Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Why the BBC is great, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool*

(*not really - that's, like, just a matter of opinion, man...)

BBC bashing seems endemic among certain sections of the UK blogosphere - all (mostly) on the right - and is increasingly sneaking into parts of the right-wing press. I won't link to or mention any of them because - much like wasps - if you smack one then hundreds start swarming all round you and it's practically impossible to get rid of the buggers.

In fact, it's even worse in blogland as, thanks to the joys of the likes of Technorati and various visitor counters, they can see where people have come from instantly. And there's little I hate more than pointless arguments with random internet types - hence my generally restrained, largely non-personal tone here. (It occasionally slips, but not too often, and usually only when provoked...)

Anyway, that went off topic a tad. To the main point:

Third Avenue notes that - despite claims from certain sections of the population that the BBC is a rabidly left-wing pro-EU propaganda outfit - they've employed a (moderately) prominent eurosceptic to come up with an alternative to the EU constitution.

To wit, a short "I love the BBC" rant, originally posted as a comment over there:

Just because they employ ONE eurosceptic to do something related to the EU in their reporting doesn't mean that they aren't still Europhiles...*

* standard response #4657

Sadly, until EVERYONE at the BBC is fired and replaced by an approved list of eurosceptic, anti-PC free-marketeers, the complaints won't stop. But then you'd just get a version of Biased BBC set up by a europhile lefty.

Personally I always found it offensive that they employed Kilroy, and always found his tone and views reprehensible. My simple solution? I didn't watch it, and got value for money out of my license fee by listening to the umpteen radio stations, using the stupidly good website, and watching the various genuinely good programmes the corporation produces.

In short - I still can't see what all the fuss is about. Don't like the BBC's news output? Fine - go and watch ITN or something. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the license fee goes on news (and that's rapidly diminishing anyway) - and the Beeb produces something like 200 hours of programming a day across its various TV and radio stations. You've got more than enough there to get your hundred quid a year's worth.

As for the complaints that no one should be forced to pay for the BBC if they don't watch it - I've not had to visit a doctor or call the police in over a year; I don't have school-age children; I've never had to have an operation (NHS or otherwise). By the same logic I should get a sizable chunk of my tax money back, because the vast majority goes on stuff I never have call to use.

What do I get out of my £100 a month Council Tax? The rubbish taken away. That's about it. For - over the course of a year - twelve times the BBC license fee. Add in Income Tax and National Insurance, God alone knows how little return I get. But that's not the point of taxation, is it?

The anti-license fee thing - for all its high moral claims about monopolies and choice and so on (which I can see the case for, honest) - seems largely to be an objection to the very concept of state-funded anything. If so, fine - let's take it to extremes and scrap universal funding for the BBC, NHS, comprehensive schools, university funding, road maintenance, rubbish collection, street lighting, the national parks, the armed forces etc. etc. and replace them all with pay for usage instead. It'd suit me fine. But the entire country would go to shit through under-funding within six months.


Blogger CuriousHamster said...

I'm going to attempt restraint here too. I'll suggest that what might happen with the alternative EU constitution is that the BBC bashers will ignore it.
I'm thinking of starting up a new blog which complains of right wing bias every time the BBC does a stock market report without mentioning that the workers should control the means of production.*

What I really don't understand about certain of these sites is the level of emotional outrage they seem to exhibit. What's that all about?

*I'm not really going to do this.

6/09/2005 09:34:00 am  
Blogger Andrew said...

Sadly, until EVERYONE at the BBC is fired and replaced by an approved list of eurosceptic, anti-PC free-marketeers, the complaints won't stop.

That's not true - I don't want that. I want a clear statement of BBC employee's interests. E.g. if a presenter is a member of the Labour party, or has donated money, or is on the board of a quango, or a company, I think it should be mentioned. Preferably on screen, but at the least publicly available.

