I only read about last week’s Oxford Media Convention in the papers, but a number of interesting things happened.
James Purnell ruled out the often suggested and rather stale idea of an “Arts Council of The Airwaves” (i.e. a body to fund public service programmes). Critics of the BBC often dredge this one up but it has been rejected before and it’s good to see it being rejected again.
But if an Arts Council of the Air is ruled out, what about Ofcom’s Public Service Publisher? Isn’t this the same thing dressed up in digital clothes? Ofcom seems to be not quite as keen on this as it was (in fact they seemed to be “back-peddling like mad”).
I noticed this quote from an internal BBC website (although I can’t source it beyond there): “The broadcast watchdog said the PSP is intended to deliver public value solely through interactive media, and not through broadcast.” But surely with convergence happening is there any difference between “interactive media” and “broadcast”?
And as my friend Simon Hopkins pointed out when we discussed this over coffee yesterday, how can OFCOM simultaneously regulate and commission content? This is a criticism often levelled at the BBC, but at least there’s some clear blue water between the commissioning function (BBC management) and the regulator (the Trust). Wouldn’t OFCOM have a conflict of interest? Or do we want ANOTHER regulator to regulate OFCOM’s content?
And if OFCOM wouldn’t run the PSP, who would? (How about an “arts council”?!)
There’s another problem with a PSP. If you’re spending public money on content you need public accountability. In other words, more process, more bureaucracy, more public value and market impact tests (will OFCOM do MIAs on its own commissions?). Although I defend the BBC Trust the last thing UK media needs is more regulation and process.
Purnell said he would look seriously at the idea of “top slicing” the licence fee. I think this a bad idea and better people than me (Polly Toynbee, Steve Hewlett, Maggie Brown, Michael Lyons, Peter Preston and Mark Thompson) have said why.
What problem are top slicing and the PSP trying to solve? Not enough public service content in British media?
Well top slicing won’t solve that problem on its own. It will just redistribute the same amount of money (unless there is a significant increase in the licence fee to make up). Top slicing won’t bring new money into public service content. Why not try and find some new ways of funding public service content instead of nibbling away at the licence fee?
Some people who float the PSP idea seem to think that the BBC cannot adapt to an on demand, digital age. But there are signs that both the BBC and Channel 4 are starting to get their act together. Why can’t they be the Public Service Publishers?
One intriguing idea was floated by Bill Thompson at the Convention (see paragraph 16 of the article linked to).
Maybe the problem is not that there’s not enough public service content. Maybe the problem is that everyone can’t find it or access it. How about putting some public money into finishing the UK broadband network so everyone could get access to all that high quality, high bandwidth public service content?
This idea has several advantages.
It would be a one off cost rather than a continuing one, so much easier to fund (perhaps from some of the money raised by the sell off of analogue spectrum). It also wouldn’t need to be regulated in the same complex way as content does. How about a “Freeband” service to go alongside “Freeview” and “Freesat”?
I am a perrenial optimist. I hope Purnell (Update 7.56 p.m. I published this post and then realised that Purnell had moved on) is bold enough to reject top slicing.
But there’s a silver lining in even the top slicing cloud. Let’s face it, to top slice you need something to top slice in the first place. So the prospect of the licence fee being abolished (as some critics of the BBC yearn for) seems as unlikely as ever.
So I throw down the gauntlet. In 2027 the BBC will be 100 years old (and I will hopefully be retired). I will bet anyone reading this a fiver that in 2027 there will still be something called “The BBC” and it will still be funded by a licence fee.
This will require only more Royal Charter (they run for ten years – this one runs out in 2017) and one more licence fee settlement (for ten years).
N.B. When I made this bet on the Backstage Mailing List someone suggested that paper money would be obsolete by 2027.