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Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Beeb has just secured itself some big happy funding increases, and inevitably there’s been some debate about the future of the corporation.
Needless to say the increase is funding is completely unjustified, but it’s worth reiterating why this is so.
I support the BBC existing as a public broadcaster in order to have news reporting and investigation that will be free of commercial pressures. It can also serve as a focus for experimentation which may be too risky for a commercial broadcaster and help to inform a national narrative (not too popular point, I know). So, this is its basic public service remit.
So, how should public services be funded? There are two ways. Either we decide this is a general, indivisible social good and then it should be free at the point of use and paid by general taxation (see defence, policing, the NHS). Alternatively we could decide that a given service is inherently monopolistic and then the state is the most efficient provider, which would then mean that its users simply buy the service directly from the provider/state as in a market place.
How on earth does the licence fee fit this? It doesn’t. The licence fee forces buyers of television sets to pay for a service they may never use and not want, so it doesn’t meet the requirement of being a state-provided service. I think the BBC is a general good so it should be paid out of general taxation. If you believe it should be considered a service, then you should favour a BBC subscription system where you have to pay especially to get access like with any other tv service provider. Only these two options are fair. The current licence fee is illegitimate.
The BBC’s public service remit I am advocating would also require changes to the Beeb’s programming. The point of it would be to provide a service that the market won’t provide. That means anything that’s commercially viable, such as soap operas, game shows and the like should not be the BBC’s business. The exception would be news and documentary making which can be commercially viable. But as pointed out above there is a risk of a private channel’s financial interests biasing such work. I can’t remember what it was but Noreena Hertz had a good example for this.
And talking of biases, the BBC will also have to sort its political and cultural biases as documented en masse by Biased BBC.
These transformations would of course much reduce the current BBC budget which is why the increases are unjustified.
All in all these changes would make the BBC one the great British institutions again.

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