Tom Waters is a Research Intern at the Freedom Association.
Nobody under the age of 80 can remember a world without the BBC. As the world’s first national broadcaster, "Auntie Beeb" became a bit of an unquestioned institution. But over recent years, dissatisfaction with the BBC has loomed, as viewers have heard increasing tales of bias and waste, as well as seeing "trashy" television and exorbitant licence fees.
In the light of all this, we might ask what the purpose of public service broadcasting (PSB) is. As I flick through today’s Radio Times, I see Bargain Hunt, Celebrity MasterChef, Snog, Marry, Avoid and Eggheads. It doesn’t seem immediately obvious that these programmes, paid for by television owners around the country, constitute a "public service". Public services are supposed to deliver those things which the market would under-provide. A huge quantity of BBC output is comprised of programmes which could easily – and indeed are – shown on commercial channels. Forcing anybody who merely owns a broadcast receiving television, irrespective of what they watch, to pay for such programming seems profoundly unfair.
But what should PSB provide? Some would argue that the entire enterprise is a foolish one, and that we ought to have an entirely free market in broadcasting. However, I think that there are a few areas of broadcasting which markets would under-provide in a completely free market. Firstly, there are some areas where there is what economists call a "positive externality" to broadcasting – that is, where a third party (neither the watcher nor the broadcaster) benefits. In this category we might argue that educating the public on matters of democratic importance, or building up a sense of national identity and civic pride, is a legitimate goal of PSB. Secondly, certain sections of the population – those with little in the way of disposable income, including minorities and the elderly – would be under-provided for in a free market, as advertisers wouldn’t be interested in programming targeted at them. To engage them in cultural life, and provide programming for them, may be an area where PSB can be of use.
But take note that these areas are minor ones. The BBC spends a small proportion of its time on such activities. In part because of this, the Freedom Association is launching a new campaign – entitled "Free the Airwaves" – to call for public service broadcasting to be re-focused as a true public service, to get rid of BBC bias, and to re-think how we go about funding PSB.
We therefore warmly invite you to attend the launch of the campaign, tomorrow – Wednesday, 14th September – at The Barley Mow, at 7.30pm. Joining us to give their thoughts on this important matter will be John Whittingdale OBE MP, chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and Alex Deane of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. Following on from the speeches from our guests will be a question and answer session. The Freedom Association’s report on the licence fee and public service broadcasting, will also be unveiled.
We look forward to seeing you there!