May 24, 2004


Robyn Harris in The Times today with a timely attack on the BBC: 'The licence fee is an unfair, legally enforceable, regressive tax, and it is deeply unpopular... Forget Eton, the Guards and Home Counties golf clubs. Broadcasting is one of the last redoubts of unchallenged elitism in British society.'

You have to take a step back from the licence fee to see how absurd it is. (I'm sure non-UK readers already think it's incomprehensibly ridiculous.) Imagine if Sony were able to charge a levy every time you bought a CD player.

In the days of Potter and the like, the BBC could claim to offer a unique product. Not any more. If the BBC has a USP now, it's drearily 'lavish' costume dramas that I find deeply unappetizing and which I certainly wouldn't pay for given the choice (Trollope! Trollope! Good God). Its contemporary drama, as I have complained here many times, is abject, and you cannot believe that the BBC could ever have commissioned something like The Singing Detective.

Mark Thompson, the new D-G, comes, as everyone knows, from Channel 4. Hmmm, that bodes well doesn't it? C4 is even worse than the BBC; an absolute scandal that totally fails in its public service remit (is anyone even pretending to enforce that any more?), with its endless menu of tedious lifestyle programmes, exploitative reality TV shows and American imports (much the best thing on the channel, obviously), and its boring, pathetic obsession with 'youth'.

It's only genuflection towards tradition, a phlegmatic don't rock the boat attitude and a strange, pre-Thatcherite acceptance of things as they are that leads to people continuing to accept a tax every bit as inequitious as the Poll Tax.

Posted by mark at May 24, 2004 05:37 PM | TrackBack

"Mark Thompson, the new D-G, comes, as everyone knows, from Channel 4."

Wasn't he at the BBC for a long time before going to C4?

Posted by: mwanji at May 24, 2004 06:31 PM

If the BBC has a USP now

it’s Radio Two, Three and Four?

Posted by: sphaleotas at May 24, 2004 06:37 PM

i could't agree more about both stations, especially CH4 which is an fucking disgrace. Do the ITC do anything anymore? i thought they were supposed to monitor output?

Posted by: jed at May 24, 2004 11:00 PM

Disbanded last year and replaced by Ofcom.

Posted by: sphaleotas at May 24, 2004 11:34 PM

Hmm - not sure about this; BBC1 is, by and large, a conventional mainstream television channel and BBC2 its slightly quirky offshoot - neither are exactly groundbreaking but both are (mostly) efficient and often interesting. Contrast with ITV, which is just absolute shit. C4 may broadcast more than its share of imported rubbish and reality TV, but it knows its market and provides what that market seemingly desires.

Either way, when talking about the license fee it needs to be considered that the BBC does much more than provide BBC1 and 2. Radio 4, for example, is the single greatest thing in broadcasting history and, in BBC4, the Beeb do seem to be trying to reproduce something similar. Granted no-one has a digital TV (me included), but when they do, and when that channel progresses, the BBC will finally offer something to be genuinely enthusiastic about.

In the meantime, the license fee keeps crap adverts off our main channels, prevents tedious sponsorship and product placement deals, and provides a dis-incentive to the endless braying about ratings, which is hugely detrimental to quality broadcasting. I'm perfectly happy paying my license fee.

Posted by: jonathan at May 25, 2004 09:44 AM

I agree, but can't agree - for me the issue is the wholesale takeover of the bbc by branding consultants and shortsighted marketing drones who have systematically worked to relieve the organisation of any USP it might have had; as ever, in the name of blairite 'modernisation'. I'd be happy to pay a licence fee if it wasn't all being spent on selling me digital channels that I have to pay to receive, and branding hits telling me how lucky I am to have the bbc. As ever, the issue gets confused into one of principle, when it should just be about what would work best to create something that otherwise wouldn't exist; as with Public-Private Partnership, it's not the principle that matters, it's the fact that we get ripped off both by fucking idiots in suits who are unable to deliver what they promise, and are then bailed out by other idiots in suits who are unaccountable.

Never mind keeping pace with decadence, why not let the bbc be minor?

Posted by: undercurrent at May 25, 2004 09:49 AM

Undercurrent do you have any evidence that it's 'marketing' and 'branding' people that have damaged the Beeb - I know they're marvellous tubthumping things to despise but I don't think they're relevant here.

Mind you I don't think the BBC is doing badly at all. I'm with the people who think Radios 1-6 (and 1Extra) are marvellous; I think BBC2 isn't bad and 3 and 4 intrigue me though I can't currently get them - and the BBC website is EXCELLENT. The justification for public funding for the BBC still lies where it always has - in direct comparison to commercial equivalents. (Where there is even a comparison to be made).

As I understand it you don't have to pay to receive the BBC's digital channels, or at least only in the sense that you have to pay to receive their terrestrial channels i.e. by owning the appropriate bit of kit.