I kind of agree with you - lots of what the Beeb does is really good, and I don't personally begrudge paying the fee, because I use enough of the content for it to be worth my while. If it moved to a subscription model, I would probably subscribe. What bugs me is that you're making news coverage equivalent with everything else they do, and that isn't fair. People are massively influenced by BBC news. It is comforting, traditional, and building on a legacy of impartiality. People trust it. And it is biased. I think that can be rectified by making the employees register their conflicts. That's not too much to ask.

6/09/2005 09:54:00 am  
Blogger Blimpish said...

I commented on Third Ave, but suffice to say that there's no reason why you can't be opposed to the license-funded BBC and yet also favour horrific amounts of public money going into healthcare, or whatever.

6/09/2005 10:03:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Andrew - I know that some people would stop complaining with a few concessions, but many complainers seem simply to want it to confirm their own prejudices. The mentality of "I vote Tory, so I'll buy the Telegraph".

As for your idea that certain presenters could be biased - of course. But having an on-screen thing as you suggest would be massively insufficient - especially for newsreaders/interviewers who rarely if ever do their own research or write their own scripts. You'd have to have the CVs of every member of the production team on there.

And even that wouldn't help you in determining bias. I've worked for a Tory MP, which might suggest preference for the Tory party; but he was only one of many types, one subsect of the many factions, and I haven't voted Tory in years. I've worked for the European Commission, which might suggest pro-EU bias. But while working there my boss was massively anti-EU, as was I - and my euroscepticism was only confirmed further (at the time) by my exeriences. Then there's the problem of other associations - two of my best friends are members of the Labour party and most of my friends are leftish in their politics; another couple are members of the Tory party; my parents have been Tory all their lives.

And what about votes? You'd probably then have to force BBC staff to reveal who they voted for to get a real idea. My vote's shifted slightly in every election I've been eligible for - Conservative, Green, Independent, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP have all had my support at various stages. But were you to come across me for the first time, reading out largely neutral news, none of that information would help you in working out which way I'm likely to lean on any particular issue. If anything, my work background (not to mention education history and fancy double-barrelled surname) would probably lead you to think that I'm an old-fashioned anti-EU Tory.

Blimpish - I know. But the complaints seem (mostly) to be coming from people who feel the BBC isn't giving them what they want it to. My argument is simple - in that case I want to be given back all the tax I've paid that's gone to the NHS and police and army and so on, which I've never got anything out of. The army especially - I'm a wimpy peacenik and reckon we'd be far better off without it. Japan can manage fine, why can't we?

6/09/2005 10:24:00 am  
Anonymous Rafael said...

Too right Nosemonkey. As an ex-BBC hack I can state with some certainty that (a) there is a mix of political opinion among journalists at the Corporation and (b) the overwhelming majority are highly professional and take their public service obligation to neutrality very seriously indeed.

Besides, just think about BBC output over the years. It is a cultural Titan of unequalled hugeness. (My view, not the Observer leader line.)

6/09/2005 10:44:00 am  
Blogger Andrew said...

Nosemonkey: I never said it would be easy to ascertain bias, just that a register of interests would stop my complaining. It's really a very easy thing for the Beeb to do. As for the complainers wanting the Beeb to be like the Torygraph, maybe that's true for some, but certainly not for me. I can't imagine anything worse (except the current Beeb-like-the-Guardian set-up, of course).

Rafael: As an ex-BBC hack I can state with some certainty that (a) there is a mix of political opinion among journalists at the Corporation and (b) the overwhelming majority are highly professional and take their public service obligation to neutrality very seriously indeed.

Fine, but the fact that so many people on just one side of the political divide sense bias suggests that there is a problem. You may disagree, but a failure to engage with the argument will just lead to your losing it. At present progress, when I become supreme dictator under the next Tory government, the Beeb will be the first thing I shut down on day one.

6/09/2005 11:21:00 am  
Anonymous Katie said...

