CB: You've got a very short memory, because you forget that until the BBC took the internet seriously, no newspaper had shown serious interest in developing it. It was the BBC when I was there — and it was one of the much-maligned John Birt's real contributions, both to the BBC and to the UK information society — that recognised the internet, long before anyone else did.
CM: As a point of fact, it wasn't, because we started the internet Telegraph in 1995, I think.
CB: The BBC was absolutely at the heart of the development of the internet in the UK as a news medium. I agree there is now a problem for which the solution is not clear: with BBC Online being free, it makes it very difficult for newspapers to charge for their online services.
This is also the case in America, where the BBC doesn't exist as an online force, so you can't pin the problem solely on the BBC. It's not clear that, if you abolished the BBC website overnight, the newspapers would suddenly be able to charge, because that isn't the case in the US. Rupert Murdoch says he wishes he could do it, but the risk is that if you start charging and everybody else doesn't, you'll lose market share and your audience. It is a real dilemma.
CM: Isn't that part of a wider problem, which is that one of the doctrines of the BBC seems to be that it has to go on and on into every realm of communication and that this has become an absurdity? Isn't that what James Murdoch is talking about? He's talking about the idea of spectrum scarcity, when there is no longer such a thing. The BBC doctrine is that you must conquer each new piece of territory, otherwise someone else will, and then people will say, why should we pay you the licence fee? This has had a bad cultural effect for the homogenising and semi-dictatorial reasons that I talk about. It's also becoming impossible.
CB: What's becoming impossible?
CM: The BBC's ability to conquer every form of medium and to make sure it extracts money from everybody using the medium. The technological change is so great. So it's highly unlikely that in ten or 20 years you can get the money out of people — already if you look at the warning letters I get from TV licensing when I don't pay, they always explain about all the different ways in which you can watch TV and for which you should have a licence. So it's no longer just on the television, it's on the mobile phone, it's on the internet, it's on all sorts of things. The BBC is at the very simplest level going to have an enforcement problem. And at the organisational level it's going to try to run something that can't be run. This is something that already happened a long time ago, because the values that people think are worthwhile about the BBC are values which depend on an editorial voice which runs through it, which is impossible if you grow beyond a certain size. Once upon a time, the BBC, obviously under Reith, but in a different, more lefty way under Hugh Greene, had an identity. It had something that it believed in, and it propagated, and though its defenders will claim that's still the case, I don't really think it is. I think what it really is, is a massive great bureaucracy.
Even if I thought better of it than I do, my argument is that it can't survive. I'm not saying it will die tomorrow, but it is an idea whose time has gone. It's like the British Empire in 1930 — it exists, but it's on the way out.
CB: The BBC is exactly the kind of organisation that is producing the kinds of programmes that make your 77 per cent feel proud. You listen to Radio 4 quite a lot, don't you?
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