I agree though that the license fee is a weird, archaic and too direct way of getting the public funding - if the government just agreed to fund the BBC directly I'd be much happier. As it is I'm happy to enjoy the results of the fee while it lasts.

The strategy with BBC1 seems to be the equivalent of the NME's old 80s/90s strategy - "yes OK we've put Morrissey on the cover again but we have to get people buying the mag, just look what's inside". The problem with this sweetening-the-pill policy is that i) it alienates natural allies who like the pill as it is; ii) it's the thin end of the sweetening wedge.

Posted by: Tom at May 25, 2004 10:29 AM

If the BBC's USP is radio, then surely there should be a radio, not a TV, licence. It's inequitous enough that ppl who don't watch BBC1 very much and BBC2 at all have to pay for the pleasure (of their social 'betters'); it's downright outrageous - and ridiculous - that people who don't ever listen to these radio stations have to pay simply for them simply by dint of owning a television set.

Needles to say, I hate Radio 4. I tried to listen to it for a while, but realised it wasn't for the likes of me.

To the ppl who are 'happy paying their television licence' I would ask, do you also pay for cable or satellite? Once you do, the inequities become especially apparent.

I just can't agree that BBC1 is significantly better than ITV. Just what is watchable on BBC1, apart from exceptions such as EastEnders (whose ratings reached an all-time low last week) and Cutting It? (And these are hardly high quality programming). I've never watched Cold Feet, but I imagine its admirers would say it was every bit the equal of the best dramas the BBC has to offer.

Arguments about C4 'knowing its market' are simply not adequate, since part of its raison d'etre is to provide public service broadcasting.

Other points: Thompson does indeed have a BBC background. He was with the corporation his entire career, I think, until he took up the C4 appointment.

Posted by: mark k-p at May 25, 2004 11:37 AM

You'll miss it when it's gone.

Just think Hutton. Despite the carpings of the left, it's obvious that the enemy of the government, and the representative of ordinary Briton's, was the independent BBC in general and BBC News in particular.

When your fantasy of an enfeebled BBC comes to pass - and Mark, it very likely will, because the rich neocons who run this country want it -- we'll be swamped by Murdoch's protofascist drivel. And will lament that we ever allowed that compromised, elitist dinosaur called the BBC to be ground into submission.

Posted by: paul "Essex boy" meme at May 25, 2004 11:44 AM

I can't agree that Murdoch's output is 'protofascist drivel'; the Times is a decent enough paper (much better than the Guardian). Sky One is pretty trashy, but no worse than C4. It's the argument for the BBC that is fascist, albeit of what Burroughs called the British all too British soft, 'flabby, toothless' variety. Whilst there are problems with Murdoch, too many of the arguments made against him conceal (or sometimes trumpet) anti-democratic and anti-market assumptions; so many of the objections to him are straightforwardly elitist - if broadcasting is left to the people's preferences, it will go to shit, we know better... If there's a problem with Murdoch, it's monopolism, but that cannot be argued against by a State monopolism of the BBC.

Think so much of this debate highlights the strange (or not so strange) affinity of the left with elitism; Mrs T won three elections by exploiting this...

Posted by: mark k-p at May 25, 2004 12:44 PM

>Undercurrent do you have any evidence that it's 'marketing'
>and 'branding' people that have damaged the Beeb

well, just watch either bbc1 or bbc2, and you'll find that proportionally as much, I think probably more, time is taken up by bbc self-advertising, as is by commercial advertising on itv. A large proportion of this is cross-branding which feeds into their commercial/quasi-commercial activities) And look at how much they actually spend (ie 2 million quid on a new logo).

I think mark's is a counsel of despair and bad faith - Taking another example, just because an ill-conceived mixture of government ineptitude and shareholder-value capitalism are running down the railways so they're almost unusable, that doesn't mean that public railways are a bad idea per se, does it? Surely that's exactly what Thatcher (and friends: ) set out to make us believe...the systematic fucking-up of everything with half-arsed private finance in order to convince us of the bankruptcy of public services which has only accelerated with nuLabour - 'there is no alternative, it's all for the best, the market will sort it all out eventually'

The point is, what _works_ in a sense that is at least extra-economical (ie what is more likely to give us future Dennis Potters or whatever other k-punk faves!)- and granted, the current setup doesn't work, but I don't believe the publically-funded nature of the bbc is the problem. The problem is the bbc's feeble inability to do anything that others aren't already doing and doing better - with the moronic justification that 'it's what the market demands'. Given such an attitude, there can be no justification for the license fee, but we shouldn't let that confuse the order of causes at play here.