Without meaning to be cheeky, Curious Hamster, may I offer a guess about the emotional tone?

While the US public broadcasters (also very lefty) were not the primary target (mostly cause they ain't very popular with anyone other than university professors and fans of antiques roadshow), the rise of the political blog in the US can be tracked very closely to a sense of outrage at the perceived dominance in MSM of coastal, blue state, liberal bias from 2001 through 2003.

In the States, the right dominates blogoland because they staked out the battlefield on one particular issue and offered a ready network for people from the heartland who felt isolated from their country's major media outlets.

I get the impression that the right contingent of the British blogosphere is feeling similarly betrayed but by the single most powerful (because it is so good at product) outlet, and is taking the same approach, although the single issue is the beeb itself, not the war.

This is not a value judgment about such views, nor is it a statement in support of keeping/nixing the BBC. Just a bit of psychobabble.

Anyway, Guys? Am I even close?

6/09/2005 02:24:00 pm  
Blogger Bishop Hill said...


You've listed a series of other areas where the state has a monopoly and suggest that because you don't get value for money from them...that it's alright if someone doesn't get value for money from the BBC. I'm paraphrasing you, but that is the point you make isn't it? Surely you can't be arguing that two wrongs make a right?

Then you say that we could take away the state funding from pretty much everything. But this is an extreme view that would only be supported by a minority of anarchocapitalists.

Somewhere in the middle there is the answer to the question of what is the proper role for the state in a free society. What are the circumstances in which a free society should force someone to pay for something.

I would argue that the provision of news and/or entertainment is not such a circumstance.

6/09/2005 04:39:00 pm  
Blogger CuriousHamster said...

Katie, thanks for you explanation. I'm afraid I still can't see what all the fuss is about. A personal example: Last week the BBC linked to a post on my blog. Certain sites seemed to think this was evidence of BBC bias towards "the left" because the BBC only ever link to sympathetic "left wing" blogs. This week they've linked to Daily Pundit. The same sites aren't going to mention that though (I've just pointed it out in their comments, I should know better but I couldn't resist). Andrew had a link from the BBC too if I'm not mistaken. Their critisisms were completely removed from the facts. Even when I pointed this out, it made absolutely no difference.
Fortunately the debate here seems a lot more civilized.

Bishop Hill: Here's my opinion on
whether funding the BBC is a proper role for the state. Private TV companies, funded by advertisers, have a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting certain stories. This is exacerbated by the oligopolistic nature of the industry. This then provides a barrier to the free flow of information which restricts the effectiveness of markets. I'd argue that state funding for the BBC actually helps facilitate the smooth working of markets.

OK, there are other resons why I support the BBC but I thought I'd air this one to see if it hold up to
reasonable critique. (Please be gentle, it's a while since I studied economics.)

6/09/2005 05:34:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Andrew - a register of interests I can't see too much of a problem with. Kirsty Wark's dodgy deals with her media company in Scotland I'd agree has a bearing on her reliability, as do her connections with various high-up members of the Scottish political elite. Knowledge of these relationships could be helpful. But in many cases I fear that lower-down hacks could end up coming under attack due to misinterpretation of their political ties (if any), and that reports could become more restrained and fewer risks taken as a result. Which I reckon, naturally, would be a bad thing.

Katie - sounds about right to me. I think the (over-hyped) success of blogs in the US in tackling the "MSM" (a nonsense term I despise) when it cocks up is also a factor over here. For blogs to have an impact, so we're told, they have to expose stuff - and the BBC's a fairly easy target, simply because of how vast it is.

Bishop Hill - I was, naturally, being a tad hyperbolic.

Your point on the state and provision of news/entertainment is an interesting one, and well worth discussion.

There has, naturally, been a long history of state news and amusements (from town criers and heralds to Roman gladiatorial combat and royal pageants). In the modern age where there are several possible providers of media type stuff and censorship is minor, I can see the case for saying that the state should no longer have such a role.

