Archive for the 'Media' Category


David Herdson says “Set the BBC free and let it flourish”

Saturday, July 18th, 2015


We wouldn’t debate the ‘purpose’ of any other media organisation

In all the debate about the terms of the BBC’s renewed Charter, one question seems to have gone unasked, never mind unanswered: why does the BBC need a Charter at all? The political reason why it has one is that it’s the flip-side of being funded by a tax, enforceable in law and if it has that right then it must equally have certain duties. The current debate about what those duties should be is back-to-front: the question should be why such the BBC needs constraining at all.

In the beginning, the licence fee was entirely justifiable. It was only the rich who could afford first radio and then television, and even once the ownership of both became widespread, the BBC remained dominant in radio and the senior partner of a duopoly in TV, meaning that the Corporation was still funded by its viewers – because every TV owner was a viewer. The coming of multi-channel TV might have undermined that argument but the licence fee remained a practical necessity while signals were analogue.

That’s no longer the case and the digital TV revolution, apart from opening up choice far further, also makes real the possibility of switching to a subscription service. It’s a move that should be made as soon as possible because it would end the false debate about purpose.

Those who argue the BBC should not engage in ratings-chasing are wrong. Apart from the entirely obvious point that these programmes are precisely what millions of viewers do actually want, there’s another case for them: competition drives up standards. The quality not only of the BBC output but also that of ITV, Sky, Channel 4 and other players is improved when barriers aren’t artificially introduced. But those critics are right that the BBC shouldn’t abuse its institutional advantage. Their mistake is trying to tackle the symptoms rather than the cause.

There is another aspect to this, which is the BBC’s unique governance and regulatory position; again, a product of its one-time monopoly. There can be little doubt that the BBC has a strong sense of its own exceptionalism and, consequently, its ‘mission’. That’s not only informed by its Charter – though that very much (and rightly) forms part of it – but also by its historic role as the nation’s broadcaster. That is not necessarily a healthy thing, particularly when accountability is diluted in that unlike commercial stations, the BBC has no shareholders and is only partially accountable to OfCom.

So what should happen? I would suggest the following:

  • Abolish the licence fee and move to subscription funding as soon as practically possible.
  • Grant a new Charter to run only as long as the licence fee is needed
  • Replace the BBC Trust with a regular Board of Directors
  • Place the BBC on the same footing as any other broadcaster with respect to OfCom
  • Permit the BBC to play commercial adverts on TV and radio (which doesn’t necessarily mean it will do so universally across its output).
  • Some will argue that subscription funding is unpopular compared with the licence fee, and point to polls that support that. Fair enough, though I’d question how far those polls simply reflect habit. Were the question phrased “do you think the BBC should be funded only by those who watch it”, the responses may be different.

    I would also suggest one other reform. There are inherent conflicts of interest in any organisation owned by the state, both on the side of the broadcaster and on that of the state. As part of the normalisation process, the BBC should be turned into a mutual organisation owned by the licence fee payers (or, in the future, its subscribers). That should guarantee its independence and provide greater accountability while also protecting it from the harshest commercial pressures.

    What should not be allowed is for the status quo to simply continue. The media have changed more in the last ten years than in the Corporation’s first fifty. Change on at least the same scale can be expected over the next decade as people increasingly consume programming, radio, news and information in non-traditional ways. The BBC has tremendous ability but its historic legacy means that it is itself constrained while also being so dominant in some areas it stifles competition and innovation. Setting the Corporation free would not only be good for the entire media sector, it would be good for the BBC too.

    David Herdson


    The big problem with free TV licences for those 75+ is that a staggering one in six of all UK households qualify

    Wednesday, July 8th, 2015


    Gordon Brown’s 2001 exemption rule has a huge loophole which should never have been agreed

    From 1980-84 a big part my then job at the BBC was to deal with the PR and political issues relating to the corporation’s prime income source, the TV licence. None of the challenges that was as sensitive or as problematic as what should be done about the oldies who were required to pay the same fee as everybody else.

