It's very clear that, whatever else the BBC is, it is not a state broadcasting organisation in the conventional sense. And one of the great acts of self-denial by parliament was to distance the BBC's funding and its control from a government department, or from parliament itself. So the BBC's independence of government, although not perfect, is extraordinary.
CM: But then the question is, if that distancing takes place, to whom is power given? The answer is to the BBC. It has this intensely privileged position, because if you can collect the money — and under the hypothecated tax you collect all money — and don't have to answer to a minister or to parliament, except via the charter, and your money is secure, because people have to pay it or they get punished, then you have the most incredible power.
CB: First of all, I agree, it is the most incredible power, and if from time to time it's abused, that is to the detriment of society. But it's not often abused. Second, I believe — but you do not — this separation creates the genuine independence of the BBC, and contributes to its strength as a broadcaster.
It collects the licence fee, but there are other sources of broadcasting income that it has no part of: there is advertising revenue which goes to ITV and Channel 4, who are currently being heavily squeezed. Then there's the elephant in the room, which is subscription TV, dominated by the real monopolies of those twin battering rams, as Rupert Murdoch described them, sport and films. It's absolutely clear that Sky are not prepared to share these, for understandable commercial reasons.
But the BBC's power, while it's a source of arrogance from time to time, is also the reason why it continues to make outstanding radio and TV programmes and the best online news service in Europe.
CM: I want to come back to that word "chilling". I'm not sure why James Murdoch used it, but I want to use it not in the sense of a horror film being chilling, or the Nazis being chilling, but in the sense of a libel chill — the chill that is cast by a certain sort of power. The BBC chills our culture, because it makes it so hard to compete with it.
The classic recent example is its internet presence — all the licence fee comes through the television, and yet it's being used to subsidise something which millions of licence-fee payers don't have, which is the internet. And the effect of that is to chill the development of the internet for newspapers, because it is impossible for any newspaper to do news with the amount of money behind it that the BBC puts behind it. It produces a pretty good website, the BBC, but the damage, the chill, done to opportunity for everyone else in society is great.
I'm not saying that particularly for the commercial interest of any newspaper that I write for, because I think that this chill has an effect right through the culture, both commercially and in other ways. It means that a certain sort of view of things can be constantly promoted through the BBC, and by implication other views aren't — that includes political views, commercial opportunities, cultural variety, what happens in different parts of the country and so on. The church naturally wishes to reiterate its power, and therefore it wishes to crush the other sects that might otherwise grow up in the little tin tabernacle down the road, and the Radio Carolines of religion, as it were.
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