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    Wednesday, 20 June 2007

    A 'when not if' debate?: the future of public service broadcasting

    Following the recent report on impartiality at the BBC, Simon Heffer - writing in the Daily Telegraph - argues strongly for the existence of an anti-Right bias in BBC coverage of national affairs. Perhaps strangely, he considers this complaint to have been summarily rejected in the Bridcut report, a stance that is “so self-deluding as to risk rendering [the report] worthless”.

    Of greater concern to Heffer, however, is the BBC’s “lack of ambition on behalf of its audience”; “the apparent assumption that its audience is bovine, almost devoid of curiosity and bereft of any general knowledge”. He complains that the BBC has allowed itself to be “hijacked by the agenda of the uneducated”, which is “as sad, as dangerous and as destructive as any form of political bias, of which it is the bastard child”. These comments come on the day that Mark Thompson (the BBC's DG) is due to outline a 'mission statement' for the future of the BBC, and that Channel 4 has announced its own 'remit review' (1,2) in light of Ofcom's recent statement on the channel's financial position and its stated intention to consider the channel's long-term prospects as part of its next review of PSB.

    There is an element here of harking back to an imagined Golden-age and lambast of the ‘dumbed-down’ modern offering, but quietly one has to admit that there is probably something in it. It is arguable that in adopting an emphasis on self-justification and the concomitant desire to meet the perceived wants of ALL licence payers the BBC has gone too far in seeking the ‘middle ground’ of the television viewing audience. For example, is ‘documentary’ / ‘docu-soap’ / ‘docu-gameshow’ programming really preferable to hard-edged current affairs?

    Heffer argues that the increased accessibility to desired content in the age of digital broadcasting and the internet leaves the case for the BBC highly questionable. He concludes that “our public service broadcaster should be reduced to a news service on both wireless and television, and provide one or two other things that are a public good but that the market can only debase by providing”. The debate would then become one of deciding just how broad this ‘one or two things’ category need be (does the BBC’s current ‘entertainment’ output ‘artificially’ inflate the quality of rival channels’ output in the marketplace, and would loss thereof thus be more damaging than might initially be appreciated?), and whether a universal licence fee can be justified for such pared-down fayre. Is there more to this debate than the market failure argument, and further, how far does any perceived market failure run?

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