Our debate on Impartiality and the future of public service broadcasting proved that we are going through revolutionary times. The BBC’s Economics Editor Evan Davis found himself agreeing ‘intellectually’ with Richard D North, the author of a book called ‘Scrap The BBC’. And the Online pioneer Emily Bell of The Guardian confessed that she has changed her mind and now thinks that the Internet does need regulating.
The event was in partnership with the BBC College of Journalism and their editor Kevin Marsh has blogged – very impartially – about it here.
I thought that it was a fascinating debate for the way that it revealed how fast the media landscape is shifting. Nobody defended the status quo and everyone seemed to accept the possibility, at least, that public service values could survive the demise of the BBC.
Richard D North is an elitist free market ideologue who believes that the UK newspaper market is the ideal. A diverse range of robustly held views give us choice and competition. The reader can sort out the bias for themselves. He believes that the BBC is inhibited by its authoritative obsession with ‘balance’, when in fact it is simply another point of view (liberal, metropolitan, middle class). And because the BBC’s journalists are forced to be ‘impartial’ they end up being negative about everything. He said:
They sneer at everyone in authority because they are not allowed to offer an opinion of their own. Because they are not allowed to support anything they are chippy and agressive about everything.
Evan Davis said that intellectually he was very attracted to Richard’s views. He admitted that BBC journalism is biased, for instance in always reporting business profits as somehow immoral. Davis said that he is sceptical about the future for impartiality but that instinctively he still wants public service broadcasters to offer it as an alternative to deliberately partial journalism. “I try to be fair” said Davis, “The Daily Mail doesn’t.”
Emily Bell of The Guardian is convinced that the Internet offers a ‘natural’ force for impartiality because of the diversity and interactivity it supplies. People who produce stupid or false journalism find themselves driven out of the market place for ideas by the public. Ultimately, she said, you could have an editor-less newspaper and desk-less newsrooms. “Unlimited bandwidth means the end of impartiality”.
So what does that mean for the BBC? Richard D North would replace it with a broadcasting version of the National Trust provided by voluntary donations from the middle-classes. But as Damian Tambini of the LSE pointed out, not everyone can afford the cream teas and entrance fees of the National Trust and the BBC as it is now does at least provide free access.
Evan Davis said that he thought public service journalism is not doomed – yet. But he feared that we are all accelerating the rate at which it will disappear. He said that although the market will provide some sort of public service journalism, it will not be as much as we would want.
Which all raised one idea from me. Why is it that we accept that public services such as the NHS or Education should get more and more money from the taxpayer? Why do we accept that those services like Health or Transport which correct market failure and which produce social goods should get increased resources as the national economy grows? And yet we are not prepared to invest in public service journalism? All the calculations seem to be made on the assumption that people are getting more stupid and need less quality information or debate. To me the opposite seems to be true. We are all getting richer, better educated and we all enjoy and need more reliable and effective journalism. I am not arguing for more money to the BBC. But I am arguing for more resources to go on a much greater variety of public service journalism in the future. Much of that will contribute to Emily Bell’s vision of editor-less and desk-less journalism. It is up to the BBC if it is to be part of that new world.
Unfortunately, the problem of “objectivity” is a deeply rooted and unreolved issue inherent in western culture (and logic). It is made even more difficult to resolve through the social schitzophrenia commonly known as the “two cultures” problem. As a result, we simply do not have the conceptual tools to deal with these problems -and the BBC debate clearly reflects this.
In my view, in order to solve these problems it is essential to understand how contemporary “art” (and “culture”) has apparently chosen for a meaningless and nihilistic “relativism” -while “science” (and “technology”) has clearly profited from an understanding of the value of “relativity” which maps different universes of experience into valuable knowledge.
I also suspect that a social focus on news as part of a “democracratic” political power-struggle -and “information” as the basis for a fundamnetally exploitative economics system have only excaberated the problem: Democratic debate (exploiting “relativity”) could be part of an extremely powerful and practical social problem solving system -if our economy was not fundamentally based on the creation of problems in order to solve them, not effectively, but purely for economic gain.
However, without a theoretical understanding to guide them, all practical solutions will only make matters worse: Most people already clearly demonstrate through their behaviour that they do not have the time, the energy, and perhaps even the inclination to follow events via an unmeadiated “global information service”. The rise of “web-portals” and other commercial filtering systems (such as commercial social networking) clearly demonstrates this. As an “artist/programmer” I am convinced the public has been deliberately kept dumb with regards to technology in order to exploit it commercially.
