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The Plan to "End Government Control" of the BBC Isn’t As Good As It Sounds

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Tags Bureaucracy and RegulationMedia and Culture

For all that could be said about the leftist bias which has so often been exhibited by Britain’s state-sponsored news and media monolith, one of the more consistent themes in the recent history of the BBC has been its adversarial relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. Having simmered in the background of the news cycle for the past several years, this hostility toward the current, extreme-left leader of Britain’s Labour Party has boiled over in the past few weeks as a result of the BBC’s coverage of Corbyn’s most recent scandal.

This recent scandal relates to photos which have emerged of an event which took place in Tunisia in 2014, during which Mr. Corbyn laid a wreath at a memorial to members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) who were killed by an Israeli bombing in 1985. The controversy stems from the fact that several members of the PLO, buried close to the memorial, were accused of having links to the 1972 Munich Massacre, during which the Palestinian group ‘Black September’ took hostage and killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team and a West German police officer. Allies of Mr. Corbyn have accused the BBC of exhibiting strong bias against the Labour Leader in their coverage of this story, for supposedly framing it as Corbyn having laid a wreath at the graves of terrorists.

This controversy has catapulted the issue of BBC bias back onto Britain’s front pages, an issue which holds a special significance due to the way the myth of ‘BBC impartiality’ is used to justify the funding of the BBC by the wildly unpopular government-enforced TV License Fee.

Taking advantage of the situation, Mr Corbyn has used this most recent fracas with the BBC as the impetus to release a sweeping new plan for BBC reform, which certain headlines have called a plan to “end government control of the BBC.” From a libertarian perspective, such a prospect would seem almost too good to be true. The extraction of money from TV License Fee payers to fund the BBC is just as much an example of arbitrary extortion as any other tax or government license, regardless of the issue of BBC impartiality. If anyone in British political life, even the socialist Labour leadership, was advocating an end to that system of government privilege and control, so much the better.

As is so often the case, however, the truth of the matter turned out to be considerably less rosy than the mainstream press feared it might be. Indeed, Corbyn’s plan would not only fail to end the BBCs government privileges, as certain headlines implied, but, on the contrary, would further entrench them.

The plan, delivered in a speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival , put forward such a wide range of different proposals for the media as to be almost incoherent, ranging from humdrum centre-left talking-points to far-flung tech czarist fantasies. At the former end of the spectrum were proposals to supplement the BBC’s income by imposing a hypothecated tax on tech giants, the British left’s current scapegoat of choice. In addition to this, Corbyn’s plan would have ‘workers’ and consumers placed on the boards of large media companies, and would allow the public to elect BBC board members. On the increasingly bizarre end of things, Corbyn also called for everyone who creates content for the BBC, both BBC employees and independent suppliers, to have information about their social class made publicly available, presumably to allow the government to impose its own vision of demographic justice. Finally, becoming fully unhinged from reality, Corbyn called for the creation of a government-owned ‘British Digital Corporation’ to “rival Netflix and Amazon”, including a government-controlled social media platform to “harness data for the public good.”

The aspect of Corbyn’s plan which led some newspapers to characterise it as an ‘end to government control’ of the BBC was the proposal that the BBC’s current privileges should be put on a “permanent statutory footing”. This contrasts with the current system, under which the BBC’s Charter is subject to review and renewal by the government every ten years, supposedly giving ministers leverage to influence the content of the BBC’s reportage. Regardless of the dubious proposition that such a change would in any way diminish the BBC’s pro-establishment bias, it is clear that permanently entrenching the BBC’s current coercive privileges could not in any meaningful sense be viewed as a disentanglement of the co-dependent relationship between the British state and its media.

The other proposals of Corbyn’s plan likewise suffer from considerable shortcomings, most of which will be readily apparent to the economically literate reader. The invasive proposal to publish the social class of BBC content creators has been a particular source of ire in reactions to Corbyn’s plan. This is especially true given that the distinctions within the complex and multi-faceted British class structure have become increasingly less concrete and clearly-defined over the decades. This means that the government would likely have to publish a wide range of personal information about each individual in order to gauge a rough approximation of their social class, including information about their education, parentage, income, family, area of residence, and so forth.

In summary, while misleading headlines might have initially inspired some hope that Corbyn’s conflict with the BBC might have led to a rolling back of the latter’s government privileges, closer inspection of his plan reveals it to be scarcely more favourable than one would expect from his brand of old-fashioned socialism. Without a much more fundamental rethinking of the relationship between government and media, we should not expect the BBC’s current bias toward the government, the state, and the establishment more broadly to change any time soon.

George Pickering is a 2018 Mises Institute Research Fellow and a student of economic history at the London School of Economics.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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