But again, it comes down to the bias question. Personally, I find it very hard to judge any news or other media coming from the Murdoch stable, because it's practically impossible to work out what his particular aims are at any one time. Ditto with most commercial broadcasters, owned by companies or individuals with specific business interests and which have to ensure they don't piss off either potential sponsors or advertisers. It's not unknown for prominent employees of such commercial media companies having to resign or getting sacked because something they've written or said on air has pissed off the powers that be.

This is the BBC's ultimate benefit - there is no one overriding interest. There are no shareholders to keep happy, no advertisers - only the audience. It is not state media in the sense of Pravda. No single person or group can dictate how the corporation presents particular issues. (Well, there's the director general and governors, but their impact has, until recent years, not been that great on news output and they change regularly in any case. I'm also not happy about how much say the Sec of State for Culture, Media and Sport seems to have in the beeb's running at the moment, or how much the charter renewal can be used as a stick to gain less critical coverage of the government, but still...)

Add to that the hundreds of different reporters, producers, researchers etc. which make up the beeb's news departments - all of whom have different slants on the same stories and have no edict from on high and no party/company line to follow, unlike every other media organisation in the country - not to mention the ongoing obligation to try and give all viewpoints an airing, and I reckon the simple existence of all these opinions within the BBC usually ensures that the balance is about right.

Yep, that doesn't entirely answer the fundamental "should the state be involved in the media" question. But that's because it's bloody tricky. In almost every other situation in almost any other country in the world I'd agree that the concept of state-funded news/entertainment is worrying.

But for me - and many others - the BBC gets it pretty much spot on pretty much all of the time, and has enough checks and balances to prevent it from turning into the kind of propaganda machine that "state funded media" normally summons up images of. Taken as a whole, I genuinely believe that it IS impartial - and that is so rare that I can think of few other examples of such a media organisation anywhere else in the world. The few that do exist (notably Japan's NHK) certainly don't even come close to the BBC in terms of general quality of output - the likes of Fame Academy are always balanced by a Monty Python; the Kirsty Warks are always balanced by the Andrew Neils.

But neither of us are going to convince the other on this, I suspect. I do, however, adore the BBC, and consider it one of this country's greatest cultural achievements. And that wasn't hyperbole, for a change.

6/09/2005 05:45:00 pm  
Blogger doctorvee said...

A register of interests wouldn't work. Why? Well let's look at an example where we do know where allegiances lie - sports reporting. Despite the fact that it is usually no secret which football team a sports reporter supports, that doesn't stop the accusations of bias.

For instance, a running joke in football comedy programmes up here is that Chick Young is secretly a Rangers supporter - even though he actually supports St Mirren. Alan Hansen is described as an honourary Englishman even though he played for Scotland.

Let's face it. People will always accuse media outlets of bias over anything, right down to the colour of Andrew Marr's tie. If these people don't want to watch the BBC, then that is their right. It's also their loss. Can they please leave the rest of us alone now?

6/09/2005 06:08:00 pm  
Anonymous Third Avenue said...

Nosemonkey - you make my case for me.

The self-confessed problem with Biased BBC and their ilk is that they start from the premise that the BBC's very existence is wrong (they state so explicitly). Therefore, no amount of evidence that it is not biased will change their minds. Because the Beeb is just plain wrong.

I've lived in quite a lot of countries in my time, and nowhere has anything that even comes close to the BBC. I surf the channels here in New York and despair. To use a right-wing turn of phrase, there are few things that fly the flag for Britain as proudly as the BBC. We would be immeasurably poorer as a nation were it to disappear.

6/09/2005 07:40:00 pm  
Blogger Bishop Hill said...

Curious H:

Firstly I have only got to about page 10 of Sowell's "Basic Economics" so I think I will only risk a gentle economic critique at the moment!