    There had been a long-standing campaign for oldies to get free licences which at one point in the early 80s saw some pensioners deliberately trying to get themselves sent to prison for non-payment of fines over their refusal to get a licence. The idea was that their incarcerations would be the focus of marches and other demonstrations.

    This was dealt with by secretly paying the outstanding fines and licence fees of the would be TV licence martyrs who were then released from jail much to their annoyance.

    On its return to power in 1997 LAB took up the cause of free TV licences for pensioners and in the 2001 general election year the current scheme was introduced by the then chancellor, Gordon Brown in a move to offer something to help win the pensioners vote.

    His plan was simple – all those aged 75 or more would get free licences irrespective of their financial circumstances. The massive problem was that the rules were drawn up far too widely so that any household with someone of that age living there qualified for the benefit even if everybody else there was younger.

      The result is that we now have the nonsensical situation in which one in six of all TV licences are now paid for out of central taxation irrespective of the incomes of everybody at the address.

    Clearly that has to change and the only households which would qualify are those where everybody is 75+.

    My reckoning is that Osborne has made his move to make the BBC fund this knowing that there’ll be less political damage to the Tories if the BBC is seen to be be trying to close down the Gordon Brown loophole and not the government.

    This is pure politics. Let the Beeb and not the Tories take the flak.

    Mike Smithson


    Why categorising people by which papers they read might not be as relevant any more

    Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

    UK Press Gazette

    What we think of as newspapers have become news brands

    YouGov makes a big deal in its weightings on which newspaper those on its polling panel say they read. This was introduced by the firm when it started polling in 2001 and has remained a key part since even though there has been a collapse in the number of printed copies of papers being sold each day.

    We are still consuming papers but in a very different way and now, in ad speak, the Mail, Mirror etc are now called “news brands” not “newspapers”. Looking at the table above you can see why.

    Until I saw these latest figures from the National Readership Survey I’d always rated the Sun as the top-selling, and therefore most influential, UK newspaper with the Indy, even combined with its low price “I” partner, right at the bottom.

    Now, thanks to the massive expansion in smartphone usage, the readerships in March show that the Indy is larger than the Sun. The scale of the numbers in the right hand column of the above table show a change in reading habits that is amazing.

    We all sort of knew that the internet was changing how we consume newspapers but it is the widespread use of smartphones with their easy to use newspaper apps that have produced the really big shift.

    Clearly the mobile, PC, and print readerships have a large degree of overlap which is why the figures in three right hand columns do not add up to the left hand one.

    One thing that is marked is how the papers with paywalls, the Sun in particular, are now well down the overall tables because of their much reduced mobile figures.

    Mike Smithson


    Maybe Ed Miliband has judged that the Tory press isn’t the force that it was

    Monday, February 9th, 2015

    And internet paywalls mean some papers have even less influence

    In yesterday’s Indy on Sunday (circulation down from 153,975 in January 2010 to 97,646 last month) John Rentoul was questioning the wisdom of the Miliband brother that he didn’t support for the LAB leadership in 2010 apparently taking on the “Tory press”

      Rentoul noted that Ed is currently on the end of some awful coverage which, no doubt, will intensify in the next three months. He’s correct about that but does it matter?

      Has the national press simply lost its political potency?

    Everybody’s aware that, as can be seen in the table above, sales have dropped sharply almost right across the board. The Sun, the big daddy of them all when it comes to perceived political influence, has seen a sales slump that has just taken it below the 2 million. Compare that with the 3 million it was selling at the last election and even higher circulations of general elections gone by. Other papers have experienced similar fall-offs.

    I don’t often take rush hours trains into London these days but when I do the only printed papers that fellow passengers appear to be reading is the freebie Metro with the majority paying most attention to their smart-phones or tablets.

    Ah, I hear you say, what about the power of the internet? Is not there where the national press is still a force? Yes and no. The Daily Mail is, I believe, the biggest newspaper website in the world while the Guardian gets a mass of traffic. They are both free. Several other papers – the FT, the Telegraph, The Times and The Sun – are now behind paywalls and only reach the “converted” – those ready to sign up for monthly subscriptions.

