Does Rupert have the balls to kill the BBC licence fee?

Posted in BBC, journalism, Media, Rupert Murdoch by Deputy city editor on September 14, 2009

Rupert Murdoch – Wimp?

For many years Rupert Murdoch has been content to tolerate the BBC licence fee, never permitting any of his newspapers to campaign against it. I cannot recall a single editorial in any of his papers unequivocally calling for an end to the licence fee, never mind any sustained campaign on this subject. Rupert’s reason is quite cynical. Sky’s UK pay-TV platform monopoly is intact only as long as the BBC stays out of the subscription business. He is quite happy to accept the incoherence of the licence fee as long as it keeps the BBC off his lawn. James Murdoch did not attack the licence fee in Edinburgh. Neither did his father before him.

I would argue the Murdoch position is no longer sustainable. The disaster facing Murdoch’s newspapers in Britain is about to get worse as we exit the recession without a recovery to bubble-era advertsing revenues for the papers. BSkyB is wobbly, too, and no longer a coherent business.

Ultimately, the Sky platform will probably have to be sold off to raise cash and the channels will have to fend for themselves. The shareholders have been abused for years; separating these businesses would be a pay day for them, as well as releasing some necessary competition in a monopolised pay-TV marketplace.

The newspapers are a more immediate problem. There is a fin de siecle feeling about Wapping as the old man fades and the obituary writers look for rosebud analogies. It looks like a cathedral to a dead religion. As for the future: I like James, too. But the odds of him keeping this leaking ship afloat after the old man pops his clogs are akin to those of Arthur Sulzberger’s emerging as a triumphant leader of the New York Times. (I like Arthur, too.)

I am not sure anyone has absorbed the scale of disaster in Wapping. The top monkeys there actually believe that the patient will get better. This is like checking your 80-year-old mother out of the hospital and expecting her to be fifty again. Putting the editor of the Sun in charge is surely a joke.

The Sunday Times made a million pounds profit a week when I was there. It now loses that much. The Times has never made money. Many advertisers have gone permanently to Craig’s list and ten thousand other alternatives. Readers are treating news as a commodity (and with increasing cynicism). They’re spending their time reading Facebook, not the Sun’s website. Now Rupert claims he can make us pay to read his struggling papers online. You read it here first (maybe). Murdoch’s plan to charge for web content is a fantasy, in the United States for one set of reasons, and in Britain for another. As long as the BBC and others are giving away commodity news, nobody is going to pay Rupert, just to read Matthew Parris.

Maybe the plan has a slight chance if the BBC can be persuaded to stop giving away what Rupert wants to charge for. But charging UK web users to read the Sun is impossible as long as the BBC  extorts £3 billion a year from its captive fee-payers and gives away equivalent drivel for nothing.

What will it take to bring down the Ministry of Truth? Rupert could do it, if he set his editors to a sharp campaign. It only remains to point out the facts. The BBC is an enormous con which is providing services people do not want at a price they are forced to pay. It’s not independent. Or good value for money. Or honest. It is, in truth, a hideous, giant kraken, enveloping and smothering everything it touches.

It is also irredeemably 20th century. Nobody who has listened to Last FM or Spotify can imagine for a minute that we listen to  Wogan, Ross or Evans for any reason than that the BBC monopolises the airwaves. The BBC monopolised medium wave then VHF TV and then UHF TV; they continue to monopolise FM; they have set up a dreadful incompatible-with-everything digital radio service that they also monopolise. And then they have the nerve to tell us we love them, and threaten to send us to prison if we do not pay.

Only their technical monopoly sustains what is now a wasteful, duplicative analogue media stream of pure drivel. Were the technical assets hogged by the BBC to be vacated, we could live in a digital media cloud and have whatever we wanted.

Murdoch can perform a final service to the media should he turn his editors against this monster and create the level playing field he always claimed he wanted. Although News Corp is doomed in any case.

Full disclosure: Rupert used to pay for my advice, but has not for many years.  To this one can attribute the decline of his empire.

Who will pay for Xanadu?

Posted in advertising, BBC, Media by Deputy city editor on December 16, 2008


Learn. Understand. Accept.

Greg Dyke,  brutally terminated as BBC director-general after foolishly imagining that the BBC was independent enough to call out Tony Blair on his delusional Iraq dossier, nevertheless left two great legacies. 

Dyke, who was against the BBC licence fee before he was for it, although it seems he may now be against it again, is the man who  saw to it that the so-called* freeview specification used for digital terrestrial services in the UK  would not be compatible with subscription television. This, he later boasted, was to make it harder to abolish the licence fee, because with millions of incapable boxes in the field it would be “impossible” to convert viewers to subscriptions.

