This is a follow-up to my earlier post about James Murdoch’s anti-BBC speech, in light of Liam Murray’s critical response to me.
I’ll focus on two areas: dominance and independence.
Key to Murdoch’s argument was the charge that the BBC’s dominance crowds out the news market, particularly for new entrants.
My response was that News International does just that – and deliberately, rather than just as a side-effect of its presence. Like many large companies that have established themselves as market leaders, it finds itself less keen on a level playing field for its competitors. With a wide variety of large income streams, when it fears that one such stream may be under threat, it can divert money from elsewhere: most obviously by predatory pricing to undermine smaller competitors and set a high bar for potential newcomers.
This means that, for instance, the broadsheet (as was) market comes to function less as a market because the (Sun-subsidised) Times has more resources to draw on than it can generate for itself. It’s an anti-competitive practice that reduces the scope for others to offer greater choice. Liam suggests an analogy with supermarkets selling dirt-cheap bread as a loss leader, but that’s so that people will go there to buy bread along with the more profitable goods while they’re there. What more profitably priced NI products are Times readers buying along with their Times?
And it’s not pertinent that the source of the Times’s cross-subsidy is itself a commercial source; the point is that it comes from a different (tabloid) market and so creates distortions in this particular (broadsheet) market as surely as would a public-sector or charitable grant.
Now to independence.
Independence of what? Murdoch, as Liam says, lists a few things that one might be independent of, although he doesn’t elaborate on them (and one appears to be ‘dependency’ – hmm). I complained that two of these items – politics and subsidy – are actually not a form of independence you’ll find in News International. As to the others…
‘Absence of supervision’ – true, the BBC’s output gets a unique type of scrutiny from above. But then, in media companies, editors and commissioner still don’t get to do exactly what they like – they’re supervised by managers, directors, proprietors. ‘Independence of gift’ – what ‘gifts’ are BBC news staff being swayed by that private-sector reporters aren’t?
As for ‘independence of patronage’… good heavens. Every NI editor knows who their patron is, and his patronage pretty consistently promotes right-wing views, with limited exceptions when there’s a need to cosy up to a popular centre-left party. Of course his editors have discretion, but they’re picked with their views known in advance. The result is greater homogeneity than you might imagine.
And then there’s ‘independence of industrial faction’. Murdoch presumably equates this with producer interests such as unions and bureaucrats. It may not have occurred to him that owners of large corporations (both advertisers and the media themselves) are an industrial faction.
A large but simple question: why does independence matter for news media? It matters because dependence can breed systemic bias. Total impartiality is a chimera, although obviously some news outlets are more strongly and consistently biased than others. Different types of independence can guard against different types of bias, and independence of public funding (and of the types of accountability that come with it) is certainly one count on which the private-sector media have the edge over the BBC.
But on other counts the BBC is more independent: it’s independent of commercial pressures, of large corporate interests, of the prejudices of the type of people likely to own large media corporations. There are biases that it’s free from as a result. If a significant section of the media free from these sources of bias is something worth having – and I’m certain it is – then we shouldn’t look to the market to provide.
There’s an analogy with the House of Lords. One argument for hereditary peers is precisely that they’re there by accident of birth: they owe their seats to neither patronage nor party, so they’re independent in that sense. But what this overlooks is that the families that happen to have hereditary peerages are from a pretty narrow section of society (usually old money, mostly small-c conservative), with attitudes to match.
You can say a similar thing about a news market dominated by large corporations. I don’t want to go all class war on you, but the people who control these businesses have a limited range of views about economic and other policies – not just media laws. And even with the mild-to-middling anti-monopoly laws we have, there’s always a tendency toward oligopoly.
The BBC is a counterweight to news dominance by commercial interests, particularly by a few large private-sector players. It gives us, to put it non-idealistically, a broader range of biases to choose from, and this (popular) choice is not one that the market can adequately supply.
A final quick point on the licence fee in this context. Yes, in effect it’s a tax, and one could go from there into a general libertarian argument about the immorality of tax or a more specific one to the effect that most of the BBC’s output is hardly a ‘public service’. However, the thing is that Murdoch was specifically talking about news, not Strictly Come Dancing and all the other populist fluff. To his credit, he’s largely forgone the softer targets and headed straight for the worthiest public-service broadcasting jugular. His case would be much the same if the BBC only did news.