vrijdag, maart 04, 2005

Defend the BBC; Death to the privateers!

As some of you already know, for my day job, I am a journalist who covers European technology and telecoms news - a business journo, in truth (quite far from the professional revolutionary I used to imagine I'd be). As such, I really have to bite my tongue while reporting on privatisation issues. I try to insert as much of a progressive perspective as I can - which often can only take the form of reports of lay-offs due to various liberalisation measures, or covering the recent meeting of Balkan telecoms unions, for example. But I am certainly not able to offer any overtly anti-privatisation perspective, and this can be extraordinarily frustrating when I am writing about neo-liberal shenanigans almost daily.

There is almost nobody within the sector who is anything other than a libertarian fundamentalist. Most other tech journos, the major parliamentary parties in every country in the union and, obviously, the companies themselves are so thoroughly committed to the supposed good that comes from competition, in this sector in particular, that deregulation and privatisation have become not merely policies which they support, but political axioms. One might more easily suggest that the moon is made of green cheese than question the idea of privatisation and deregulation in telecoms. At the same time, because most progressives have little interest in the subject area - especially as there are far more sexy issues such as the war to get stuck into - the privateers in member state governments and in the Commission are given free rein to cut the heart out of what remains of public broadcasting and regulated telecommunications, safe in the knowledge that not only will no organised opposition be mounted, but most of the population will not even be aware that any of this is going on.

In one thoroughly typical example, last July, hidden in an otherwise bland and not especially noteworthy Commission communication on the roll-out of mobile broadband (3G telephony and the like) throughout the union, was a handful of paragraphs (Section 3.7, COM(2004) 447 [30 June, 2004]) that said essentially, in typically fustian bureaucrat-speak, that member states must eliminate local barriers to the roll-out and expansion of mobile base stations and masts. Specifically, member states must somehow get rid of restrictive local anti-mobile-mast by-laws and re-educate their populations of nimbies as they don't know what’s good for them. Now, personally, I think the jury's still out on the potential health side-effects of mobile phones, masts and base stations, but I certainly believe that local communities have the right to invoke the precautionary principle in this regard and ban the placement of mobile masts near schools and hospitals. But this is not merely an environmental issue: It is perfectly illustrative of the anti-democratic imperative at the heart of the European Union. Sadly, this particular issue has barely been touched by campaigners, not even by the local nimby groups themselves.

I hope the same indifference will not greet this week's news of the dagger pointed at the heart of public broadcasting in Europe, and indeed the world. Two weeks ago a brief story appeared in the Guardian about the launch of a European Commission investigation into the use of television and radio licence fees by the German public broadcasters, ARD and ZDF, to fund internet content provision and other new services.

The competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, has said that while the licence fee does not amount to an illegal subsidy under EU rules, the use of such funds to develop internet content and services is indeed unlawful.

Undoubtedly because of today's release of the
UK government's green paper on the future of the BBC, the Guardian published the story again, but this time on the front page and beefed up a little.

Public broadcasting - heck, public anything - sticks in the craw of the capitalists. With poor rates of return on investment dating back a generation in almost every industry and little expectation of growth anywhere, these vultures slaver over the trillions spent globally in the public sector and are absolutely ideologically committed to its wholesale sell-off.

In the age of hundred-channel digital television, Tivo, broadband TV and video on demand, public broadcasting is seen as particularly vulnerable, and neo-liberals see public broadcasters' internet activities to be the soft underbelly.

Last July, the UK government released its review of BBC Online, which criticised the BBC's expansive and award-winning website as harmful to competition. Essentially the argument goes: 'The BBC Online is simply too good. There is no way that most private internet publishers can compete with it.'

At the time, the vampirically named Hugo Drayton, chair of the anti-BBC British Internet Publishers’ Alliance and managing director of the Telegraph Group, was approving of the report: 'On balance, I'm very glad that something positive has come out. It's taken a long time. BIPA has been banging this drum for six years and there's been no response…The British consumer and taxpayer are being cheated by the BBC...The bottom line is there's no regulation, no remit and no recognition of the damage their activities have done to the commercial market.'

In response, the chastened BBC shuttered five of its sub-websites and pulled back from its mobile internet plans.

The decision of the Commission to investigate the German public broadcasters will not in the short term end the licence fee in the UK or Germany, and today's green paper argues that the BBC licence fee is safe for another ten years. But there is no doubt that the investigation will find that ARD and ZDF are illegally using public funds to deliver internet content. After two and half years of covering this sector, I am absolutely certain this will be the conclusion. This will in turn result in public broadcasters throughout Europe being shorn of their internet enterprises, to the delight of the Hugo Drayton and the rest of the vultures.

But it won't stop there. The neo-liberals have their eyes set on the entirety of public broadcasting in Europe. Within ten years, probably sooner, television and the internet will have converged completely. There will not just be hundreds of television channels, but millions. In such a context, the privateers will feel even more confident of the superfluity of public broadcasting.

