Daily Archives: April 15, 2011

Why public service broadcasting (PSB) matters

We all know what comes from rampant and unrestrained commercial activity: a worship of Mammon to the exclusion of everything except the feeding of company directors’ and financiers egos and greed. In broadcasting, unrestrained commerce equals a low grade, populist cultural diet heavily polluted with advertising. Many supporters of PSB think that is a case of ’nuff said’.  Were it only that easy.

The fact that commercial broadcasters left to their own devices do tend to go for the lowest common cultural denominator is not a knockdown justification for PSB but an expression of opinion, a projection of taste. That is so even in the areas where PSB would seem to be most obviously valuable such as the provision of news and current affairs programming. Sadly, there is no necessary reason why such programmes made by PSB providers should be more or less biased than those provided by commercial broadcasters. Indeed, it could be plausibly argued that PSB political coverage is more naturally susceptible to bias than that of commercial broadcasters because PSB is ultimately funded from a single source, government,  through direct funding (the World Service), hypothecated charges (the BBC) or the profits of quasi-commercial undertakings funded by  state granted revenues,  whereas private broadcasters at least have a diversity of vested interests to satisfy.

It might be thought a weakness to admit that support for PSB is a value judgement, but it is never a weakness to start from a point of intellectual honesty. Far worse to pretend that PSB is an objective good whose value  is beyond discussion or the need for justification, because then the argument switches to defending the ultimately indefensible rather than the real issue, namely, how does the person who supports PSB come to their value judgement?

If they wish to be taken seriously, the supporters of PSB must make the intellectually honest case for PSB. To do that they must answer two questions: (1) what is wrong with the public exercising its own choice by voting with its subscriptions to unregulated private broadcasters? And  (2) in what sense is the world better off  with PSB than without it? But before I turn to those questions some ground needs to be prepared.

What do we mean by PSB?

We all know what PSB is don’t we? Actually,  no.  It is one of those phrases that seems comfortingly solid but which often causes people to stumble embarrassingly when pressed for a description of what it means. A reasonable general definition would be any broadcasting that is in some way formally influenced by the state. That covers the obvious, publicly-funded broadcasters such as the BBC, to the less obvious, for example news and current affairs programmes bound by a legal obligation to provide “balance” and licence requirements which demand a certain volume of programming deemed to be in the general public interest, such as drama.

Free-to-air broadcasting funded in part or whole by private donations (such as exists in the USA in the form of the Pacifica Foundation) is often described as PSB. In as far as such broadcasting is directly influenced by the state in the manner described above it is PSB. But imagine a broadcaster entirely funded by donations and unregulated. Such a broadcaster might produce programming which is similar to that which a full-blown PSB state funded broadcaster such as the BBC produces, that is, programmes which no commercial broadcaster would produce either at all or in sufficient quantity. This might seem at first glance to be evidence of PSB. However, those who make donations are in reality paying subscriptions, for by making donations they are determining the type of programming the broadcaster will produce. In principle, that is no different from anyone who subscribes to any commercial channel. It is not PSB but merely a coincidence of programming.

What counts as PSB programming?

State regulation and funding equals PSB, right? Wrong. A state funded broadcaster could go for the lowest common denominator. But that would not be PSB. It would merely be the state providing the same as the market can provide.

There is nothing in principle to stop a fully state-funded broadcaster pumping out exactly the same sort of programming diet as the most grossly commercial station. Indeed, a cynical government might well see it as a modern version of ‘bread and circuses’ to keep the masses distracted from misgovernment or as a mass audience platform for government propaganda, with the propaganda slipped into the programming.

PSB has to be more than simply state provision and regulation. It must do something that neither unfettered commercial companies nor self-serving governments will do. The question is what? The general answer is to produce socially necessary and valuable programmes which will not otherwise be produced at all or in sufficient quantity. Like every other form of public provision, PSB exists and has existed to provide what the market will not provide.

What is “necessary and valuable”? The need for wide-ranging and honest news and current affairs can be taken as read in a democracy. Clearly no commercial broadcaster will provide unbiased news unless it is closely constrained by law to do so (think Fox TV in the USA) . At the very least the commercial broadcaster will find ways to avoid stories that damage its advertisers or shareholders. Consequently, there is an objective case to be made for PSB in the field of news and current affairs, provided safeguards are put in place to prevent either government interference or the capture of the broadcaster by those with a particular ideology. (Sadly, while the censorship of the state is constantly under scrutiny by the media, censorship by those who control the media is routinely ignored. The latter is perhaps even more insidious than state censorship, because it is not acknowledged, and responsibility for it is diffused.)

“Highbrow” programming such as serious drama, music, history and science has been (with news and current affairs) the staple legal requirements that governments have imposed upon commercial broadcasters. They have been taken as self-evident goods, but are they? Why should “highbrow” be given a privileged position? An analogy with formal education can be made. Why do we insist on education for all? The utilitarian answer is to equip everyone for employment in an advanced society. But that is not the full story. Few would argue that some education is necessary for all, but even the education we provide up to the age of 16 goes far beyond what is required for most jobs, for which a firm grasp of the three Rs will suffice. Why do we teach every child history, Eng Lit and world geography? What need do most have for a grasp of the natural sciences? We also fund non-academic activities such as sport, art and music. Beyond the age of sixteen we continue to educate to degree level very large numbers of people in subjects which they will never directly use in their working lives. (Whether the education has its desired effect in many cases is a separate issue. The intent is what matters here.)

