “career politicians” are fighting an impossibly high-stakes game, with only a handful of positions where one could forsee actually setting an agenda — and that’s a generous estimate. And then, of course, upon having climbed to the top of the greasy pole, they would probably find what they suspected all along — that, in the words of Jim Hacker: “I was told I’d have power, and I find that all I have is influence!”*

Diss politicians all you like. Moan about how they waste your money, how they cheat on their (and your) principles and how they’re all the same. But just stop and think, before you deliver the ultimate judgement and condemn them all as money-grabbing, power-crazed cowards: who would actually be in it for money? Who would be in it for power? Only a deluded, uneducated fool**. Only those with no experience of reality. Only a tourist could possibly make the mistake of wanting to be a career politician. For it’d be a high-stress, no-gain career.

*Quote not guaranteed to be accurate
**I anticipate the snark before it comes. No, I don’t believe this applies to Gordon Brown, or any other politician you care to name. Sadly, I think the average understanding of reality is likely to be higher among politicians — at least, from glancing at the Tabloids from time to time.

A More Damaged State of Affairs

In Home Affairs, The Media on February 21, 2010 at 11:07 am

By Stephen Wan

I applaud James Langford for his excellent piece on the MP’s expenses scandal, which argues well the positive effects that have come out of the affair, reaching the conclusion that the “expenses scandal has been good for us”. Unfortunately, whilst I do agree with many of the points he has raised, I think several important points have been overlooked that might not paint the expenses scandal in such a positive light.

Firstly, the expenses scandal is a symptom and a catalyst, but not the cause, of growing public apathy to politics. The trend of an increasing ‘distance’ between the electorate and MPs began a long time ago with ‘New’ Labour (see graph), and their increasing emphasis on spin and media control. This led to a growing distrust of politicians and their apparent willingness to win votes more than follow their own convictions. The expenses scandal just highlights this distance, and has definitely made it worse, as British Social Attitudes show only 16% of people trust the government to put the country above their party all or most of the time. There are many other reasons for high apathy to politics, but the expenses scandal has made it worse, and the direct ‘solutions’ to it will not reverse this trend, percisely because they do not deal with the underlying problems; perception of spin, lack of perceived difference/competitiveness between parties, and arguable an electorate increasingly uneducated in politics.

In the long-run perhaps, the shake-up of the audit system, the injection of new MPs into Parliament, and even the prosecution of MPs for fraud (which I doubt will do much good as I’ve mentioned before) might have positive effects. However, until these supposed good effects materialise, and in the face of current evidence that trust in politics has decliend, it would be premature to call the expenses scandal ‘good for democracy’.

Indeed, I belive that the expenses scandal has highlighted one of the worst aspects of our modern democracy; the control and power of the media. A strong, independent media is of course the cornerstone of any liberal democracy; however, the ability of those few who control the national publications, and their willingness to pursue their own political agenda (the Sun is a case in point) shows the elitist nature of our supposed pluralist society. The expenses scandal has tipped the balance in favour of the media, as the politicians are now even more at their mercy of relentless media onslaughts.

I’m sceptical of “Tower Block of Commons” having any positive effect in re-connecting MPs and their constituents, having horrible flashbacks of George Galloway acting as a cat. Whilst I certainly see the difference between in a tower block and in the Big Brother House, ‘reality’ TV is not the place for elected representatives of the United Kingdom. George Galloway said, “I’m a great believer in the democratic process. Big Brother is watched by millions“. Ironic that he made so many others lose their faith in democracy at the same time.

I also firmly disagree with the idea that it is at a local level that “parliamentarians must now focus their time”. Politics may be coming to life at a local level and that is a good thing and important for our democracy, but we must never forget the importance of decisions made at a national level. That is the primary role of MPs. They must make decisions that, at times, goes against the interests or wishes of their constituents for the good of the country; that is how representative democracy works. For political action at a local level, we have elected councillors, people who live and work in the area everday for the people there, and who thus know best what actions to take. It makes no sense to dual-purpose MPs roles, when we already have elected politicians whose focus “is on the doorstep and in the community”.

