A reader writes:
Conservatives commenting on the Beeb might occasionally note the high quality of radio and television that it provides. I lived in the UK for several years and was surprised and pleased at what the BBC made available. I understand the complaints about the mandatory license fee and the governmental role — but there IS a distinct up-side, and I should think that an appreciation of this is also part of the conservative (or, at least, intelligent and educated) response. Some of us, while appreciating the virtues of the market, do not automatically assume that it is without its flaws.
There is no question that the BBC is capable of high-quality output, and nowhere is this more readily noted than in the United States. When Americans hear my accent, they often ask about Doctor Who, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python and so forth; they wax lyrical about English drama and comedy; if they have visited Britain, they often tell me stories about the joys of Radio 4 on a long car journey; classical music enthusiasts lionize Radio 3. All very well. But quality is not an excuse for government intervention. I have never heard an argument for the public funding of the BBC which didn’t essentially come down to the belief that the market is incapable of producing quality broadcasting, and that the people cannot be trusted to choose their own entertainment. In my experience, pro-BBC types will reluctantly agree with the complaint that the license fee is essentially a tax, but nonetheless fall back on the assertion that it is a tax for our own good. It is fine to take this position, providing one is prepared to accept the consequences of such a belief — namely to own the conviction that Britain, land of Shakespeare, is incapable of cultural excellence without government intervention.
I am afraid that I do not accept such a conceit. If the BBC is so excellent, and so widely regarded as being excellent, then why will people not pay for it? I believe that they will. After all, in Britain today, 10 million people pay for satellite and 5 million pay for cable television. Even more pay for streaming services like LoveFilm (a Netflix equivalent), and download content from iTunes, Amazon, and the Playstation Network. (This is, of course, on top of the mandatory BBC license fee.) In America, HBO is a stellar indication not only that people will pay for services they value, but that a paid service can deliver world-class content. As Stephen Fry noted recently, the best television is being created in the United States at the moment, and it is not being ordered by government fiat.
If people will not pay for the BBC voluntarily, then is it really the role of government to prop it up? As a conservative, surely the answer is no.