Political persuasion 

13 October 2010 tbs.pm/1217

Whilst the media world awaits Vince Cable’s crucial decision on whether News Corp. should be permitted to further extend its influence with a full takeover of BSkyB, there’s a political war of words underway that’s now spilling out into the open and is threatening to turn personal.

Naturally it’s much easier for The Times to directly attack the BBC than it is to take numerous hit-or-miss pot shots at all their other commercial competitors, but even if you think that the Murdochs are evil, baby-eating tyrants that shouldn’t be allowed to even step foot in the UK, there’s still a potentially valid point being made here.

As a state broadcaster, the BBC is supposed to be as politically impartial as it possibly can, even though in the real world it has to deal with whoever happens to be currently in power along with their opponents as well as a multitude of commercial competitors with often-conflicting agendas.

This thankless task has been made even more difficult in recent years courtesy of a changing media landscape that’s making life tough for much of the commercial media industry (except, crucially, for BSkyB), therefore any external pressure on both the BBC and (even more importantly) its licence fee-funding model has intensified accordingly.

Throw into the mix James Murdoch’s infamous anti-BBC stance combined with Mark Thompson’s recent MacTaggart lecture and the scene is set for a gloves-off conflict regardless of the advisability of any direct involvement of the BBC at this stage.

Therefore it’s easy to sense the reasoning behind Mark Thompson’s direct participation in respect of the petition letter – especially given the potential consequences for media plurality – even if it’s also arguable that commercial cross-media ownership issues shouldn’t in theory affect the BBC’s position in any shape or form.

It’s the latter that has obviously provided News Corp. and The Times enough ammunition for this new attack, but any of this shouldn’t detract from the crucial issues at stake here that are of much greater significance than any spat between News Corp. and the BBC. (Or any other commercial competitors.)

Plus of course The Times has disingenously omitted to separately list all the channels that BSkyB either own or have a direct influence upon, which also includes channels such as ITV2 HD for which their respective broadcaster(s) have done carriage deals that involve BSkyB in some form, even if they’re not ultimately exclusive to the Sky pay-TV platform.

Put simply, BSkyB has the satellite pay-TV monopoly in the UK, and whilst satellite TV remains the most convenient and popular means of watching the widest selection of programming then there will always be a case for BSkyB to answer in respect of a commercial broadcasting monopoly, BBC or no BBC.

So yes this is all about the TV licence fee from the BBC’s perspective, and no there shouldn’t be one company owning more than a 50% share of both newsprint and commercial pay-TV, even if the BBC is perceived to be the counterbalance and is somehow capable of surviving a political onslaught from a newly-emboldened commercial giant.