CB: What would you do without it?
CM: You're right that I think a lot of Radio 4 is valuable — not just valuable, but valuable in a unique way. I haven't really seen that replicated in any other form of radio. That might also be true of Radio 3.
CB: It is true of Radio 3.
CM: Yes, but if you maintain the view that the BBC has to try to do everything, you constantly refuse to think about what would happen if it didn't do everything but if it did some things. If it were to do some things that we can all be proud of, then it couldn't be financed in the same way, because it would be wrong to take money from everyone compulsorily for a much narrower range of things. However, it might be considered less wrong if the BBC took less money. I mean, if the licence fee were halved, the indignation against paying it would obviously reduce and perhaps give you breathing space. So I would like to try and start the argument about what to do next.
If Radio 4 is a treasured institution, as I think it is, isn't it about time that we started thinking seriously about how that could be funded in a way which was not unfair for other reasons?
For example, is there a form of subscription that it could be funded by, in which it was encrypted and you could listen to it that way, rather like the airwaves equivalent of the National Trust? Or could the listeners to Radio 4 tolerate free riders? Could we just agree to contribute to the annual cost, broken down individually, even though we knew that lots of people would listen to it for free? This is, after all, what happens already, but we'd have to do it by agreement rather than by legal compulsion. I'd like to start all those type of arguments, because most of the BBC is not particularly distinguishable as the BBC. If you turn on the TV, most of the programmes are very much the same you might get anywhere else.
CB: I absolutely disagree. If you take a look at today's schedule, if you look at what's on BBC 1 and 2, it is quite different to that which is on ITV or Sky — quite different and better, more orginal, more eclectic and of a higher quality, doing things in peak time that the other broadcasters simply wouldn't do.
CM: I don't agree with that, and I don't really agree with the point that's often made in the comparison that it's so rotten in the US — it seems to me not so obviously true.
CB: Then you and I have real difficulty arguing, because if you think that American TV would produce a better outcome for the viewer and listener in the UK, then I'm sorry for you. I hope that your views receive no currency.
CM: Thank you for your sympathy, Christopher.
CB: It's heartfelt.
CM: But the point is partly about cost. There is no model of a wonderful television set-up in any country in the world. You're right that one of the consequences of what I'm talking about will be more bad things. But it will also be more good things. This whole idea that there can only be a certain amount, and that therefore it's very important that some wise and good people have power over this amount, is both an oppressive and an out-of-date idea. No one thinks this about books. Once upon a time, books were controlled by the Catholic Church, by State licence to print, by the difficulties of the actual physical object that printed the book, by the cost of getting the leather and the paper, and the rest of it. Now there are books, books, books. And a huge proportion of them is crap, and some of them are marvellous, and it's free — it's a medium which is at liberty to do what it wants. That's even more true of the internet. And it's true, because of the increasingly low cost of technology, of television.
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