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This item is taken from PN Review 66, Volume 15 Number 4, March - April 1989.

At various points in the government's White Paper on Broadcasting in the '90s there are references to the BBC as 'the cornerstone of British broadcasting', to the 'unique power of broadcasting to shape perceptions' and - in an inelegant formulation - to 'consumer protection obligations'. Occurring as they do in what is in effect a licence and charter for the advertising and electronic industries and the take-over barons, these phrases stick out like the insertions of Scribe B in some medieval codex.

The bulk of the Paper refers naturally enough to television, where technological developments have made changes inevitable and have robbed of its validity one argument for public service broadcasting: that which argued that certain duties flow from access to a limited number of channels and a scarce public utility. It is some indication of the priority the White Paper gives to technical matters and questions of ownership (which are undoubtedly important) that Programme Production has one scant page out of a booklet of 45 pages and radio only 2 pages in all. Two important subjects in particular are neglected or obscured: one is what material the new signals will carry; the other, what will be the role of radio in the new order. The neglect of radio may be seen as due to a number of factors. Among them is the fact that in the case of radio there is no comparable revolution to the technological developments in television: satellites, new transmission standards, new distribution systems. By contrast the only radical change in radio broadcasting foreseen by the government is the creation of three national commercial channels, for which there is so far little discernible public demand whereas there undoubtedly is for local and ethnic channels. These new commercial channels will certainly provide opportunities for the advertising agencies; but since the total of available advertising revenue is presumably finite and must be fought over by commercial TV, cable systems, and satellites as well as by commercial radio, there are bound to be questions about the programme politics of these new channels which will be involved in fierce competition for audiences. They will, it is true, be aided by the government's expressed intention of not requiring them 'to comprise education, information and entertainment' and of allowing them to operate under a 'much lighter regulatory regime' provided by 'a new slim Radio Authority.' (The semantics of 'slim' and its relationship to the preferred images of advertising would reward discussion.)
But what of the place of BBC radio in all this - for that part of our broadcasting system which elaborated and first put into practice the principles of public service? These included the view that a national broadcasting system should be equally available to all listeners, that it should be cheap, and that, after payment of the licence fee, there should be no further charge on the listener. It should above all pursue a conscious public cultural policy summed up under the rubric: inform, educate, entertain. (That policy has, on the whole, been carried out by men and women who put public service above gain and who fought for and preserved certain institutional freedoms.) There is no need to rehearse the shortcomings of the Reithean system: its sanctimoniousness, its deference to authority, its hypocrisies (as over the vetting of staff), its lack of civil courage (as in its present failure to challenge the government in the courts over the ban on interviews with Sinn Fein), its remoteness from much of the public. In the other scale we have to put its immense contributions to culture (high culture): its indispensable role in the musical education of large sections of the listening public, its contribution in the field of radio drama and its encouragement of rising young writers, its provision of a platform for poetry and for the discussion of film, theatre, the arts in programmes which have not always been marked by preciosity and a cosy London consensus of taste.
Scribe B is fully justified in describing radio as being 'a valued part of the lives of many people' and in going on to say that there is therefore 'a continuing need for public service radio broadcasting provided by the BBC.' But the future of the BBC as a whole is in considerable doubt; for after 1991 the licence fee will be set at a figure in inverse proportion to the funds the BBC can raise by subscriptions for encrypted (television) services and will in due course be abolished. Subscription, it is argued, will put an end to 'the isolation of the BBC from its customers and from market disciplines'. Two questions arise: is radio also to be based on subscription and the market disciplines; if so where are the funds to come from to maintain the cultural infrastructure of orchestras, of live performances, of commissioned works which the BBC has felt it proper to finance in the past? The official answer is that 'account will need to be taken in due course of the implications (of the progressive reduction of the licence fee) for financing BBC radio services.' Is radio, one must therefore ask, to be reduced to recorded music? are the Proms to be abolished? what of the professional musicians, who are unlikely to find much employment on fiercely competitive commercial radio channels (allocated by competitive tender) in spite of talk (Scribe B again) about 'diverse programme services calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests'? Is the BBC - like Public Service stations in the States - to have to make appeals for financial help from listeners? Are we to have to look to the proposed Public Service Broadcasting Council - a sort of Arts Council of the Air, if such a thing is conceivable - which 'should be responsible for commissioning public service programmes which even a fully developed consumer market in broadcasting would not otherwise deliver.'

There is no intervention by Scribe B (whom we must presume is a Home Office official) to enlighten us. His is a tiny contribution to a document which bears the stamp of the Department of Trade and Industry. What emerges is the picture of a government which has no cultural policy; which can discuss the transmission of cultural values by broadcasting only in terms of the supermarket - of 'delivery, retailing and service provision'; which can say of transnational broadcasting only that it will 'allow television to play a unique role in international trade'. In the entrance to Broadcasting House there is a long and somewhat pompous inscription which talks of the building as 'hoc templum musarum et artium'; it looks as if the moneychangers are about to invade the temple.

This item is taken from PN Review 66, Volume 15 Number 4, March - April 1989.

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