Friday 17 September 2010

Nationalised Culture

After a discussion with a pro-BBC friend over my last blog post, I have come to a point that I failed to cover; mainly because I really don't see it. The point in contention is that the BBC promotes culture and that without it, culture would die. Of course, the term culture is ridiculously vague, even by comparison to most non-committal BBC-esque terms. As wikipedia tells me, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions. The huge array of definitions makes the argument in itself slightly absurd. Which one of the definitions of culture is the BBC protecting? Generally though, what is meant is 'the arts' or high culture.

The cusp of my friend's argument was that culture is mainly a niche subject and that it cannot survive in a free-market system, where only the most profitable products can exist. This is of course nonsense. Perhaps some of the things wouldn't exist on the scale of the BBC; the proms for example. But niche markets exist in almost every area and of often regarded as valuable and standard business practice for small businesses is to compete using niche markets. A product in a niche market may not sell as many units, but each unit can usually be sold for more. Arts definitely fit into this, most people have no interest in buying paintings, but the value of art is astronomical when compared to more tacky decorations. Art was around before television and I have yet to see television become the best medium for advertising of arts.

Of course, the assumption is that if the BBC were to cease to be public, it would become a Murdoch/Sky/Fox type network. Perhaps some of it would, but I don't see the BBC as any better (except for in the case of Fox). As I said in my last post, the BBC news would be a tabloid if it were a newspaper – it contributes no new information and less depth than most of it's competition. It lacks anything special which gives it the right to the pedestal it is given. Find me a BBC news story which is better than what the rest offer, I dare you.

Back to culture. It is true that the BBC puts out programming like the Culture Show, but what does that actually add to the arts? How does culture benefit from the BBC talking about fairly mainstream art? I don't think it does. Pretty much the only things promoted by such shows on the BBC are things that could easily be found by anyone who was interested anyway. I imagine most of the viewership already know of the artists in question. I remember watching a Culture Show piece on Salvador DalĂ­, I already knew who he was and had already appreciated his most famous pieces (the only paintings that were shown). This is not advancing culture, this is just looking at previously acknowledged pieces of art. This is worthless, lazy programming. This is not the advancement of culture.

On the other hand, the private sector advances art. Pretty much all music is solely in the private sector. Some of it, perhaps the majority is cheap rubbish, but niche markets exist. Music of a huge array of genres exist, almost everything in tune seems to be able to be made profitably once it reaches a certain point. Where is the BBC in all this? Well, they have Radio 6 Music. A highly listened to station that could easily make a profitable venture, under capitalism, without the BBC, this could easily exist. Perhaps it could even be more expansive, allowing a greater number of new artists to get noticed by private scouts. The BBC is not required if a venture can be profitable. The BBC is only required where it safeguards or promotes something that would die without it. Would the art of Dali cease to be if the BBC didn't promote it? No. Would all niche music die if it were not for 6 Music? No. Both these things existed before the BBC added their name to them. Some new artists might become successful through being on 6 Music, but Myspace did that before them, Spotify exists, the market has provided and will continue to provide.

So, what else might be considered culture? Books. Books are marvellous, but when was the last time the British Broadcasting Corporation produced anything (other than the occasional book reading on Radio4) promoting books in any way. It could be argued that the existence of BBC TV makes it less likely for people to read books, giving them more low-brow entertainment programs, personally I don't think it does, but it doesn't appear to help. I recently finished Catch-22 and now I'm reading Ballard's Crash. When was the last time either of these were even referenced in BBC programmes? The only book that seems to be referenced by the BBC is Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Almost always poor generalised statements about dictatorships. Not exactly of high cultural value.

It doesn't provide anything the free market was providing for music and it does nothing for books, but the BBC is good in other areas of culture, right? Perhaps not, as I said before, art on the BBC concentrates on the mainstream. Nothing new comes in via the BBC. A budding artist trying to make it big goes to private galleries to sell their work, the BBC is not a route through. The BBC does nothing for them either. So what does it provide and for whom when protecting culture? Nature documentaries? I must say that Attenborough does seem to make rather good nature documentaries, but he would still have lived without the BBC, and nature documentaries are, in essence, rather cheap to produce, a niche product that doesn't require much in the way of fancy cinematography that a high class drama might require. Apart from travel to a region, it requires a small development team with fairly standard equipment to produce. Of course the BBC spend a huge amount on these programs, wastefully. There are countless other documentary channels, many free-to-air, and it is only in the area of nature documentaries that the high-spending BBC seem to have them beaten on, and not by a huge margin either. Of course, that is my opinion, but why should I pay for others to view what they think as good but have them not do the same for me?