Posted by: undercurrent at May 25, 2004 01:50 PM

Mark are you particularly anti BBC today because of Billie Piper? ;)

Posted by: Tom at May 25, 2004 02:37 PM

If the Times is a decent enough paper these days, it's because they stole half of The Guardian's feature writers last year :-)

That said, I'm far from convinced it's a decent paper. The majority of the comment articles are hair-rippingly conservative and the leaders unpleasant in tone. The paper has a history of censoring and sacking columnists who 'step out of [the party] line'.

It's currently running a totally un-newsworthy vendetta against the Greek authorities because of some vendetta of Murdoch's (45 stories on the 'failure' of the Olympics in ONE WEEK at the start of May)- just one good example of the kind of negative news stories which the Murdoch papers revel in, and that's without even mentioning Europe or Immigration...

One thing though - you're right, I can't name many good BBC1 programmes now I think about it. Eastenders. Question Time. The Office. Er....

Posted by: jonathan at May 25, 2004 02:49 PM

do you have any evidence that it's 'marketing' and 'branding' people that have damaged the Beeb

A hatred — on the part of channel controllers — of anything which might conceivably alienate a given target demographic, I’d have thought.

Hence the death of single play, charmless comedy shows, programmes conceived entirely as PR events (The Big Read, Great Britons, What the World Thinks of God)...

Posted by: sphaleotas at May 25, 2004 02:51 PM

Not sure how un-newsworthy the anti-Greek 'vendetta' is, actually. The security arrangements seemed pretty lax to me....

Don't think that the editorials are rabidly conservative; certainly nothing compared to the Mail.

Tom, no I think Billie Piper will be alright; she was OK in that Chaucer thing for instance.

See where Robin's coming from re: counsel of despair, but the anti-BBC position seems to be equally a counsel of despair i.e. it claims that the market CANNOT deliver quality (a perfect mirror of the neo-con view that ONLY the market can deliver quality). This of course is nonsense; consider HBO, whose programmes are much better than anything put out by the BBC. (Notice how no-one says that we have 'the best TV in the world' any more.)

The only justification for the licence fee would be if the BBC produced something that would not otherwise appear . It's far from doing this at the moment, with its pale, homespun copies of programmes and formats that more moneyed channels do better. The problem is that there's an inherent contradiction between the populism (which of course does not always equal popularity) of its output and the elitist principle of its funding. To justify its funding, the BBC needs to have confident, innovative programming.

It could be argued in fact that the BBC should pay more, not less, attention to demographics. The reason why its radio stations are far better than its TV stations is that they have a clear audience. BBC 1, by contrast, is the kind of channel that just doesn't cut it in the digital and sattelite age: witlessly trying to please everyone, to be all things to all people. It needs to have a clear identity, to find a niche for itself. To be bold, in other words, instead of craven.

Posted by: mark k-punk at May 25, 2004 05:26 PM

In that case things like The Big Read are exactly what it should be doing, and can be counted as a pretty huge success.

Posted by: Tom at May 25, 2004 05:34 PM

I don't see how that follows Tom....

Posted by: mark k-p at May 25, 2004 05:38 PM

In that case things like The Big Read are exactly what it should be doing, and can be counted as a pretty huge success.

Who – overall – was your favourite presenter, Tom? Phill Jupitus, Arabella Weir, Alan Titchmarsh or Jo Brand?

Posted by: sphaleotas at May 25, 2004 06:03 PM

Another instance of viewers not being credited with the brains they were born with, here:

Posted by: sphaleotas at May 25, 2004 06:18 PM

Thing is, exactly how was The Big Read 'bold, innovative, confident'? Wasn't it exactly a product of the kind of muddleheaded populism and PR puffery of which Michael complains? And, crucially for the argument I was making, it's exactly the sort of thing that C4, for instance, is endlessly doing.... 100 best films, 100 worst records, etc etc ad infinitum....

Posted by: mark k-p at May 25, 2004 06:29 PM

The Big Read: i'm sure we've all read bookseller articles about how trade is being ultimately diminished by all these 'best of' lists and all that.

Posted by: scott at May 25, 2004 07:22 PM

Scarcely the need to add my thoughts on this; people above have made the point: while the BBC may be imperfect look at *who* precisely is leading the sniping against it. The Times has a political agenda - Murdoch's - to undermine the BBC, so that he can gain ever more footholds in the British culture. The question of independent news coverage ought to be uppermost in people's minds, too, after the Hutton debacle. Yet one senses that the Government do recognise the basic worth of the BBC, and would not like to be even more beholden to Murdoch than they have been to date... I am surprised that an eloquent fan of Dennis Potter's is not supporting at least the principles of a strong BBC, and seems more than willing to take the Murdoch line, considering DP's thoughts on that mogul's influence on our culture. :)

And Sky One as good as Channel 4...? In the last five years, C4 - while generally a pretty dire channel I concede - has still given us Peter Kay stuff, "Spaced", "Jam", "Shameless" etc. Mark, could you name any *home-grown* programming of Sky One's that is as good as those?