I don't this holds up. Firstly the BBC is tax-funded and therefore has its own biases, particularly when the charter is up for renewal. It has secondary financing from the EU and its commercial activities too, but these clearly only create further potential biases. (In particular the EU loans to BBC Worldwide are from the European Investment Bank whose raison d'etre per their mission statement is to make loans in the EU interest!) The point is though that the BBC has a few very concentrated sources of income. A commercial station has hundreds of advertisers and therefore is more likely to be independent of any one of them. Compare to auditors, who are also required to be independent and who are not allowed to have this sort of reliance on a single customer.

So I think its true to say that the commercial route is more likely to lead to independence. This is another reason why the licence fee should go.

But at the end of the day the licence fee should go whether the BBC is biased or not - see below.


Having just written my response to Hamster I realise you've addressed many of the same points in your later comment and so you'll see what I think on the same issues. You're right we are probably never going to agree on this, but here's a parting thought:

You could be right, the BBC could be the best broadcaster ever; unbiased, rigorous, culturally stimulating, fighting for all that's best in Britain. I could be a lunatic right wing nutter; a fascist, even.

Do you really think it's right that in a free society I should be forced to pay for a TV station that you value and I don't?

6/09/2005 09:04:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

BH: I don't think you're a lunatic right-wing nutter, merely that you're wrong. Especially on the EU funding bit.

This is an accusation I keep hearing, but I've never seen any evidence of this. Even if it is true, as you claim, and BBC Worldwide gets EU funding, that is an (almost) entirely separate commercial wing of the organisation with practically nothing beyond the name to link it to the main beeb.

As for your free society bit - this is again back to the tax question. I was being facetious before, but as you've raised it again: I don't particularly value the NHS. I think it's inefficient at best, dangerously shoddy at worst. I now have private health insurance - I have no need for the NHS (just as people who subscribe to Sky may have no need for the BBC's telly output). Do you think it's right that I should be forced to pay for a health service others value and I don't?

By the same logic you're employing to scrap the license fee, we'd have to rethink large chunks of the public purse, and make huge parts of the tax system voluntary or on a pay-per-use system. And then large chunks of the population would be unable to afford basic services.

You and I paying our license fees helps provide TV and radio services for that section of the population which can't afford satellite or digital (actually, I fall into that category, despite the health insurance...). By you and I paying our taxes, we help provide a health service for those who couldn't otherwise afford medical treatment. Health is, naturally, more important than telly. But the basic argument still stands if you choose to follow that route.

6/09/2005 09:22:00 pm  
Anonymous Katie said...

I find that MSM is used more by americans (who tend to acronyms) and dead tree media by brits. I lapsed into merkin cause I was talking about american things. Just be grateful I didn't pluralise the second person to y'all.

Now, I kind of object to the line of demarcation between journalists and bloggers - especially when you see how much crossover there is these days. But the nature of language is such that now that the term is in popular use, it's here to stay whether you like it or not - you gotta get used to it mate. Or dude. Depending on whether I'm talking merkin or estuary english.

6/09/2005 11:40:00 pm  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

"If so, fine - let's take it to extremes and scrap universal funding for the BBC, NHS, comprehensive schools, university funding, road maintenance, rubbish collection, street lighting, the national parks, the armed forces etc. etc."
With you there Nmky, slightly worried about the last bit though. Are you entirely certain that it’s a good idea to have the guys with all the guns wandering about wondering where the next wage packet is coming from? Other than that it seems like a perfect solution.
"What I really don't understand about certain of these sites is the level of emotional outrage they seem to exhibit. What's that all about?"
I’m like that with everything else on the planet so why should I let the Beeb off?

I’ve decided that eurosceptic is no longer a strong enough word so please, in future, call me a euronihilist. It shouldn’t exist at all.

Ah, that’s the nurse coming with hte lithium, must dash.

6/10/2005 05:15:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Guns-wise, maybe we should follow the BNP's brilliant solution and arm everyone with automatic rifles? Then the army boys would at least have a fight on their hands...