It is a worrying trend to think politics only occurs on a national level, in Parliament, because that tends to understate or undermind the local, active politics that always occurs in councils across the country. MPs need to focus more on national politics, with an ear to the needs of their constituents, and councillors need to make their presence more well known. This has been made all the harder by the expenses scandal, which has been both good and bad, for democracy both nationally and locally. The fact is, the constant cry for ‘local politics’ before the ‘national scene’ has always assumed a false dilemna; you cannot have one without the other. We must focus on both, understand the problems underpinning them such as the media, comprehend the respective roles of all our politicians, not just the MPs. Then, maybe then, we’ll have a working democracy.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

In Home Affairs, The Media on September 1, 2009 at 9:10 pm

“The only perpetual guarantor of independence is profit”,

claimed James Murdoch magnificently, as if stating something profound and enlightening for British debate, unaware perhaps that to most in Britain he would instead sound like the lunatic fringe of the right-wing of the 80s, let alone the 21st century. But his contributions to the debate, ill-timed and unconvincing though they mostly were (a friend judged it succinctly as “a rant”), did bring to light and interesting quandry the media is now in.

The private media is in an uncomfortable position in general (the BBC too, though for rather different reasons, having been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending series of scandals recently), of having a model of business bringing in insufficient cash to satisfy the demands of a market where content is expected by the consumer to be free at the point of access. This is partly as a result of the recession, but partly because of more fundamental problems. One of the interesting factors in the way that technology has been changing the marketplace is that a commonly understood and agreed set of rules has not yet been developed, and is difficult to when it is changing so rapidly. To cease prattling like a politician for a moment, the media is thus faced with a problem: trying to reconcile what might be unrealistic assumptions on the part of the consumer with the bare necessary demands for a private business.

We see this already in the shape of the piracy debate. I do not for a minute sympathise with the desires of those whispering in the ear of Lord Mandelson (well, as the press would have us believe), which would in this blogger’s humble opinion merely be an attempt to overbalance the market in the favour of the business rather than the consumer, and not work in any case. But contrary to what seems like a fashionable line among net bloggers at the moment, I do not believe concerns over piracy are unwarranted — not so much from the perspective of big business, but small providers. As a student of music, I do believe I have an interest in this matter, as the only alternative to a model of intellectual property is an equally unpalatable one, State sponsorship of all creative arts. And as with the debate Murdoch was commenting upon, there is clearly a need not just for compromise, but for drawing together the disunited parts of the equation, convincing consumer and provider of a common ground.

This is not easy. The media, partly because of the recession, and partly because neither the “freemium” or advertising models have so far worked as well as expected, is facing a problem of funding for free internet-hosted news. The Sunday Times editorial said that the media has breathed a “collective sigh of relief” at Murdoch’s decision to start charging for internet-hosted content, and  that others will quickly move to the same position, but I suspect that the sigh has one notable exception: News International itself. The first to make such a decision will most likely be the first to be punished for it, and worst. Private providers to not normally act collectively, not surprising given the level of competition. I would be surprised if they chose to here.

It is therefore understandable that News International chooses to gnash its teeth at the BBC, for it is difficult to tell how well a charging service of internet content will work in competition with a free at the point of access model that the BBC offers. It would require private providers to convince the consumer that what they are offering represents a special alternative to the State media, worth true value for the extra money invested. And unlike something like Healthcare or Education, this might prove more tricky: firstly, internet hosted content would be far harder to secure from “piracy”; secondly, as many have pointed out, it appears far harder to convince people of the extra value that comes with splashing out on the net, than with more measurable products sold outside. It is far easier to see the advantages of going private to purchase extra drugs, for example, than paying a subscription to read the Times when you can glean your news from the BBC and the host of independent free alternative sources such as blogs.

There are doubtless many ways of structuring a fee-charging online content model, from “adverts/no adverts” (cf. Spotify) to a subscription with a minimum amount of free access to content, such as the Financial Times uses. But ultimately, though Murdoch was wrong in most respects, I see his point in one: the size of State provision does matter. Make the BBC too big, and too generous, and ultimately it can not just compete but defeat: and the private sector in journalism will need a bailout of its own. As there is already talk  in government of “top-slicing” of the licence fee, it is clear that this is not merely a hypothetical danger; in a time of recession, it is one that needs careful evaluation. The BBC needs to be about provision, and increasing choice, not squeezing the private sector. It may turn out to be better to slim down the BBC a little than make the mainstream media reliant upon the taxpayer as well.

To claim the only guarantor of independence to be profit is madness. But neither is public provision an acceptable guarantor of independence on its own. Not only the public but also the private sector in journalism in Britain need cherishing; if, in the case of the latter, grudgingly, reluctantly and distastefully so.