Murdoch rides to the rescue of the BBC

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James Murdoch wants to blow up the BBC. He could yet turn out to be its unwitting saviour.

The chairman of News Corporation Europe and Asia was at least half-right in his recent broadside against the overmighty BBC. He was just as wrong in his analysis that, left to itself, the market would throw up a vibrant and pluralist broadcasting industry.

Mr Murdoch’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival has caused quite a stir, not least because his father Rupert chose the same platform 20 years ago to launch the opening onslaught on state intervention in the media industry. News Corp’s British Sky Broadcasting has since been a pivotal force in the industry.

The younger Mr Murdoch’s speech lacked the rawness of his father’s address, but matched it in its devotion to a laisser faire capitalism that has rather gone out of fashion since the global financial crash. The regulator Ofcom was almost as big a target as the BBC.

The case against today’s BBC is heard well beyond Mr Murdoch’s Wapping empire. I detect a rising swell of opinion among politicians that the BBC has over-reached itself. Competing with Google on the global media stage is not part of its charter.

The convergence of media businesses – broadcasting, print and web-based – in what Mr Murdoch calls the “digital present” has seen the BBC forget what it is for. Its organising purpose should be to fill gaps left by the market. Briefly, that means producing programming that ratings wars force commercial competitors to ditch. Dispassionate and comprehensive news and current affairs are at the top of the list: democracy demands open access to news. Cultural diversity and social cohesion are also public goods, so the remit reasonably includes original drama, music and comedy.

But the BBC now treats licence fee funding as an end rather than a means. The nature of its funding has become a reason to do everything and anything. As Mr Murdoch remarked, it is hard otherwise to see a rationale for say, Radio 2. Harder still to see why the BBC is in the travel guides business.

In short, the BBC has grown too big; and with bigness has come both a diminution in standards (witness the sorry state of its journalism) and blithe disregard for competitors. Then there is the hubris. Only a BBC executive (and perhaps a moat-owning MP) could cite the ignorance of ordinary folk as reason to withold information about how it spends public funds.

Mr Murdoch is on weaker ground in attacking the BBC’s website. True, almost all British newspapers regard the BBC’s internet presence as a big obstacle to making their sites profitable. Yet Mr Murdoch himself observes that the boundaries between different media have collapsed. Public service broadcasting cannot be confined to television and radio. As for unfair competition, US newspapers are struggling just as much as their British counterparts – without a free competitor.

Mr Murdoch was unwise to indulge in adolescent hyperbole. Media businesses are not being torn apart in a fight-to-the-death between Darwinian rationalists and authoritarian creationists. Nor are we yet in sight of George Orwell’s brilliantly imagined tyranny. What is needed is a rebalancing of the marketplace that would include, inter alia, a smaller BBC.

News Corp should not be immune. It wants Ofcom emasculated, supposedly in the cause of competition. But that sits uneasily with its own behaviour. Mr Murdoch senior, some will recall, did his best to use his pricing power to drive out competitors from the newspaper market during the 1990s. A current investigation into BSkyB’s monopoly in the pay-television market may explain some of his son’s antipathy towards Ofcom. Mr Murdoch wants regulation when it suits him – hence BSkyB’s request that Ofcom rein back the expansion into new media of the telecommunications company BT.

Mr Murdoch may have calculated that, given the political mood, such conflicts of interest will be overlooked. A smaller BBC is on the agenda of David Cameron’s Conservatives ahead of the general election; and Mr Cameron badly wants the support of Mr Murdoch’s newspapers.

Yet Mr Murdoch’s prescription for the media landscape – sacrificing public service broadcasting to a Hobbesian struggle for market supremacy that he supposes he would ultimately win – may have the opposite effect. Slimming down the BBC is one thing; dismantling it in the cause of liberal market fundamentalism is another.

The politicians, and the voters, would not wear it. If the future of broadcasting is recast as a struggle between a plucky BBC and the ruthless News Corp, my money is on the BBC to win. The louder Mr Murdoch shouts, the more willing will be the BBC’s myriad other critics to swallow their doubts and back the public broadcaster. “Murdoch saves the BBC”. Now that makes quite a headline.

philip.stephens@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/philipstephens

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