As for the Euronihilist bit, I'd spotted that in your strapline, but assumed it meant you'd given up caring about it and would just sit back and accept whatever happens. I really should have guessed you'd gone for another interpretation...

6/10/2005 05:25:00 pm  
Blogger CuriousHamster said...

Bishop Hill: A commercial station has hundreds of advertisers and therefore is more likely to be independent of any one of them.
Could it also be that this means the commercial station has hundreds of possible conflicts of interest where it isn't in their financial interest to distribute information? I'd also say that most large commercial stations probably receive the vast bulk of their income from just a few large transnational companies.

Tim: Emotional outrage based on rational arguments I can accept. It's the knee jerk emotional outrage of certain other sites I don't understand.

6/10/2005 11:50:00 pm  
Blogger Bishop Hill said...


I realise you weren't accusing me of extremism. My point was only that the point of view of the people advocating abolition of the licence fee is not relevant to the argument.

If you're interested in following up the BBC Worldwide thing Anglo-Saxon Chronicle posted about it here and I followed up here.
I think you're wrong about it being a effectively a separate organisation. It's a wholly owned subsidiary. Frankly it's largely irrelevant that the loans are in the name of BBC Worldwide rather than the BBC itself. It's all funding which washes around within the Beeb.

Do I think it's right you should pay for an NHS you don't use? Not really. But that's another argument. There is an argument that it is right to take money by coercion (ie taxes) to pay for healthcare on the grounds that this is a necessity that would not be universally affordable. TV isn't by any stretch a necessity. If you accept the argument that the BBC is necessary, what is unnecessary?

I don't think so. To cover a story up would be a huge risk for a station. Why would they do that to keep one advertiser? Last time I watched ITV there appeared to be lots of different companies advertising! I know you're driving at the Procter and Gambles of this world who have loads of products and therefore a lot of power in the marketplace, but covering a story up is so difficult now isn't it?

6/11/2005 03:01:00 pm  
Blogger CuriousHamster said...

Bishop Hill: but covering a story up is so difficult now isn't it?
I suppose this is the point where we disagree. I believe that covering up a story in the US where there is no mainstream PSB, is reasonably easy, especially when it involves bad publicity about major advertisers. I don't necessarly mean that a story doesn't come out but that it is controlled. It can either be made to look ridiculous or just not given the airtime it deserves. The information might be available on the internet but that suffers from the problem of legitimacy. Mainstream news sources give legitimacy to a story in a way that the internet mostly does not (yet anyway).

Of course this means that I can't really prove my point because I can't find a "covered up" story we both believe to be true as an example. By the same token, it's difficult for you to prove that stories have not been "covered up" because then neither of us would know about them anyway.
It's a difficult area. I suppose it comes back to our original viewpoints.

6/12/2005 11:30:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

BH - healthcare/TV-wise, there is an argument to be made that neither should be within the remit of the state. We managed (just about) without universal, state-sponsored healthcare until the 1940s, after all. And if the taxes which go to the NHS instead went into people's pockets - the argument runs - they would all be able to afford private health insurance (I'd be saving about a tenner a week in cigarette taxes alone...). Health insurance seems to work fine in a good number of other countries. The same goes for a bunch of other nationalised services.

I mean, yes - obviously there is a difference between TV and health. But once you start down the path of asking what it should be up to the state to provide it's possible to end up in a very tricky situation. The BBC has become part of the state's service remit, and has been for as long as most people can remember. It would be hard to question its position without questioning that of various other state services. Private police forces? Some would prefer it. Private postal services? Yep. Private fire brigade? Tricky, but could work. The only one that would be tricky is the armed forces, but then military protection has always been the prime duty of the state, so very few would argue against that.

Dunno. I see your point, and your objection. But look what happened to the railways - I'd hate to see the BBC go down that route.

6/13/2005 09:52:00 am  

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