Part of the reason we do this is to provide a range of abilities and experience to fill the multifarious occupations available in a modern industrial state. But we also provide the education we do because it is believed that it both civilises the individual and better equips the person to understand at least enough of matters in general to make basic participation in the democratic process meaningful. (These ends may not be realised or even be sincerely meant by those who expound them. That does not matter. They are what is claimed for education. Few would openly gainsay them.) By extension it can be claimed that PSB has an equivalent role to that of formal education.

Variety and quality is not enough

The problem with the argument deriving from the need for variety and quality is that a very rich diet of every kind of broadcast fare is now available from commercial or public access sources because satellite, cable and the Web offer material on virtually anything – and that which they do not provide can be found on discrete static media such as DVD. Does this expansion of broadcast opportunities and data access make PSB redundant or will it do so in the foreseeable future? The free marketeer would say yes, but there is more to PSB than simply the provision of a wide range of material. To begin with PSB can give a national focus. The need for a broadcaster such as the BBC to provide national programming is especially important at a time when commercial broadcasting is being split ever more and the constraints on what is shown are being loosened. The question of national focus is especially pressing in the field of news and current affairs.

We already have Sky effectively outside the control of the British people. With the recent relaxation of the ownership and monopoly rules for British terrestrial free-to-air broadcasters, it is quite conceivable that within a few years most, or even all, the major commercial broadcasters will be owned wholly or in large part by foreigners, especially Americans. Past experience both here and abroad suggests that with that will come a relaxation of the requirements for commercial broadcasters to provide either a certain percentage of PSB programming, or programming which is produced in Britain.

There is also the problem of information overload. A vast range of material may be available but its very size and variety is of itself a problem. Human beings generally say ‘yes’ when they are asked whether they want more choice, but this is a lie. What human beings are emotionally and intellectually equipped for is some choice but not too much. Give someone the choice of six books on a subject and they can probably handle it. Give them one hundred choices and not only will they not be able to make a meaningful choice, the sheer volume of choices may well cripple their ability to choose at all. I think most people will recognise this as a fact, for the simple reason they will feel that way themselves when confronted with many choices. For those who do not accept it, I suggest they reflect on the fact that the large majority of British people still choose most of their viewing from a small number of broadcasters, even when they have the opportunity to choose from a much wider catalogue of broadcast material.

In the case of the BBC it performs another useful role, namely, it is broadcasting without the profit motive constantly poking its greedy little nose into the public’s face through the pathological use of adverts. The BBC offers a haven of comparative calm, a reminder that there is more to life than economic relationships. An absence of adverts may have other benefits. Their constant intrusion makes the presentation of extended argument or evidence difficult, and in the case of drama disrupts the flow of the action: to a substantial degree adverts shape  programmes. There is also the question of production values. The BBC’s, especially in radio, are generally substantially higher than the commercial alternatives (think Talk Sport). This is primarily a consequence of not being driven by commercial pressures.

Finally, although there is great variety available nowadays elsewhere, it is dubious whether any commercial broadcaster, even one forced to produce some PSB programming by the state, would be required to (or even be able to) undertake some of the really big enterprises, especially drama and documentaries, which the BBC periodically tackles. It is also certain that no single commercial programmer would be able to even approach the sheer volume and range of programmes provided by the BBC.

Why should everyone pay?

For the same reason they all pay for state education, defence and the NHS. It is part of the normal social fabric of an efficient and advanced state. There are many instances of public provision where a majority pay but a minority of necessity benefit: social housing, high-cost medical treatment such as organ transplants and university education. (Even with the vastly expanded university population, now around 43 per cent of those under 28, a majority of the population will never attend.)

PSB is on firmer moral ground than any of the examples given above because everyone can freely access PSB if they so choose.

Is it reasonable for the state to interfere with the market?

The state interferes with the market all the time. It does so because all experience shows that private provision is never enough to meet a general need – whether PSB meets a general need is arguable, but if it is accepted that it does, then state action is necessary to provide it. In fact, the term “free market” is a complete misnomer. It is really a state-controlled market. The natural end of a truly free market is monopoly or at least greatly reduced competition resulting in oligopoly. All so-called free market societies recognise this by passing anti-monopoly laws. Hence, the “free market” is in fact a market controlled by the state in the most fundamental   way  to prevent its natural workings which is a movement to monopoly or at least greatly reduced competition.  It is one of the great propaganda triumphs of history that “free markets” have been successfully sold as being what happens naturally. Free marketeers invariably justify themselves by chanting “the market gives the people what they want”. The actuality is rather different because the viewer merely chooses between what is offered. That is a different matter from choosing what they would ideally want. As an instrument for providing what people want, let alone need, the market is wholly inadequate. A Tesco arrives in an area, kills off the opposition and everyone has to go to Tesco. That does not mean they prefer Tesco.

Can PSB survive in Britain?

At present the omens are not auspicious, with the relaxation of the commercial broadcasting ownership rules and the ever-expanding media choices open to the public. It may well be that within the foreseeable future the licence fee the BBC currently enjoys becomes practically impossible as the readily identifiable stand-alone TV ceases to be.

But there are also good reasons why it may survive. PSB is ultimately a political matter. It is very convenient for politicians to have a national broadcaster with a mass audience to carry their message. Such a broadcaster will become ever more useful as the commercial market continues to fragment and expand. Politicians may also see in PSB a means of cementing national unity in an increasingly uncertain and fluid world. But if it is to survive as PSB in the true sense it must not be dominated by a class or ideology. Rather, it must carry the population as a whole with it. Consequently, it should not be unremittingly highbrow, but all programmes should aim to be  of high quality. What should the supporters of PSB do? Present the honest subjective case for PSB and be prepared to argue it against all comers.

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