The BBC can never cater for all niche markets, the market can. And with the market, you only pay for what you want. If you want the BBC type stuff, then you pay for it, if it costs a premium, then fine, that is what the market dictates. The only things that will not be commercially viable are the bits of art that are never valued at anything. Those bits of art currently do not get air-time under the BBC. Not having the BBC does not damage culture, you could argue that having more private networks would advance culture as smaller companies seek niche markets, but to argue the other way around is absurd. The behemoth of the BBC does not cater any more to niche groups than Sky or ITV. The BBC does not protect or promote culture, it does little more than regurgitate arts that are already fairly mainstream. The vast majority of art is privately owned, virtually all music, books and games are produced by the private sector. Virtually nothing that can be deemed cultural is produced by the BBC. Culture is made by individuals and not by the state. If you want to see what the BBC means for culture, watch the brutalised works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the recent series of Sherlock Holmes. Culture dies with the production of works like this. The BBC lacks the fundamental ingredient of culture – individualism. Individualism can only truly flourish under true capitalism and that is why the BBC will always be sub-standard when it comes to cultural material.

If you wish to nationalise culture then anything produced will most likely be forgotten in a lifetime, the freedom of expression would be lost. The BBC would never commission a work like that of Dali's, nor would it commission a great work of fiction. The BBC gets it money without having to work for it. Nothing new can be generated that way. The BBC can afford to be lethargic and so it will continue to be. The BBC is the very essence of philistinism and will never be better than that.

Thursday 16 September 2010

The largest broadcasting organisation in the world

I recently told a Nigerian friend and former house-mate exactly where all of the TV licensing money goes. To the BBC and no one else. Money you have to spend if you want to watch any television broadcast from any channel at all. Of course, the money to enforce these rules on an oft unwilling population is taken right out of their pockets anyway, using to police to enforce these rules - incidentally taking police from other areas). If you don't watch any BBC programming, still watch television and refuse to pay TV licence on moral grounds then you can look forward to a £1000 fine.

Watching TV without a valid licence is a criminal offence. This can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000 (not including legal costs).”

What was my Nigerian friend's reply? Well, he was shocked and appalled at how the BBC got all of the money and the state backing them up along the way. The question really is, how can one justify a poll tax for the BBC when it provides entertainment akin to that of other companies, who are themselves taxed like any other private business.

Is the BBC a higher quality than ITV, Channel 4, Sky or others? If any channel is remotely close on areas such as documentaries, news or other areas that can possibly come under the remit of public services, if the quality is even close, surely the justification for a nationalised BBC ceases to exist. If it cannot, with it's overbearing financial advantages, produce superior programming in these areas then surely, justification for the BBC to exist is at least diminished. The only area where I personally might consider the BBC superior is in Nature documentaries, for any other documentaries, the various documentary channels or the Channel 4 networks are superior, for drama (purely entertainment and not an area a poll tax should cover at all) I would prefer Channel 4 as well as BBC programmes are seemingly poorly written and over acted, but this is just personal taste. The likelihood is that you watch about as much BBC programming as you do programming of another network. If this assumption is the case then why can the BBC force money from you if it is no better than other networks. If you are just as entertained by a programme on ITV as you are by an equivalent programme on the BBC, then why not just privatise the BBC and let it be like all the other networks out there, as that's what is seems to aim for in it's programming anyway.

This brings me to news and that niggling 'neutrality' argument. What exactly does neutral mean? It means favouring no argument over another, it means representing the facts and perhaps the known positives and negatives of a policy or viewpoint. What neutrality does not mean is holding the middle ground, or the perceived middle. The BBC, it would appear, attempts to do the latter in it's news programmes. It pushes it's balance towards to the centre, more often than not barely covering any wider issues, if it does so at all. This is not neutral. The words I might use to describe this sort of policy are lazy, lethargic or something akin to that. The effort to go into more complex issues or ideas seems lacking. If you want to get any in depth political or economic news, or even global news, BBC news is woefully inadequate. But even if it was a neutral news source, this is an argument to keep the news and parliament channels and not the rest, the rest of the programming is irrelevant to that.