This was a deft move in defence of the licence fee, but a disaster for viewers and public broadcasting. Viewers are entitled to public broadcasting  directly accountable to the public. The BBC is not a public broadcaster – it is a state broadcaster, answerable to ministers. The licence fee is the worst solution to guaranteeing the independence of the BBC. A subscription would be the best. A public broadcaster, not for profit, that could draw a mandate from thousands or millions of subscribers, each free to cancel at will – now that would be accountable public broadcasting.

So Dyke by his own boast admits that he sneakily, without any public debate, least of all one including his blessed fee payers, abused a technical standard for a purely political motive. His intention was nakedly  to sabotage any possibility that the BBC could break free of  the licence fee and establish a respectable relationship with the viewers. The beautiful irony is that the slippery Dyke was hoist by his own petard. Having ensured that the BBC would be 100% dependent on government more or less forever, the government promptly sacked him!

Now Dyke is boasting of a second pillar to his BBC legacy. This is equally dubious and sneaky. Dyke claims that he secured a secret deal from Tessa Jowel, then the culture minister, and one of the most venal and stupid government ministers in a crowded field, to financially guarantee the BBC’s massive, and shady property developments on Portland Place and elsewhere. This tookthe form of an understanding the government would retain the licence fee for 30 more years, to pay off the BBC’s mortgages!

Not that licence fee payers should presume themselves to inquire too deeply into the extraordinary machinations of the BBC property empire. It is at Portland Place, on the banks of the holy West End, that the BBC is building a corporate headquarters that would make Kubla Kahn blush. Those staff not exiled to Manchester will here enjoy a stately pleasure dome, just minutes from the best restaurants in town. The building will also be the new headquarters of BBC News, which naturally will have the biggest and most costly newsroom in the world. All this is costing well more than £1 billion although the numbers released by the BBC are less and admit to being a mere £20 million over budget. I doubt very much BBC candor on this point. Anyway, according to Dyke, we are all on the hook for this. Or at least, those who continue to pay the fee are on the hook.

How much worse this gets is open to dispute. The extent of the cost-overuns for the Manchester development and the move of thousands of staff there is equally  opaque, as to be expected from the BBC.  How these deals are being financed, what covenents are in place, and what the current credit conditions might mean for these deals, or the BBC generally, or the government as the supposed guarantor, we do not know. These are the BBC’s darkest secrets.

Getting to the bottom of this financial tale ought to be a job ab initio for the media correspondents of the national media.  As Andrew Neil noticed some time ago, these are “the dross of Fleet Street.”  They do not present an inspiring example to the profession of journalism. One of the stoutest hack defenders of the BBC even got an MBE (and got a TV show, on the BBC). One can understand why these journalists are mostly useless: they are entirely dependent for their stories on the BBC press office.

Don’t expect anything from the the BBC Trust. This successor to the governors  supposedly represents the licence payers but actually answers to the government which appoints all of its members.

And least of all do not expect much from the House of Commons select committee on media, chaired by the affable but so-far useless John Wittingdale.

C. Northcote Parkinson remarked that when organisations move themselves into lavish headquarters, they are already in decline. The BBC reaffirms this astute observation. But will the BBC implode? The government, pace Dyke, apparently has promised that it won’t. But the viewers could still do the job if they showed enough spine and cancelled their direct debits. Yet another poll this week shows two-thirds of us are against the fee. Consent for the television tax is lost. No surprise the politicians and the BBC find it convenient to ignore this.


* Freeview it goes without saying is not free – you are still required to buy a TV licence “or get done” by the BBC’s private police.

Tagged with: ,

‘For a mixture of the modern and the mediæval, of the practical and of the wildly fanciful, I think this is surely the limit’

Posted in BBC, Giant rats, Sherlock Holmes, Uncategorized, vampires by Deputy city editor on December 19, 2007

The BBC absurdly reports the discovery of a giant rat in Indonesia (see above).

Obviously this is not news to anyone familiar with Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924) in which Sherlock Holmes refers to “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

83 years late with the news – that’s the BBC!

Panorama in Afghanistan: the BBC’s abject surrender to the censor

Posted in Afghanistan, BBC, British army, Delusional journalism, journalism, Media, Panorama, War by Deputy city editor on November 6, 2007

The BBC in Hellmand province: inadequate journalism

I am not among those who believe the BBC has recently degraded since degradation has been its default state for some time. Those who are conscientious objectors to the licence fee are nonetheless invited to review last night’s episode of the flagship BBC current affairs programme, Panorama, restored to prime time, which was last night devoted to the Great Game in Afghanistan.