    I’ve seen it during the 11 years that I’ve run PB. In the early days my starting point before writing each morning’s post was to scan the websites of the national papers. No more. If there’s something significant it will be linked to by one of those I follow on Twitter or it will be posted on a PB discussion thread.

    Maybe the Miliband calculation about the national press is a correct one.

    Mike Smithson

    For 11 years viewing politics from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble


    If the LDs experience is anything to go by then major party status for UKIP is bad news for the blues

    Friday, January 9th, 2015

    The chances of the purples fading must now be lower

    One of the features of general elections in recent times is that the Lib Dems always seem to get a boost during the campaign. Thus a 4-5% increase in their final share at the election compared with pre-formal campaign polls has almost been the norm.

    What has driven this is the extra attention they get from the broadcast media in the formal campaign period – something that TV and Radio stations are broadly required to give them. This is in sharp contrast to non-elections times when the third party traditionally has struggled to secure the attention of the media.

    UKIP’s slight dip in some polls in recent weeks is probably down to the fact that it has found it harder to make the news in the way it was doing after the Euros in May and following the high-profile defections and subsequent by-election victories from August to November. Now Farage and Carswell can look forward to getting almost guaranteed levels of coverage from the start of April.

    So it must be possible that polling levels in the mid-teens might continue until May 7th with the consequential impact on the two big parties particularly the the Tories.

    But the general election is about winning seats not building up national vote shares and UKIP needs to ensure that it maintains its focus on its key targets.

    Mike Smithson

    For 11 years viewing politics from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble


    A key factor at GE2015: Will UKIP be deemed a “major party”?

    Monday, September 8th, 2014


    Corporeal looks at the BBC’s Clacton decision

    One of the unresolved questions surrounding the next general election is how the media will treat UKIP, will they be pushed into the background as coverage hones in on the Lib Dems, (and especially) Labour, and the Conservatives or will they get brought into the mainstream debate and get a share of the precious oxygen of publicity. Most interesting, and probably most symbolic of all is whether they will get a look in (or how much of one) at the leader debates.

    I’ve written before in a mix of fascinating and tedious detail about the rules governing the television coverage of political parties, and especially the criteria that cover them (and I’d semi-humbly suggest it’s worth a re-read, at least so you know where the goalposts are, or at least were). The central point is which parties get ‘major party’ status. Parties within this group (and it’s a flexible one that varies between elections and location, in recent years UKIP being a major party only in the Euros and the Nationalists gaining major status in their respective homelands) are guaranteed broadly similar levels of coverage during the election campaign.

    This (as fans of reading comprehension may have guessed) doesn’t mean identical levels (the Lib Dems have recently had lower level of election broadcasts etc) but generally guarantees at least a seat at the table, or in terms of the debates (which draw slightly more interest than relative number of election broadcasts) a podium on the stage. It is a possibility that the debates will go into a more complex format with varying participants, but it’s hard to imagine them taking place without all the leaders of the major parties being present for at least a significant part of the debates.

    As an update to that, we have the BBC’s editorial guidelines for Clacton out, the highlight (from a party perspective) of which was:

    “The available evidence of electoral support in the constituency, together with other relevant factors outlined in the guidelines, indicates that: candidates representing the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP can expect to receive similar levels of coverage. Other parties who stood in Clacton in 2010, or who have received support in subsequent elections (and who announce candidates) should receive some proportionate coverage.

    Obviously Clacton is a special case in terms of a defecting MP for Carswell, but it’s certainly a positive sign in their hopes for better coverage and ultimately being a part of the TV debates (would it be Carswell or Farage showing up), particularly if they win as favourites. Beyond the debates a more consistent presence in the day to day broadcast media campaign coverage would be a significant benefit.

