Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't let Murdoch smash this jewel. The BBC must act to save itself

Jonathan FreedlandCredit where it's due: the free-market right is nothing if not brave. Fainter-hearted souls would have spotted the imminent first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman brothers that started the global financial crisis and decided that now was not the moment to trumpet the case for unfettered private enterprise, free of meddling regulation. But the evangelists for turbo-charged capitalism are made of sterner stuff. With the American conservative assault on Britain's "Nazi" and "Orwellian" National Health Service still fresh in the memory, a leading US free marketeer has trained his sights on another British institution: the BBC.

He is James Murdoch whose weekend MacTaggart lecture was a 39-minute plea for comprehensive deregulation, warning of the dangers of state interference in the "natural diversity" of the media industry. Of the recent history of deregulation, with its catastrophic consequences for the world's economy, there was not a mention.

Nor did he detain his audience at the Edinburgh television festival, sponsored by the Guardian, with a declaration of his own interest in the subject. He spoke as if he were a mere policy wonk, rather than the heir to a broadcasting empire that would make billions if he had his way and the BBC were cut down to size. This was like a fox arguing that the henhouse doors be thrown wide open – not for his own sake, you understand, but for the good of society.

So Murdoch showed some brass neck. But he made some sharp points, too. He is probably right that Ofcom is bloated, poking its nose too often into areas where it's not needed. Right, too, to note that the old distinction between the press (where no rules on impartiality apply) and the broadcasters (obliged to be neutral) makes less sense when the two are rapidly converging, forming "an all-media market" where, say, the Guardian and the BBC both run websites that include text, audio and video. These days, we're a bit like a broadcaster and they're a bit like a newspaper, and the rules probably ought to reflect that. (Though if that means dropping the impartiality obligation on the TV networks there are two words to give us pause: Fox News.)

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