You can read the Dangerous Book for Boys story on the BBC website here. The story is remote from the actuality, which Panorama censored. This censored story is of unseeable Afghan civilians whose home is bombed then invaded by the British Army, alongside doped-up allies, and subsequently further trashed, in the cause of a ridiculous and ultimately failed military operation, which far from reflecting positively on the British effort in Afghanistan, reveals it to be deeply flawed and actually insane.

This was an example of a program given over lock, stock and smoking barrel to the MoD press office. Amidst all the bang bang, most of it consisting of massive consumption of ammunition directed in no particular direction, it was a classic example of what John Birt used to call the bias against understanding. Not even a perfunctory space is given to those who might suggest that what we were seeing was something completely different to what the script was proposing. The website version attempts a tiny bit more distance. But watch the TV show for yourself. It’s on this link .

It was a filmic narrative constructed from tropes ordered by the MoD, and with inconvenient truths not even filmed, on orders of the MoD. This is why the BBC is a state broadcaster and not a public broadcaster.

The film shows a patrol of British soldiers and their dope-smoking allies from the Afghan National Army sallying forth in Hellmand province to confront the “Taliban.” The Taliban is anyone who defends themselves from this rag-tag band, it seems.

The patrol advanced in glorious formation across the Afghan Plain in a shot borrowed from David Lean. Then they get down into the more verdant area by the river where many of the compounds have been deserted by inhabitants who seem unconvinced that the British are welcome visitors.

Eventually the soldiers make contact with “Taliban” over on the edge of the settlement and call in a few bombs. Enormous explosion follows. Filmed beautifully. Not close enough. Another one. Pictures even better. The soldiers have no idea who or what they are ordering bombed. To say this is a shambles is not, however, on the Panorama agenda.

Advancing up and attacking a new compound they find Afghan women and children, hiding in the remains. The young men are obviously out in the fields, shooting at the British.

We do not see the Afghan civilians whose house has been bombed by the British because the MoD “minder” forbids the BBC crew from filming this. Nor do we ever see the minder. Nor do we see any of the considerable number of British casualties, who are suffering not from gunshots, but from heat exposure. So this is a war with unseen British casualties and unseen Afghan victims. Convenient, isn’t it? Lots of bang bang – but we miss the essential consequences of this operation. And the real director, the man from the ministry, is completely unseen. Excluding the diaster this has been for the civilians, for the British it is at best costly and pointless. More bluntly, it is utterly counter-productive. Fathers and brothers have been killed or maimed on the other side, it seems. For what? British soldiers may with consummate professionalism and bravery embark on these operations but it’s sound and fury, signifying nothing. One cannot avoid the impression that the entire operation existed only to provide pictures for Panorama.

Other bits – the staged visit of the provincial reconstruction team led by its unctuous civil servant, for example; the long scripted bits with the British officers explaining all the good they are doing; the complete cop-out on the question of poppy – were just further garbage. Panorama is no longer any kind of showcase for BBC journalism, except for its worst.

The BBC of course knows no shame in shilling for the MoD and has done so for years. The truth of the military operation on which they were embedded was that the British army were calling in air strikes on civilians and then occupied their house as a base for a prolonged military operation that ultimately was completely futile. We do not know what happened to the civilians. Although if dead, they are counted as Taliban. Faced with the demand of the British military censor not to film the victims, the BBC chose access over the truth. No matter how brave the cameraman this was nauseating but sadly typical of the BBC.

Meanwhile, what is actually happening in Afghanistan…

The Defence of the Realm Blog is also good on this.

What is the purpose of the BBC?

Posted in Badiou, BBC, ideology, Media, Žižek by Deputy city editor on July 25, 2007

I have ranted for some time that the bias of the BBC is principally for its own self-preservation. All the drivel it emits might service some cultural assumption or another of the BBC’s staff, but the idea of the BBC is basically that there should be a BBC. Most of those who spend their lives complaining of BBC bias – Zionists, eurosceptics, fox hunters, etc., etc., etc., etc. – are merely annoyed that it does not share their biases. But these biases are incidental, unimportant and boring. The point about the BBC is its self-obsession. Its imperative is that there must always be a BBC. This is why it spends so much of its time telling us how much we love it (while maintaining a private army of inspectors to prosecute welfare mothers who are short of £135.50 for the TV licence).

I am delighted to stumble across a theoretical underpinning for this thesis from Slavoj Žižek in his forward to Peter Hallward’s Badiou: a subject to truth. Citing Richard Dawkins, Žižek reminds us that genes are not a means for the reproduction of living beings, but the other way around.

Žižek says ideology should be viewed the same way and framed by this question:

“What is the ‘utility function’ of an ideological state apparatus (ISA)? The materialist answer is this: The utility function of an ISA is neither the reproduction of ideology qua network of ideas, emotions and so on, nor the reproduction of social circumstances legitimised by this ideology, but the self-reproduction of the ISA itself…However, from time to time something emerges that cannot be reduced to this placid logic of survival and reproduction: an event, an engagement for a universal cause that inexorably follows its inherent necessity, disregarding all opportunistic considerations.”

