If the BBC has been feeling a little cursed of late it can at least feel blessed in having Rupert Murdoch as an enemy. For the truth is that the BBC and Murdoch need to each other to justify their own world view and block any threat to seriously reform either of their vast empires.
In much the same way as the Labour and Tory parties use each other’s existence to drown the genuinely radical voices out of British public life whilst they tinker at their edge of whichever of society’s problems the particular interest groups they represent care about, the BBC and the Murdoch empire avoid real change to their flawed structures by playing tribal games.
Already we are seeing BBC-friendly journalists trying to equate a desire to reform the BBC with a desire to pursue Murdoch’s agenda, while during the phone hacking scandal, the Murdoch press found time to attack the BBC for its familiar failings. The reality is that to see the best of British public service broadcasting, one must look at Channel 4, which produces a genuinely questioning, curious and radical evening news programme, radical documentaries and is home to more experimental comedy and drama than the BBC. That Channel 4 has to also produce the execrable Supersize vs Superskinny is due to it living in a commercial world from which the BBC is exempt.
That’s a BBC where Bruce Forsyth is still a feature of Saturday evening TV, and the comedians in the most high profile roles are the decidedly middle of the road Dara O’Briain and Michael McIntyre. This blandness is the consequence of the BBC entering the mass market and forgetting its raison d’etre: to produce quality without concern for market forces.
This can perhaps be first traced to the BBC, in a thorough illiberal way driving the innovative and original pirate music stations out of business, then proceeding to hire most of their presenters to ape the pirates’ style, in this way the BBC ceased to be about providing services without recourse to the market, and started to become a monopolistic market player, a Rupert Murdoch with a smiling face.
This pattern has continued apace, with the BBC having its own dedicated commercial arm actively competing with UK companies happy to provide the same service, and when cuts are needed, it’s the public service, not the commercial divisions which bear the brunt.
At its heart, Liberalism encourages a diversity of voices and viewpoints, and a variety of participants in commercial markets. Applying these principles to the BBC would make the great broadcaster stronger, and more able to deal with future crisis.
A key finding from the current crisis at the BBC is that there are indistinct lines of responsibility. Shrinking the organisation so that it focuses more on its core functions, would also aid the process of developing greater accountability for future Directors General.
BBC Radio 1 and 2 should be sold to the highest bidder. They are purely commercial entities who perform a function which already exists in the market, so cut them free to do that and let the BBC concentrate on those functions it was created to perform.
The BBC commercial arm should be sold or floated on the stock market with the corporation keeping a minority stake to protect its interests.
Such moves may be radical, but a slimmed down BBC with its core purpose restored and clearer lines of command, is a uniquely British treasure worth taking radical steps for.
* David Thorpe is a member of the Liberal Democrats in Newham, and works for an economics publication.