It's time to think the unthinkable, and admit that privatising the BBC is a great idea
Admit it: even to think of privatising the BBC is the secular equivalent of the sin against the Holy Ghost. And yet there are compelling reasons why, as a society, we should rid ourselves, as efficiently as possible, of this over-mighty institution.
Economically, selling off all, or a large part, of the BBC would be extremely beneficial to Britain. It is a unique broadcasting organisation with a superb global brand, as well as completely dominating non-print media within the UK itself. The benefit to the Exchequer during its struggle to repay the national debt would be enormous.
Quite how enormous is impossible to judge precisely. But consider that Rupert Murdoch’s bid for the 65 per cent of BSkyB that he does not already own values the broadcaster at £12 billion. BSkyB is a minnow when set against the commercial potential of the BBC — £100 billion, even £200 billion, would be easily achievable in the colossally lucrative world populated by expanding media corporations such as Google and Facebook. As someone who a couple of years ago sold his own small but well-positioned media company for twice what my advisers had expected, I know that media buyers will pay well above traditional valuations for good businesses with attractive brands.
The economic consequences for Britain and its people would be positive, to put it mildly. Broadcasting, news gathering, web publication, drama and comedy would be liberated from a massive monopolist divorced from commercial reality. At present, it is almost impossible for a radio, TV or web-content producer to compete with the BBC, as the weakness of independent television, radio and newspaper web publishing amply demonstrates. And don’t forget the licence fee, a hypothecated, regressive tax of £145.50 per household: that’s around one per cent of the pre-tax earnings of the lowest-paid tenth of the population.
But the wider consequences of selling off the BBC in its current bloated form would be even more beneficial than the obvious economic gains. The BBC has come to dominate political and social discourse to a degree that chokes off rational discussion. This is not just to do with its soft-liberal, politically-correct outlook and editorial line, though it is certainly that. The very existence of a dominant national broadcaster, whatever its outlook, stifles debate on anything contentious or unsettling to vested interests. The BBC is particularly unwilling to question the existence or direction of other bloated British institutions, such as the NHS or the education system, both enormously expensive and inefficient. It defaults to the idea that if there is a problem, then government should fix it. More widespread and open debate than we have had for decades would lead to a dynamic Britain, more of whose citizens would expect to work to cope with personal and national challenges.
Despite the best efforts of independent news stalwarts such as Adam Boulton or Jeff Randall, the relationship between politicians and the media is controlled and directed by the BBC’s ubiquitous news organisation. Politicians, whether of Left or Right, largely talk to the public through the BBC, which in turn ensures that the issues remain anchored firmly to the liberal metropolitan consensus. It takes more courage than most politicians possess to question publicly the received wisdom on immigration, Europe, social security, education, taxation and public spending. In my own area, energy, the BBC’s reporting of the interface between energy and climate change is farcically one-sided, entirely failing to explain the real issues and consequences.
When faced with radical change of the sort not discussed in polite metropolitan company, the BBC unfailingly tells its viewers and listeners to “always keep
a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”. And the Corporation itself is a prime example of the British propensity to do just that. We seem to forgive it its suffocating blandness and bias because it has been there as long as the oldest of us can remember, and we have never done broadcasting any other way. It’s time we grew up, and took the cash into the bargain.