Posted by: Tom May at May 25, 2004 09:03 PM

i am torn on the one hand between applauding Mark for recognising a moderate truth about the Times that Paul disagrees with (Luka and i have had the same sort of debate via email about why the Guardian is best, with myself demurring on that call); i.e., the Times is not quite the source of all evil, and is hardly the Express or the MoS on a frothier day for editorials.

and yet whilst i'm not quite sure what i think of k-p's classifications as arguing for the Beeb as flabby British fascism, it is undeniable the News International line influences editorial policy there.
in the past when Harper Collins was (or maybe it still is?) a Fox related co., this meant allegations of favourable reviews all round in the books supplement for HC fare, and there's (again, this is in the past, i certainly wouldn't say nowadays, not least because i am not sure of sources) definitely been some fairly dubious coverage of China between the pages of the Times before.

but lax Athenian security is indeed news, so that's hardly a vendetta.
but "as inequitious as the Poll Tax"?

come off...

Posted by: scott at May 25, 2004 09:18 PM

It might not be have as many bad effects as the poll tax but it is at least as unfair. Yeh, Murdoch's papers and channels are to some extent influenced by their proprietor's interests. But so what? I for one find the Times less alienatingly bourgeois than the Guardian (used to love all Burchill's digs on this when she was there!).

I know everyone's going to spit on me for saying this, but isn't Murdoch rather like Thatcher in that you might not like him personally, but can you really say that Britain was better BEFORE he arrived? I still remember the sneering and complacency about the arrival of satellite from the elite; 'as if we, with the best TV in the world, need THIS.'

The argument against Murdoch is best made with more diversity, not less.

On news, Sky News is very good imho....

Tom May, well my c4 is as bad as Sky One argument was deliberately hyperbolic, but the paucity of examples you cite almost makes the point, especially given that Sky, unlike Sky One, has no public service remit.

What I wd say is, the BBC needs to be more honestly elitist. This, paradoxically, might justify the licence fee. It would be better to position itself as a 'cultural good' which wouldn't otherwise appear on the market. i.e. like opera. And it won't do this with The Big Read or National Lottery: Jetset. The elite digital channel, BBC Four, is one of their best; the Ballard play Home last year ( was exactly what the BBC should do....

Posted by: mark k-p at May 26, 2004 05:28 PM

i think you're reasonable about Murdoch (distancing myself - merely for the sake of form you understand... - from the Thatcher analogy however (;-)) and the Guardian.

Sky News is pretty good but BBC tv news is better, imo.

how wd being honestly elitist justify the license fee?
that wd just have all its populist opponents up in arms wouldn't it? the argument about a cultural good is a great one and i'd like to buy into it certainly, but there's going to be so much give and take in practical terms w' any debate on this subject that i don't think the honestly elitist approach may save Auntie either.
which would be a shame, if it didn't.
but hey-ho.

Posted by: scott at May 26, 2004 05:55 PM

So THAT's why the Guardian has become almost unreadable in the last year.

Since the Times is politically even more Atlanticist and neo-con than The Telegraph I find it difficult to share your enthusiasm Mark. Maybe I should start reading the Torygraph if only to read Bat's city desk stuff ;-)

Maybe it's because I am relentlessly middlebrow to my very marrow, but the BBC means something to me, BBC news in particular. I honestly feel it's more honest and that it makes the world -- the whole world -- a better place. If it were gone, or humbled to irrelevancy, I think life in general and the media in particular would be worse.

Posted by: paul "Essex boy" meme at May 28, 2004 11:20 AM

to escape paying a license fee, dont buy a telly. then you will escape the crap that is on itv/channel (and nbow ,you claim, on bbc channels), and you will be able to harvest the best of the bbc for free, ie all radio broadcasting. you will also be able to use the bbc website which is extremely good, all for free, thansk to other square-eyes paying the license fee. this is the technique i have employed for the past 24 yrs. the license fee isnt some sort of unfair tax thiing, because you are paying for tv, which is hardly an essential to living, unlinke healthcare/fire etc which is paid for by taxes

Posted by: ambrose at May 28, 2004 03:43 PM

that is a bloody good idea.

Posted by: scott at May 28, 2004 05:27 PM

to escape paying a license fee, dont buy a telly.

This is exactly the reason why the licence fee is absurd.

Imagine the CD fee scenario I sketched above. 'If you don't want to pay the CD licence fee, don't buy a CD player.'

But why should ppl forego the whole of TV just because they don't want to pay for a couple of BBC channels? This especially pressing in the age of multi-channel...

Posted by: mark k-p at May 28, 2004 10:02 PM