Market Thinking

making sense of the narrative

A New Role for the BBC

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As the second in our series on Build Britain back Better (the first was on Reform of the House of Lords and improving Regional Government, see here) we look at Reforming the BBC. Specifically the opportunity to use the BBC as a public good for the Good of the Public.

Reform of the BBC needs to first address the question of “What is it For”?

The ongoing debate about the future of the BBC has two components, the perceived bias in its content – which is largely a political issue – and the perceived iniquity of levying what is effectively a ‘poll tax’ on anyone with a television set, whether they watch the BBC itself or not. Mixed up in this are arguments arising from the operational structure that has emerged thanks to a Budget of around GBP4bn a year that allows the BBC to crowd out independent operators (in local news and radio for example) while simultaneously taking a narrow editorial line that is seen as incompatible with its monopoly position in UK broadcast media. In effect, the debate boils down to two questions; “What is the BBC for?” and, having answered that, “How should it be funded?”

However, part of the problem is that the questions tend to be framed in reverse order; focussing on the funding model first and largely ignoring the bigger, existential question. The BBC’s supporters say that the annual charge is equivalent to only GBP13 a month, which stacks up very well against the cost of a mobile phone or other streaming services. However, this leaves it open to its critics who suggest that it should thus be moved to a subscription model and let the market decide. This notion terrifies many within the BBC, for whom ‘the market’ is an extremely uncomfortable concept and which of course is precisely why they are working there in the first place.

The BBC is a public good in search of a new role. This can and should be to challenge Big Tech.

Certainly, the underlying notion of public funding of so called public goods doesn’t initially appear to sit well with the notion of the BBC, after all as its critics say, ‘the market’ is already providing competition in programming content. But this route risks repeating the mistakes of privatisations such as British Rail, where the correct instincts of rejecting centralised and unaccountable funding were replaced with the worst sort of Treasury driven notions of profitability, leading to an unsustainable business model and the mess we are in today. Moreover, then as now those promoting pure market solutions overlooked the role of public goods. Privatising the BBC and letting it fade away is the equivalent of saying that we don’t need railways because everyone has a car. The key point is that there is now actually a very important new and equivalent ‘public good’ role for the BBC; the provision of advertisement-free social media.

The BBC emerged as a public good after the second world war and its monopoly over news and, particularly, over sport and light entertainment has been steadily competed away, first by the advertising model of ITV and others and then subsequently by the subscription models of channels such as SKY, Netflix and Amazon Prime. By contrast, Social Media has only really emerged in the last decade or so and it is almost entirely driven by the advertising model, which both funds and powers the content on the internet. However, as the extremely alarming new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has demonstrated, this is not necessarily a good thing. It is estimated that around 40% of all internet traffic is not human at all, but driven by ‘bots’ and that half of those are ‘bad’ bots. However, the AI that drives this system is not so much ‘bad’ as amoral. Like a virus, its only aim is to generate more traffic and interactions by infecting more ‘hosts’ so that its owners – the advertising giants such as Google and Facebook – can generate more income. To do so it exploits human psychology and behavioural traits and the alarming conclusion from the Netflix documentary is that in doing so it is actually ‘reprogramming’ the way users’ brains are working. This is particularly, and worryingly, true in adolescents and young adults.

The BBC can justify its subscription model by offering Social Media that does not sell its users’ data to AI advertising ‘bots.

Here then is a new role for the BBC. Rather than seeking to ‘ban’ the bots – which would be quixotic at best – the government should allow the BBC to compete by offering in addition to its programming the socially desirable public good that is social media and instant communication without the socially undesirable consequences of the AI advertising bots. The BBC should thus embrace the notion of a subscription model, but rather than simply try and compete on content, it should also offer advertising-free communications in the same way it used to offer advertising-free programming. This is not an excuse for another multi billion dollar ‘world beating’ IT project, there are plenty of off the shelf apps out there and the BBC is already vastly invested in its internet platform. Rather, for the GBP13 a month you not only get iPlayer, which you can sell globally, but also a free instant messaging service and a free email account.

A semi-public body, with one of the most trusted brands in the world, offering a semi-public good. No snooping, no selling-on of data. Then let the users decide if they want to pay for the product or they want to be the product. That’s the way to use market forces.

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