However, the contrary will be true. Public broadcasting/internet content provision will be more necessary than ever. Already in the current environment most newspapers are finding it incredibly difficult to compete with the free provision of news. While online advertising has taken off in the last year, it is spread across hundreds of thousands or even millions of sites, rather than just thousands of newspapers and magazines, as it was for the last century and a half. There is not enough advertising money to keep afloat an internet version of a broadsheet, with its dozens of bureaus around the world, forcing many, such as the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist to charge for access, charging sums that are out of bounds for all but upper management. The New York Times and Washington Post are currently playing chicken to see who go first in charging for access, worried that whoever goes first will lose customers to the other, but they will both likely make the shift this year.

As a result, most internet users will simply go to other, free sites for their news, sites of poor quality, with no sub-editors, editors or fact-checkers (sites like this, actually). Furthermore, without editors compiling a collection of news and other content that updates the reader on the latest developments in 'the national/international conversation', an individual's awareness will become increasingly compartmentalised, visiting just those sites that interest him or her, not necessarily ones that inform. Indeed, this latter process is already underway. This makes for poorly informed citizens and ultimately undermines democracy, dependent as it is on a populace that is aware.

This effect will be amplified after TV-internet convergence is complete: as expensive as it is to publish a newspaper, it is vastly more expensive to produce television programming. Even with a significant reduction in costs resulting from technological advances (which in any case will not be as much as the tech-geek pollyannas predict), the labour is, as ever, the most expensive part. It has never cost a penny to write a poem or a play, but not everyone is a poet or a playwright. For fifty years or thereabouts, it has cost relatively little to take a photograph but not everyone is a photographer. Building a website is essentially free, and there is an ocean of shit out there. However cheap broadcasting becomes eventually, we will not all be broadcasters.

Already in North America, cable has delivered a televisual experience of hundreds of stations. However, the amount of funding available from advertisers has not commensurately expanded. Thus the pie is now shared amongst some three hundred niche channels (more or less, depending on the particular market), resulting in few that can afford to produce their own content. Most channels prefer to show repeats of older shows or, if they do actually develop original content, it will be reality programming showing the viewer, say, what not to wear or how to spend eleven bucks down at the hardware store on some twigs, glitter and a glue gun in order to transform their unfinished basement into a home cinema. Moreover, there has been an explosion of 'paid programming', selling George Foreman Grills, Girls Gone Wild videos and - now here I must say this is impressive, although thankfully I have no use for it - instant back-hair removal cream (Doesn't sound that impressive? You haven't seen the infomercial. They get this, like, gorilla man to squirt the stuff on and then, voila, he's hairless. It's truly remarkable).

In this environment, far from public broadcasting becoming irrelevant, it acquires an even greater relevance. As the market becomes increasingly segmented, one of the few remaining providers of edifying, democracy-expanding, quality content will be the public sector.

Furthermore, it is vital that there be provision of media content that is free from the distortions of the market, free from commercial imperatives. The liberalisation and subsequent corporate consolidation of the media in the United States has, amongst other things, killed off rock and roll and hip hop. The real shit simply does not exist anywhere on mainstream radio in the way that it still does at least to some extent in the UK and elsewhere. In the States, community and campus radio are the last islands of independent music, and even they are under unremitting attack. And let's not even talk about talk radio.

Additionally, the market, by its very nature, cannot overcome the so-called digital divide without help from the public sector: there is no financial incentive. Telecoms and private satellite broadcasters are loath to roll out new technologies to poor and rural regions, as such enterprises are as loss-making as rural public transportation provision is. The public broadcaster fills this gap because its remit is public service, not private profit, hence we see in Britain the BBC’s stonkingly successful roll-out of digital television following the private sector’s abysmal failure in this regard. Digital TV penetration in the UK has increased from 1.2m homes to 4m in the last two years, making it the country’s fastest-growing consumer electronics product in history, and the BBC has achieved this from annual revenues of €4.2bn - just two thirds of the €6.75bn BSkyB earns.

In the face of assaults from the likes of the Commission, we must go on the offensive, saying: Far from the public sector being redundant - the private sector is undermining democracy. We can get rid of the licence fee, which is a regressive tax, but it must be replaced by public funding derived directly from taxation. Public broadcasting and public internet content provision must not merely be defended, but expanded. Not only that, but there must be publicly funded newspapers and magazines and journals and books as well, and a gigglingly silly and profligate expansion of arts funding! Museums and galleries must be as cathedrals! Opera houses should have to wonder what ever will they do will all the money they receive! Theatre should be free! The private media near-monopolies such as News Corp and Clear Channel must be broken up and the resulting companies must be heavily regulated to deliver content in the public interest. Bring back the guillotine just for Rupert Murdoch and strap Michael Eisner into an electric chair with mouse ears!

I mean really. It is a scandal that the European Comission is investigating ARD and ZDF for putting up some websites while Silvio Berlusconi, who has his orange, over-tanned, proto-fascist little sausage fingers in every major media outlet in Italy, is left alone.

As bad as the BBC is, Fox is so, so, so much worse.

[While we're at it, how about the public funding of a few bloggers? Dude, that would be sweet. But only if it were me and some other kids in the anti-war neighbourhood. Then I could stop working for the Man and writing about digital rights management in Lithuania or whatever it was I did today]