BBC in crisis: This is no excuse to destroy a respected broadcaster

IT BEGAN with anger at bankers, intensified during the MPs’ expenses crisis, and continued during the phone hacking scandal. Now the BBC finds itself at the brunt of a long-running mob mentality. This latest extension of the Saville Affair has seen the BBC’s director general George Entwistle resign, and senior executives set aside. It all follows a mistaken identity scandal at Newsnight that led to false allegations of paedophilia against a senior politician.

“What went wrong?” they cry! In the wake of this scandal, some say we must have press regulation and closer supervision of the media. Because state involvement prevented all previous scandals at the BBC, didn’t it? And extensive regulation has worked out so well in the financial sector, hasn’t it?

In fact, we already have extensive regulation of press activities through existing law – things like libel and slander and anti-corruption rules (all of which were criticised following the Saville allegations). The only thing that more explicit regulation of broadcasting would achieve is to protect the well-connected from investigation, while making the regulator the arbiter of probity.

It would force black-and-white determination of what would be better grey. For example, the police and journalists have often worked closely together in the past, sharing sources and intelligence. The press is rightly used to broadcast police messages. No rule could specify exactly when this healthy symbiosis crosses the line into corrupt practice. Demanding transparency and clarity everywhere makes these into false idols, at the expense of more pragmatic virtues.

Others say that the BBC’s failings demonstrate why state involvement in broadcasting is a bad idea, and the BBC is attacked for reflecting the virtues of a liberal establishment fighting more popular opinion. But in Britain there has always been an equivalent of the BBC, transmitting the establishment’s ideas, while the public’s fears and hopes are communicated back to the state.

The BBC is an established national institution – it’s a respected, semi-official voice in a national discourse, but only one voice among many competitors. It faces its own vibrant competitors in Sky, the internet, and elsewhere. Its establishment status is relatively harmless – indeed it is useful. It can at least aspire to offer what it considers to be objective comment (even if it’s not), and a national voice.

The BBC also faces huge competition from other parts of the media – indeed, never before in British history has media competition been so intense. Where there might be scope for structural change, however, is in the public service funding concept. There is a strong case for the license fee to enter into a general pot, available to many broadcasters bidding to produce public service content.

And alongside this,the BBC should be permitted to raise vast sums by selling its back catalogue over the internet. It should also be allowed to franchise the World Service around the world (it has been restricted from receiving private funds for the latter, even as donations). It could raise other (highly non-trivial) sums from voluntary donations or specialist funders. The loss of exclusive use of the license fee need not mean it starts to show adverts.

When the BBC began, television and radio were regarded as subject to a market failure – without regulation, broadcasters would all produce mass interest content, and niche or educational material would be missed. But in a world of hundreds of channels and bespoke charities, that concept is no longer sustainable. It isn’t necessary for the BBC to be the sole focus of public funding.

Indeed, the opposite is true. With competition, journalistic and ethical standards would need to be even higher. The BBC has many great shows that would surely attract charitable funding if not public funding. Who doesn’t love Strictly Come Dancing, Match of the Day or the Today Programme? The BBC doesn’t need to be in crisis, even if its funding model should change. Let’s just hope our mob thinks its guillotine has now drunk enough blood.

Andrew Lilico is chairman of Europe Economics.