Is the BBC a Mass Entertainer or a Public Service Body, Asks David Cox. and If It Is the Former, Who Will Be the Latter?
Cox, David, New Statesman (1996)
Once again civilised Britain is reeling from an initiative unleashed by John Birt's BBC. The reorganisation, which is to subordinate the traditions of Bush House and Broadcasting House to the crowd-pleasing ethos of Television Centre, has met the usual barrage of criticism. But this occasion's lead Jeremiah, John Tusa, has proved no more effective against this phase of the masterplan than were Michael Grade, Mark Tully or the late Dennis Potter against earlier phases. As usual, the Birt juggernaut is rolling on, crushing all before it.
Yet anyone who looks to the BBC for intelligence, authority, truth or art has every reason to despair. The Birt "reforms" are draining the domestic services of innovative comedy, challenging drama, serious science, history and religion and the examination of public issues. Now, presumably, the overseas services can be expected to follow suit. Meanwhile, people go to prison for failing to pay the hefty poll tax required to support all this. Why, then, does all protest prove so futile ?
The answer seems to be that nobody can find the flaw in the BBC line, which, baldly stated, goes like this. As people are offered more broadcasting from other sources, they will grow more reluctant to pay the licence fee. To retain their allegiance, the corporation must offer them more of what most of them want, and must therefore axe or trivialise much of what might be good for them. What the public wants is becoming increasingly expensive as growing competition pushes up the price of popular formats, stars and rights. But more of it must be supplied, as licence payers will expect a BBC presence in new outlets such as digital channels. So to pay for what is popular, what remains of what is serious must be axed or starved.
Does this not mean (you might ask) that the BBC is to be saved as an institution only at the price of abandoning the purpose it exists to serve? Ah well, even such a denatured BBC might still offer a few token crumbs to the serious-minded viewer and listener, which is more than he or she will get elsewhere.
For those reliant on the BBC for wisdom and truth both at home and abroad, this is a dispiriting pitch. Yet it is also dubious on its own terms. Since the BBC's fixed licence fee income cannot match the rapidly growing war-chests of commercial broadcasters, it is bound to lose the battle for popular programme assets. As its stars, writers and sports defect, its services will become pale imitations of its rivals'. Would people still want to pay a licence fee to support them?
Might they not actually be more likely to stump up for services that are of value to society but which the market does not provide, just as they willingly pay taxes to support the arts or education? A licence fee that funded only such programming could be much smaller than the one they pay at present.
This might appear to imply that the BBC should abandon popular programming and specialise in market-failure functions. …