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If something is the best in the world, it ought not to depend on government subsidy or favourable regulation or legislation that discriminates against competitors. It ought to be able to stand on its own two feet, as Google has had to do since it was a start-up in September 1998 and as all surviving US media businesses have over the decades. But in the 21st century, just as in the mid-20th, the BBC seems not to understand the meaning of market forces. James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio and education, complained recently in the Daily Telegraph, “Spending on British television programmes has fallen. The biggest media companies are American. Netflix and Amazon Video are focused on global content and have so far only made a handful of programmes that reflect British society.”

So what should be done? Purnell’s answer is that Parliament — in line with an (astonishing) precedent set 14 years ago — should pass new legislation to protect the BBC’s position. This legislation should ensure that, in programme listings of any kind, the BBC’s output should come first or be at the top. Guaranteeing “prominence” for BBC content “on all major TV platforms” is needed “to preserve something very special” in British culture. Advertising should be slanted in (what the BBC deems to be) the national interest.

The chutzpah is almost comic. Although the BBC’s programmes are already subsidised relative to the competition by a special tax, they are to be further advantaged by state intervention in the way that other broadcasters — yes, other broadcasters — publicise their wares. But we must remember how the BBC began and its extraordinary ability to privilege itself in UK political debate. Addled thinking about its status seems to be characteristic of leafy-suburb leftism. To recall the views in 1937 of an Oxford don later much honoured by the British establishment, competitive advertising is always wicked and should be banned, but informative advertising is good and sensible. Informative advertising is, of course, particularly good and sensible if it promotes national culture and the state-owned broadcaster. Indeed, it is sometimes so desirable that the government should create a department of propaganda, employing thousands of bureaucrats to tell  us which TV programmes to watch.

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