When I become Britain’s benign libertarian dictator, the very first thing I will do to make my people free is to abolish the BBC. Not abolish as in “Cartago delenda est”, poetically just though that might be. Just abolish as in remove the licence fee and allow the market to decide the organisation’s fate.
Sure there’ll be a few transitional hiccups – in much the same way there were when Russia’s state-owned oil giants were privatised. But the net result will be good for everyone. Well, not quite everyone: not for the kind of people who put “I heart NHS” on their Twitter profiles; not for the Occupy crowd; not for Israel-haters; not for Belfast and Salford taxi drivers (of whom more, later); not for the Islington chatterati… For the country as a whole, though, it will offer a welcome taste of freedom after decades of entrenched socialism.
I didn’t have time to make this point in my Telegraph podcast debate this week with the BBC’s former arts correspondent Rosie Millard but I didn’t need to: Rosie did the job for me. The giveaway came when – after the usual protestations that the BBC isn’t remotely biased – Rosie paused to sing the praises of a programme called Sunday Morning Live.
This is a political debate programme which goes out – no go on: guess – on Sunday mornings. It’s recorded, though, not in London but in Belfast. This means that if you’re a mad enough to agree to appear on it for whatever derisory fee they currently pay you’re basically kissing goodbye to most of your weekend. They fly you out the evening before, put you up in a hotel, then fly you back home once the programme’s over. Is this a good use of licence-fee payer’s money?
Well I’d argue “No.” It seems to me that there at least two problems here, the first being the additional costs generated by the relative remoteness of the location: the flights, the overnight stay, the airport taxis and so on. And the second being the calibre of guests the programme is capable of attracting.
Contrary to what you might think if you’ve never done work with the BBC, the amount you actually get paid for appearing on the box – unless you’re Jeremy Clarkson or Graham Norton – is in fact quite insultingly small. Belfast, I’m sure, has many merits. But being conveniently accessible to where most people in Britain live is not one of them. It follows, therefore, that many potential guests will look at the fee, look at the location and go: “Naah. Can’t be bothered.” That has certainly been my view whenever they’ve asked me – and I speak as someone not that famous and reasonably desperate.
Sunday Morning Live, in other words, is a programme designed by policy to be not as good as it could be. It’s more expensive than it needs to be (thus denying the people who paid for it – whether they like it or not – via their licence fee the best value for money). And it attracts a poorer quality of guest than it would do, were it purely subject to the exigencies of the market.
So what, exactly, is the licence-fee payer gaining from this arrangement? How does this square with the claim frequently made by defenders of the BBC – as Rosie does herself in the Telegraph podcast – that it provides a superior quality of programming than commercial stations do?
The short answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. At least, certainly not always because – as is clear from the Sunday Morning Live example – the BBC has priorities which are not solely to do with providing the best value for money for its market. Priorities like bringing programming to the regions, so as to ensure that – a big hang-up at the BBC, this – the broadcaster is not too London-biased.
This policy is explicitly defended by Rosie on the podcast. “It’s really important that something the whole nation is paying for benefits,” she says, going on to give examples of the local jobs which are created by the BBC’s presence in Northern Ireland: the taxi drivers who get the extra work ferrying guests to and from the airport; the make up artists at BBC Belfast; and so on. In other words, Rosie sees the role of the BBC as being more than just as a maker of quality programmes, but as a kind of statist job-creation scheme. “But that’s socialism” I protest to her. “Good!” says Rosie.
Yes, arguably. But here’s the thing: it’s arguable because it is not an objective position but – as Rosie unconsciously let slip with that “good!” – an explicitly political one. It only makes any kind of sense if you are of the view that confiscating money from your audience in the form of a fee compulsory on pain of imprisonment – and in return giving your audience what you decide they ought to have regardless of whether it is what they actually want is a “good” thing. If you don’t then it’s not a “good” thing at all. It is, in fact, much closer to being a bad thing.
Now I wouldn’t mind if the BBC’s defenders were more upfront in admitting this. It would be annoying, yes, but at least it would have the virtue of honesty if they said: “Yes. We’re another branch of the socialist state. We believe that programming, like healthcare, should be allocated by people who know better than you do what it is that is good for you. People who know – because that’s just how much wiser they are – that free markets, free schools and private schools, elitism, conservatism, libertarianism, economic growth, national sovereignty, Israel, lower taxes and Daily-Mail readers are bad things, and that the EU, environmentalism, comprehensive schools, immigration, the NHS, the public sector, Palestine and bigger government are all good things.”
But they don’t and they won’t. “In wartime truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,” said Churchill. The liberal-left, it would appear, holds much the same view on the sanctity of the BBC.