I was on a radio debate with Sammy Wilson the other day, discussing the idea of whether to ditch the BBC licence fee and make payment voluntary. You want BBC, you pay; you don’t want BBC, you don’t pay. Sammy had the advantage over me of possessing an Economics degree ,whereas I was hopeless at Maths. But just because you’ve a degree in something doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about.
Sammy, needless to say, was all for making fee-payment voluntary, like your Sky subscription. Or put another way, he was all for privatising the BBC. His main reason seemed to be that the BBC was full of lefties. ‘Strewth and zounds. Has he ever listened to it? All the research done shows the BBC to be some considerable distance from being a nest of pinkoes.
I have my own reservations about the BBC. As I pointed out, it is the British Broadcasting Corporation, and so presents the world through British eyes. I’m an Irishman and that view on many occasions is different from mine. The BBC’s presentation of the Falklands/Malvinas episode was a long way from the balanced picture it boasts of presenting. And the banning of the Real Lives programme featuring Martin McGuinness (and Gregory Campbell) showed how Thatcher was intent on using the Corporation as a political weapon. And then there was the famous broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin – free speech my arse. In short, Thatcher did all she could to destroy the BBC or at least bring it firmly under the control of her government, right down to the effective firing of the Director-General, Alastair Milne.
But for all its flaws, the BBC does produce programmes of a quality which few other broadcasting organisations in the world can match. If you want to appreciate how good the BBC is, live abroad for a while and see what TV is like in somewhere like the US. The matter, as I tried to explain to Sammy, comes down to want and need. Private radio and TV live or die by their listening/viewing figures, and so in the end they give the public what it wants. The BBC, while governed like the rest of us by economic reality, does have the kind of elbow room where it can think of what the public needs as well as what it wants. There’s a danger of paternalism there, of course; but the fact that the organisation isn’t working solely on a making-a-profit agenda means it can – and sometimes does – tell us things we need to think about, as distinct from chewing-gum-for-the-eyes. Ask yourself: what’s the name of the biggest private broadcasting figure in the world? Rupert Murdoch. Need I say more?