News Broadcasting Is Dying; Embrace the Narrowcast

British journalist Nick Robinson has many admirable traits. He is reasonable, sensible, and thoughtful. Impartial journalism is an impossible ideal, but Robinson offers a better approximation than the majority of his peers; his contemporaries may present two sides to every argument, but there are no serious arguments that possess fewer than eighty-seven sides in total. Robinson is wise enough to consciously plot a course through each debate, when most would simply feign balance by resorting to ‘he said, she said’ repetition of the inanities spouted by others. He does the same in the Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture, arguing that news broadcasters face ‘guerrilla war’ from social media, extreme partisans and single-issue groups. He is right, but the language is unhelpful, even if it is designed to encourage wider interest from a population with scant interest in anything labelled with the words ‘memorial lecture. His lecture talks about the need for the BBC to change, which is correct, and how it might change, which is unlikely.

Modern public discourse is dominated by military and violent metaphors that help to create a sense of drama but also discourage objective analysis. People talk of ‘fighting’ for their rights, whilst elections become contests over ‘battlegrounds’. The BBC may feel itself at ‘war’ but there are no guerrillas seeking to overthrow them. There are only people who may sometimes be viewers of the BBC but who also desire more than to watch what the BBC offers. They wish to speak, as well as listen. If that makes them enemy combatants than the whole world is opposed to the BBC, apart from a tiny elite whose opinions are amplified because of their association to Britain’s oldest broadcaster.

The importance of the BBC is in decline because it is an old mass-produced product designed for an era when people might grumble about their limited choices but could do nothing about it. It is no surprise that the most ardent fans of the BBC are also the biggest supporters of national monopolies under state control. The BBC flourished in an era where everybody’s phones looked the same, and they sat in the hallway and had a cable attaching them to the wall. The BBC dominated when the cost of books was set centrally, and when everybody ordered their gas cooker from the same shop. The BBC’s finest hours were when everybody watched Top of the Pops to learn which songs they should like, even it was hosted by a peculiar man called Jimmy Saville. Today we carry our telephones in our pockets, download books to our tablets, and discover new music on Spotify. The BBC cannot possibly serve the same purpose as before, but its employees will seek to retain their jobs, which is the only real reason why the BBC will seek to find a new purpose. But even then it hampers itself, because it has limited reason to change, because it has never been subject to the dynamic forces which gave us Google, or iTunes, or low-cost airlines, or AirBnB. Put simply, the BBC has never had to listen to the money in people’s pockets, and so cannot learn from the messages expressed that way.

People who read Facebook posts do not pay for them. People who read tweets do not pay for them (and that includes journalists who increasingly depend on them as a source of news and copy). People who read the Canary do not have to pay for it (though they are asked to donate). People who read the Guardian online do not have to pay for it (though they are bombarded with begging requests). People who read Metro do not have to to pay for it. The same is true for the Daily Mail online, Wikileaks, Guido Fawkes, Labour Uncut, Breitbart or the Huffington Post. But people who do not watch the BBC still have to pay for it. Why would anyone be satisfied with a one-size-fits-all broadcaster in an era of unrivaled choice, especially when this broadcaster insists that you must be prohibited from accessing other sources of news and commentary if you choose not to purchase an annual subscription to the BBC?

Robinson remains passionate about the BBC.

I believe that it is still vital, and we should proudly tell our audience that the BBC is not owned, run or controlled by the government, media tycoons, profit-seeking businesses or those pursuing a political or partisan agenda.

The problem is that the BBC is not owned, run or controlled by me either. Or by you. It is somewhat controlled by its employees. An employee-owned business can offer a great service to customers – when it is subject to the desires of its customers. Removing the motivation to respond to customers is why monopolies deliver inferior service, whether owned privately or by the state. The BBC may worry about ratings but they are a poor proxy for customer choice. Even if 20 million people watched every programme broadcast by the BBC, it would not make the service responsive to some other millions who are compelled to pay for something they do not wish to consume.

The employees of the BBC rely on heavy-handed laws to force customers to pay for its privileged monopolistic position. In fact, that is too generous. They use their powerful position to lobby for better terms, even when circumstances go against them. Until recently the law required that the telly tax applied to anyone watching broadcast television, not somebody using the internet to watch videos which were not broadcast. So the BBC muddied the waters by creating a way of distributing their own content over the internet, so it may be watched at any time, and argued this created a ‘loophole’ where people could watch the content without needing a license. And so the law was changed, meaning we have now established that Britain’s parliament might tax people for using the internet, depending on how they use it. This should have been seen as a regressive step and dangerous precedent, though that was not the argument presented by the ‘impartial’ BBC.

When the owners of a business can guarantee their revenues without pleasing their customers they are likely to become complacent and self-indulgent. That is true if the effective owners are the employees, and the institution is the BBC. To my mind, the BBC has long been a flatulent piss-poor shower of mediocrity. Others may disagree. That is fine; people should live alongside each other in peace, even if they have very different tastes. But there can be no peace whilst the BBC spends £100mn per annum on hounding people like me because I do not want to pay for their service, in addition to already barring me from accessing other services that rival broadcasters would gladly give me for free.

Some people – like Nick Robinson – still behave well, despite the fact that the BBC lacks the economic motivation to improve. He is to be congratulated, because plenty of people will stuff taxpayer money into their trouser pockets and congratulate themselves for whatever tosh they produce, whether they are proofreaders who allow an increasing number of typos to be published on the BBC News website, or the Gary Linekers who have been convinced that they are a national treasure even though millions would choose not to pay a King’s ransom just to feed his bank account and ego. But Robinson’s argument, which focuses on the news, cannot stand even in that limited domain. Not all news is fake, and plenty of countries are able to deliver the news to the public without needing the public sector to intervene. On the contrary, it is the countries where the public sector intervenes where it tends to be hardest to obtain all the news that is fit to broadcast.

Again and again over the years, views that start off being seen as extreme quickly become the new conventional wisdom – monetarism, green politics, gay rights, calls for curbs on immigration.

Robinson hits the nail on the head, but draws the wrong conclusion. Unpopular opinions. Minority opinions. These are the opinions that will most struggle to receive airtime when a broadcaster has no motive to do better, and has no need to serve a certain clientele. Green politics get scant coverage on Fox News. Monetarism is not properly explained by the Canary. But those content producers work within systems where multiplicity is assumed. The BBC News, in contrast, exists to defeat all alternatives. It is at ‘war’ with every other source of news, after all. Many of its supporters make it plain that they like the BBC because it takes business away from right-wing newspapers (though it never occurs to them that left-wing newspapers should be doing that, and would be doing that, if people were prepared to pay for them). Choice is good. We are better served by having many narrowcasters, rather than a single broadcaster that tries to second-guess which minority opinions it should give more coverage to. Instead of thoughtful people like Robinson theorizing about what the public wants, allow morons and partisans and dogmatists to pour their time, energy and money into promoting their own views. The latter will learn what the public really wants much sooner than the BBC ever could.

And when the BBC is over, there will still be jobs for men like Nick Robinson. But he will be paid less, and will be less appreciated, not because I think that is fair or because an elite has stopped showing him the regard he deserves. He will receive less because most people do not value what he does, just as they do not value balance, and do not value the truth, and have little time for anything but hearing their existing prejudices being repeated back at them. That is right because serving the public should means giving people what they want, and not what somebody else has decided is good for them. And if you disagree with that opinion, remind yourself of what Robinson was hoping for in the first place, which was to save the BBC from losing its war because it repeatedly fails to acknowledge the ideas that large sections of the public will come to actively support.

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