Boris and the BBC

20 May 2012

Boris Johnson said last week that “If you are funded by the taxpayer, you are more likely to see the taxpayer as the solution to every economic ill” claiming that the BBC is institutionally biased to the left.  He picks on the soft target of the BBC arts editor Will Gompertz as emblematic of the BBC’s waste of public funds, disingenuously suggesting that we each of us are paying him £145 per year.  Mr Gompertz apparently had the nerve to insufficiently praise the rusting mangled crane that Anish Kapoor has inexplicably erected over one of the Olympic sites (presumably his vision of the Olympic legacy).  Mr Gompertz asked why it wasn’t bigger and free of charge to visitors, thus demonstrating his BBC everything-for-nothing mentality.


There is something in what the Mayor says.  We do tend to favour the interests of our benefactors. However, this is probably why we should be grateful for the BBC.  


Privately owned media businesses act in the interests of their private owners, and that interest is not as simple as the cash they generate. Those who control the media control the currency of politics. This is why so many newspapers survive
while making a loss. Their real value is not in their own business models, but in how they can serve other economic or political interests. The Scott Trust for example, which owns the loss-making Guardian has a stipulated political objective, to promote the ‘liberal interest’, and also liberal journalism.


The mayor puts the whole Leveson-phone-hacking-BskyB malarkey down to the BBC and others trying to “shaft a free-market competitor”.   But can we really consider NewsCorp as such?

When a normal commercial business has monopoly power, it is only over prices in the market in which it operates. But for a media company, it is political power, including the power to influence the regulations that apply to itself. Unlike in other industries, a media company doesn’t need to dominate the market to begin to have a distorting effect, so it’s not just a question of applying existing competition rules to media organisations. The share of the market needed for a business to have influence on prices is far greater than the share of the media needed for undue political influence. For this reason, whereas it is fairly straightforward for competition authorities to dismantle commercial monopolies, by the time a media business has reached that stage, it is too late. It’s as though at the point when a company gains a monopoly position in a market, it also gains a seat on the competition authority.


NewsCorp was already very powerful, and was on the verge of doubling its stake in the UK media.  When some of its employees broke the law, the police turned a blind eye. Why? Because the top brass were eating and drinking with News International, and in return published nice things about them.

“Codswallop” the mayor would reply, “the police were too busy trying to stop people from blowing up London to drop everything for a lot of whingeing celebrities and some machinating lefties trying to undermine the right-wing press.”   Presumably he still believes the police should stop wasting time and get back to their important work.

But what is important police work? Who decides where the police should focus their attention? The tabloids are chock full of crime stories, and as with Stephen Lawrence for instance, they are the ones that most effectively hold the police to account. So no wonder that is where the police feel the heat, and concentrate on what the tabloids think is important, and no wonder they are not going to get too busy investigating the mischief that the tabloids get up to themselves.

And the politicians turned a blind eye to the police turning a blind eye. Why? Because either they shared the convictions of Rupert Murdoch, and believed his newspapers to be a force for good which they had no wish to undermine; or because they feared that if they didn’t turn a blind eye, they themselves would become tabloid targets.  They would lose their reputations and therefore their majorities, their seats, their jobs, and any hope of carrying through the projects they managed to get elected for.


Media businesses are not just commercial businesses, they are as fundamental to democracy as the courts and the parliament and for that matter City Hall. So should we elect the Director-General of the BBC? Or perhaps the mayor should just be directly appointed by Rupert Murdoch – or rather Mark Zuckerberg or whoever we get next?

older posts


Chumbly on the Mediocracy