    The biggest winners in that advice may actually be the Liberal Democrats. Given that they scored 12.9% at the 2010 General Election in Clacton (and been in low single figures in constituency polls published so far), that they’ve retained major party status for media coverage wasn’t a certainty and is a positive sign for the future since it strongly point towards them also keeping it for next year’s General Election campaign. That might be more important to them than the final result in Clacton.



    So far, at least, the intense Daily Mail campaign against Harriet Harman is not being reflected in the daily YouGov figures

    Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

    That is not to say that it won’t

    Today’s YouGov poll for the Sun sees LAB back at 39% the share at which it has been getting for months as the YouGov weekly average trend chart above shows.

    One of the dangers with all polling analysis is to confuse correlation with causation. Clearly many factors are at play all the time.

    There is also a view that I share that it can take time for big external events to show up in the polling so it might be that if the Harman issues are indeed having an impact it will take a little bit longer to show.

    Until now, of course, the coverage has largely been in the Daily Mail itself. That has changed with the moves yesterday and the story is being covered more widely elsewhere in the media.

    We know from Ipsos-MORI that Labour voters only make up a realively small share of the Daily Mail’s audience. See this chart of 2010 voting.

    Mike Smithson

    2004-2014: The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble


    Do the media ‘get it’ yet?

    Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

    Press, public and politicians – who needs defending from whom

    It was no doubt a coincidence that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were in court in relation to the charges against them over the phone hacking scandal on the same day that newspaper and magazine publishers were also in court seeking to prevent the granting of a Royal Charter on press regulation.  Nonetheless, the former made a somewhat ironic backdrop to the latter.

    Not that it’s just the tabloids.  The Guardian caught an almighty dose of self-importance when one of their writers’ partner was detained at an airport over the summer, when they essentially claimed that journalistic material was somehow a separate and higher class of property, equivalent to the contents of a diplomatic bag, even when it’s suspected of being stolen or a threat to national security, or both.

    Similarly, the instinctive reaction of the BBC was to rail against ‘political pressure’ when questions were raised this week about its governance, even as the scandal over historic sexual abuse allegations against current or former BBC staff rumbles on.  Many of these allegations remain sub judice and we must maintain the principle of innocent unless proven guilty.  It would just be nice if that principle were applied by the media to people they find interesting, in spirit as well as letter; in inference as well as in fact.

    Which brings us back to the question of regulation.  Leaving individuals aside, if there’s a common thread running through these various scandals, it’s the industrial sense of entitlement and impunity; one justified by the self-declared mission to hold the rich, famous and powerful to account.

    Not that this is anything new.  I was recently reading a book written by a long-forgotten journalist about his experiences reporting the happenings at the League of Nations during the twenties and thirties.  He pronounces that “of the three orders which comprise our new World State in embryo [by which he means The League – not the best of analyses given that the book was published in 1937] – the statesmen who represent the governments of the world; the secretariat which represents the first international civil service, and the journalists who create and reflect world opinion – it is the journalists and not the ministers who are the real representatives of the peoples.”

    That deeply corrosive and undemocratic mind-set persists and has led to the logical next step: that if the media represent the people, then it is they who must hold governments and politicians to account.  It is why the media struggles with the legitimacy of regulation as a concept, never mind in any practical application.  Of course, the political class aren’t immune from mutually covering up would-be scandals of their own and the press does have an invaluable role to play in investigating, campaigning and reporting – when done responsibly – and it needs to be free to do so.

    Even so, the idea that in a democratic system it is the media and not opposition parties, backbenchers and ultimately the public who hold a government to account has to be challenged, not just because it’s false but because the belief that it’s true lies behind the sense of justification in the media’s more squalid actions, even when they have nothing to do with politics.  It’s a license: because we hold politicians to account they can’t regulate us because that would strike against the public interest we perform; because no regulator’s said we can’t act in a certain way, we can.

    As with all the best constitutional settlements, the key is not in the theory but in the practice – and that’s guaranteed not by rules but by self-restraint.  The best indicator this week that many in the media still don’t get that was the court challenge against the Charter.  The irony is that had they understood that, the Charter and regulator wouldn’t be needed in the first place.

    David Herdson