You can’t have it both ways.

Sam Leith in the Telegraph responds to the arguments in favour of the TV licence put forward in a recent column by the BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson. Sam Leith writes:

On the one hand, we are told that the BBC deserves its funding because it is hugely popular; on the other, we are told that its programming would wither on the vine were its popularity to be tested in the marketplace. On the one hand, we are told that it has a “unique link” with its adoring viewers; on the other, we are assured that so strong and affectionate is that link that it needs to be maintained by the full majesty of the criminal law.

Well said, but I did not agree with the following:

Above all, I’m thinking about news reporting. [As a thing that the state-funded broadcaster ought to be doing – NS] This is something that is very, very expensive to do well – and it is something the BBC, however bedevilled by accusations of bias, at present does do excellently. The balkanisation of the commercial media means fewer and fewer organisations are able to invest in original reporting or proper verification: cheap, quick and sexy increasingly trumps fair, honest and scrupulous. A properly independent BBC, funded by all of us, could be exempt from that trend.

I think that the balkanisation of the commercial media is not a fact of nature, but partly a result of “crowding out” by the BBC. The payoff that other organisations might get from putting their money into original reporting is much reduced if they must compete with a broadcaster that can put your money into original reporting.

UPDATE: Re-reading the Director-General’s article, I was struck by this passage describing what the world would be like without the BBC:

The Albert Hall in August would be in darkness – there would be no BBC Proms, broadcast across television and radio. The Young Musician of the Year would remain undiscovered. Pop fans would be denied the Radio 1 Big Weekend, and Jools Holland on BBC 2. Musicians in the BBC orchestras could be busking on the street.

In his commendable desire to avoid sensationalism the D-G has put his case far too modestly. What would actually happen should the BBC be abolished is that, deprived of their proper object, the eyeballs of every single person who had ever watched a BBC programme would instantly explode.

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