The US is presumably, the richest, most digitally literate and most commercialised society in the world. It is also clearly in a state of crisis as a result -and it can only be a form of madness to suggest that the rest of the world should follow its disasterous example.
Good scientists have apparently already abandoned (long ago) the belief in “objective reality” which is still part of the western secular religion. Scientists have shown that it is possible to create mental spaces which acknowledge the differences in perspective (and conceptual topology) -and (all) useful knowledge seems to be the result of such processes. if the world of culture, news and politics does not learn from this -then we shall only sink deeper into the commercially fed intellectual quagmire -and shall become increasingly unable to solve the complex problems mankind keeps creating for itself.
>Richard D North is an elitist free market ideologue
Now that’s not very impartial, is it?
>But as Damian Tambini of the LSE pointed out, not everyone can afford the cream teas and entrance fees of the National Trust and the BBC as it is now does at least provide free access.
What the hell are you talking about? The BBC charges every viewer — and even those who aren’t viewers, but who have TV sets — £135 a year. How is that “free access”?
(And who exactly can’t afford a few quid to go look at a National Trust house?)
?”I try to be fair” said Davis, “The Daily Mail doesn’t.”
Davis *thinks* he’s trying to be fair, but then most of the media think that as well (even, probably, the Daily Mail). So how come he gets funded, when all those media people from other organizations don’t?
>Why do we accept that those services like Health or Transport which correct market failure
You might accept that the NHS is necessary to correct what you see as a market failure, but for many economists the vast bulk of the NHS doesn’t do anything of the sort.
>should get increased resources as the national economy grows?
Personally, I think most of what the NHS does should be handed over to the private sector. But even if you don’t agree, it’s still a bad analogy. If you have an extra 5 million people, you need more hospital beds to treat that proportion of them that is sick at any one time, and more roads for the extra cars. If we’re all twenty per cent richer than we were some time ago, then we’d like to spend some amount of that on health and roads, because they are essential services that can always be improved. But television and radio are not essential services. And you don’t necessarily improve them by employing more staff and having more channels and more shows. Plus, more people and more money means more opportunity for the private market to fulfill the role of the BBC, and so if anything we should be putting less resources into the BBC.
>We are all getting richer, better educated and we all enjoy and need more reliable and effective journalism.
If we “all” really need and enjoy something, then the market will provide it, as it does already with all manner of things — including, I should point out, quality newspapers, and commercial TV news shows.
Besides, there is not much evidence that the BBC produces quality journalism. A lot of terrible soaps and chat shows, yes, but not much of that £135 goes to good journalism.
Thanks for your comment.
The description of Richard D North is his own self-description. So it is about as impartial as I could have been. As for the NHS analogy, it does work. You are perfectly entitled not to want a public NHS, that’s not my point. I am merely saying that society does seem to value some social or public goods and at the moment it seems to be the political consensus between the three main parties that we should spend at least the same proportion of our national income on them as GDP rises. This is not the case with public service broadcasting which faces real decreases in income. You may think that is a good idea – or not. I think not. But what I was pointing out was the discrepancy between our apparent acceptance of index-linked spending on health and education and declining income on public service broadcasting.
You are right that the BBC doesn’t provide free access. I guess I meant something like equal or uniform access, but it is true, a poll tax/licence fee isn’t particularly progressive either.
>But what I was pointing out was the discrepancy between our apparent acceptance of index-linked spending on health and education and declining income on public service broadcasting.
Yes, I know you were pointing that out. But my point was that services like health and transport are — whether they’re funded by the public service or the market — essential, whereas the BBC’s output (even it’s journalistic output) is not. In other words, you can’t just argue that because we’re spending more money on essentials services that we should therefore be spending money on non-essential services, otherwise all manner of things would have a right to be funded, and the tax rate would go through the roof, and we’d go broke.
You might say that it is essential to healthy and free democracy that it has public service broadcasting, but that can’t be right, because plenty of free and healthy democracies get by without it. In fact, it’s more likely that it is important for a country not to have a state-funded broadcaster which crowds out the free press.
Which free and healthy democracies don’t have public service broadcasting?
The US has PBS…
The U.S. is a free and healthy democracy? I haven’t seen that assertion on a British blog in some time …