Still, as I forced myself to watch BBC news over recent weeks (in order to ensure that what I said in this was justified), I can't help thinking how you must be blind to believe in it being neutral in it's output in any way. The incessant pandering to Union bodies who are yet to announce anything concrete and lack of time given to the other side for a rebuttal (which ITV did in fact do, although I hardly rate ITV news as the pinnacle, the BBC is just worse). Perhaps worse than the pandering to the unions and talk of a 'double dip' recession – a potentially discussed by many libertarians prior to the stimulus package being put in; is the way the BBC is being so sycophantic about the papal visit, giving no or almost no air-time at all to any noted, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, or people of other faiths who might criticise the visit.

So, quality of news. Does BBC news have any real depth? No. I watched the recent Andrew Marr interview of Tony Blair, an interview so shallow and so lacking in interest that it would probably not have been worth airing under normal circumstances I imagine. By that I mean, if you hadn't heard of Tony Blair, had he been the former Prime-Minister of Japan (who also sent troops to Iraq) then it would probably not have been aired. It was a shallow attempt to lure viewers in with the promise of Tony attempting to explain himself. It worked, but 'Red Andy' never really pressed on any points. A weak interview. One program of course does not mean everything, but this is probably on the better side of the BBC when it comes to political analysis, analysis of the most shallow and trivial nature. If you want that then you probably want to be on the internet, if you want to find interesting interviews with figures like the head of the European Court of Human Rights or suchlike, then Russia Today beats the BBC rather easily. Apparently companies who have to work for their money actually put some effort into their interviews.

The only news stories on the BBC that could be considered neutral are the stories about 'tragic accidents', whilst these events are indeed tragic, the importance on a national level is limited. There are more important issues across the globe, with far more lives at stake. What is happening in Myanmar, Darfur, Zimbabwe or other countries and regions around the world? These stories are also inherently neutral, as there is nothing to report apart from perhaps talking to a grieving family (and using that to gain ratings). So, essentially I see no argument to say that BBC news is either neutral or high quality. Were it a newspaper it would be a tabloid and a centre-left one. I don't think that anyone could really dispute that without defying either the facts or the very definition of those terms.

Why should anyone be forced to pay in part for programmes like Songs of Praise (with S4C levels of viewer-ship) or 'Would I lie to you?'. If you want to watch such programmes, surely you should either be prepared to pay for it yourself or endure the advertising to make it possible to remain free-to-air. I should not have to pay for other people to watch entertainment shows, like I should not pay for other people I do not know to go to the cinema or buy their DVDs. I should not be forced into paying for other people to enjoy themselves for myself to be privy to separate entertainment to which I may also be paying for personally and choosing to do so. I can understand if it was just news and BBC Parliament or other services that might help to educate a population with little to no knowledge of what might come under 'current affairs'. But it is not, and until it is, the argument of neutrality should be ignored. A drama series may be neutral, but it is simply entertainment – it does not provide citizens with new knowledge. Similarly panel quiz shows tend not to enhance the knowledge of the average citizen, and these seem to be an increasing part of the BBC's bland productions.

So why does the BBC exist as a public sector company, paid for by the equivalent of a poll tax? It can't be because they produce similar, average quality dramas or other entertainment programmes as everyone else (incidentally, taking viewers and thus money from those other companies, hindering their ability to produce better programmes of their own). It can't be for their low quality news services. It can't be for their biased news coverage, which of course is heavily statist. It can't be for any of this, so why? For equal coverage of party political broadcasts? For the vague and incorrect idea that the BBC is somehow neutral? What is it that allows us all to be forced to pay £145 a year for? What justifies this, exactly? I cannot find an answer to this question. How can you justify a £145 poll tax for an average quality broadcaster in direct competition with companies who get no such help. If the BBC was special, did something special or aided the expansion of knowledge I would understand, I would still find the forceful taxation for them immoral, but I would understand. Instead, they win the right to show Family Guy, then proceed to censoring out episodes which might be deemed too 'offensive'. Congratulations, your money is being wasted with excellence only matched by Labour Chancellors.