Obviously I am delighted to discover that my theory on the BBC can be substantiated and affirmed by reference to Badiou. Now, all we need is the event that will reduce the ideological state apparatus. I rather doubt that current events, involving merely the defrauding of its viewers and the traducing of the monarch, will prove sufficient.

‘Shocking’ scandal at the BBC

Posted in BBC, Media, Ofcom by Deputy city editor on July 19, 2007


Detector Van

It has been clever of the BBC to keep its dirty linen out of sight until after it won the new £135.50 licence settlement. Like Inspector Renaud in Casablanca, I am “shocked” – in my case to discover that the BBC has been deceiving its viewers and listeners for years! Last year, Wogan traduced a report that said Children in Need wasn’t necessarily the best way to give money to charity. Now we discover Children in Need was in on the scam.

But of course this is merely the tip of the BBC’s hidden mountain of dirty linen. The only compliance at this organisation is ideological. In the current stinking mess, the BBC has been merely ripping off those of its own viewers stupid enough to ring a BBC premium-rate telephone number. BBC contracting is even more interesting. The deals in which BBC “celebrities” like Jonathan Ross get production deals simultaneously with talent deals, would boggle the mind. Telephone scams are a mere dogpile by comparison with what else lurks within the belly of this beast. Follow the money is the rule. Except that at the BBC, we really can’t.

Huge talent contracts with the likes of Jonathan Ross are mere bagatelles compared to the details of the BBC’s property developments in London and elsewhere. You could see the hole in Broadcasting House on Google Earth (I confess I’ve not looked lately.) This is a hole that has consumed literally fantastic sums – hundreds of millions – of which we know almost nothing.

It is because there is so much to hide that the BBC refuses to open its books to parliamentary auditors. But all the bullshit meters are in the red zone. I have been following the BBC for 30 years and I reckon it is seriously rotten as only an organisation immune from normal scrutiny can be. They will not prove me wrong.

The problem with the BBC is that it can never be accountable to viewers when it spends much of its institutional life in the battle for self-preservation, founded on the continuation and level of the licence fee, bending its knee to ministers (and more recently, Alastair Campbell), and asking us to hold two contradictory notions in our head simultaneously: that the BBC is so loved, that everyone must be forced to pay for it.

A lot of us do not find the licence funded BBC very useful or believable. Nor do many believe that it really represents public broadcasting at all. It would only be public if it was owned by the public, and those who pay for it had the rights of shareholders. Which they do not. The BBC is run by a board of compliant political hacks, filled out with a cast of dunces, appointed by ministers.

And why is there only one BBC? Why not three or four competitive public broadcasters? Why this great public monopoly? It is truly Stalinist in conception. No wonder George Orwell based the Ministry of Truth on it. The BBC and its supporters (often on the payroll) tell us constantly there is no alternative and always refuse to consider any. The current system based on prosecuting 10,000 welfare mothers every month and spending tens of millions every year employing an army of goons is the worst of all possible funding mechanisms. The political correctness and party line are merely demented.

People in Britain often confuse powerful established institutions with the actual services they desire, overlooking the pitiful performance of the intitutions by worshipping them with an unquestioning, quasi-religious fervour.

Hence, we have an NHS myth which means it must never be questioned even though the NHS isn’t very good and there are lots of other ways to provide health services. We have a BBC cult in which the BBC, employing its massive power, has persuaded everyone that it is synonymous with public broadcasting, when 95% of the money they get is pissed into infinite black holes.

The Daily Mail this week reported that the BBC is publicising new hand-held detectors to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance on those suspected of not having a TV licence. This is a bizarre and actually disgusting relationship for a media organisation to have with people who are nominally its customers. The BBC so-called Trust may believe on the basis of the BBC’s own and commissioned research that the corporation enjoys massive public love and trust. If so, why not trust the public whether to pay for this or not?

Now here’s a question: what are the potential liabilities now facing the BBC? It seems to me that everyone who phoned in during one of these dodgy call-ins is entitled to their money back. You can bet the Beeb will try to wriggle out of this one. There should be some tasty fines from Ofcom, too. It has also to be noticed that a lot of this was going on when Michael Grade was chairman. Let us hope that the BBC is forced to answer some questions. This is an opportunity for John Wittingdale who is chairman of the House media committee. Don’t blow it, Johnnie.

As they say in broadcasting: Stay tuned…

Latest news. The Guardan says the BBC Trust has given the Corporation a year to “clean up its act.” So, that’s all right then.