Future lessons from the past 

13 October 2008 tbs.pm/952

As someone who remains of the opinion that what the British Government did in the years 1945-51 to establish major post-war institutions (despite the country being nearly bankrupt) was brilliant and that we should have the same approach to current crises as we did then – namely for the State to take a bigger role in anything important – the current economic situation has one bright spark in it for me: that we might at last see the end of the disastrous Thatcher/Reagan philosophy which swept away the previous social consensus and brought about the reign of greed and lack of regulation that has characterised the period since 1979.

Oh, look: there’s former Treasury adviser Tim Congdon on BBC News. What’s he saying? “…good businesses… have been forced to sell shares to the Government at a low prices. The Government isn’t losing money on this deal: the Government [that’s you fellow British taxpayers, boys and girls] will make pots of money on it – at the expense of the shareholders. That is thoroughly wrong!” Wrong to whom, precisely? We should be rewarding people who screwed up? I don’t think so. Are you saying that we shouldn’t make a profit on these enormous cash injections, which can help to keep taxes down? Surely you jest. Reality returns, and our Government’s approach to this crisis is being adopted widely and hailed as world-leading across the globe. We ordinary people all just hope it works.

So in a new era in which at least part-nationalising the banks (and yes, we would like voting shares please: we want control) is at last seen as a Good Thing, along with cutting out obscene bonuses and salaries in the financial sector (and if you wonder how we will get the “best” people running our finance industry if we don’t give them enormous perks, I would simply ask you to tell me what good having the so-called “best” people has actually done us, and that perhaps they should indeed go off to Mumbai and we can keep the money, thank you very much, and employ people who have the interests of ordinary people uppermost in their minds rather than lining their own pockets at our expense), I wonder what other things we could learn from the past that might have application today.

How about digital radio, for example? Channel 4 has dropped its plans for DAB channels, as you’ll see from an earlier piece here. How could the Government subsidise commercial DAB radio and help support independent television without tripping over EU regulations?

Well, how about this idea. First, a strong framework. Establish a regulatory body to exercise proper control over independent broadcasting in the UK overall. No more of this “light touch” laissez-faire “Oh, all right, do what you like” Ofcom nonsense when it comes to broadcasters maintaining their proper regional and public service commitments: we need a body with a strong arm to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Having set up this body, we could then have it manage all the independent broadcasting transmitters in the country, by taking them (back) into public ownership and giving them to the new body – let’s call it the “Independent Broadcasting Authority” shall we? – to look after. The “IBA” would charge the broadcasters an annual rental fee but as this is to be regarded as a public service, in return for maintaining public service commitments, the IBA might waive a certain percentage of the normal fee for a while as an economic stimulus package for the industry – just what Channel 4 Radio would have done as a spinoff, encouraging new radio production and other benefits.

I suppose we could even go further, and have limited-length licences, reviewing them every decade or so and evaluating the companies interesting in taking these licences – or shall we call them “franchises”? – on the basis of good programming proposals and financial controls rather than who offers the most money. Give the franchises to people who have the most innovative and forward-looking plans and propose the service that will offer the public the highest quality.

We could encourage local and regional programming by requiring that stations focus on the area they serve. Limit the power and reach of media conglomerates by encouraging diversity – offering community stations low-cost access to underused DAB multiplexes for example – and tightening up maximum group ownership levels to undo over-consolidation. Split up ITV and establish a set of regional franchises constituting a federated network.

And while you are taking transmitters into public ownership, why not do all the BBC ones as well, and give them to the BBC to control? Again, it’s a public service, so if they need a subsidy to look after and develop them properly, we could stand that for a while too. It’s got to be cheaper if the people running the transmitters aren’t trying to pay their shareholders too, right? Look, none of this is a drop in the ocean compared to all our money being (profitably) invested in the banks, so stop asking about where the money will come from: this is all trivial in banking terms. And we are stimulating industry, creating jobs, and improving the quality of life by ensuring a better broadcasting industry that encourages innovation and exploration and is less determined by ratings.

There’s one area where it would be appropriate to approach things differently than in the past, and this includes bearing in mind the impact and integration of new media. Our guiding principle should be to look at how we can give more people access to both new and old broadcast media, but based on the quality of their proposed services, not a free-for-all auction. We do not need to see a return to the days when all kinds of arguments were trumped up for why a particular new broadcasting idea was impossible because there were no frequencies available, for example, when we all knew there were plenty. In fact there are areas we could open up that have never been accessible to independent broadcasters before, like short-wave: let’s have some franchises there too.

Tories can support this kind of approach as well (once they’ve recovered from the Thatcher virus): remember it was a Conservative government that launched Independent Television in Britain, and set up the ITA to provide proper regulation: the system worked beautifully for over twenty years before it was undermined by Thatcher’s disastrous 1990 Broadcasting Act and its highest-bidder auction (saved from complete disaster only by David Mellor’s Quality Threshold).

There you go: a nice little plan to move the broadcasting industry forward in difficult times while learning from the past.

For our next lesson from yesterday: look at all the largely disastrous British industry privatisations of the 1980s and beyond, and see how they might usefully be reversed. Start from the position that, in an age of rocketing oil prices and imminent environmental disaster, security of our energy, communication and transportation networks might be rather important to hold in the public’s control and interest, rather than that of for-profit multinationals or foreign suppliers.

And about those branch lines…