Save the BBC - by setting it free

A Modest Proposal

Real competition

The figures generated through a sell-off would be truly staggering. Hard estimates based on revenue are difficult to make today, and even a precise valuation of the BBC's assets isn't easy.

But one thing is sure: a privatised BBC would overnight become one of the biggest and most powerful global media and entertainment companies in the world.

The assets are impressive. There's the infrastructure - a global network of production and distribution facilities. Then there's the real estate - some of the choicest cuts of property in Central London and beyond. There's the archive itself - seventy years of original programming that could, in itself, keep some viewers happy for another seventy years. And then there's the most valuable of all of the assets - the brand.

The BBC is a global and iconic brand that has credibility and a sense - however fiercely contested - of integrity. But this is also perhaps where most value will be lost over the next decade, particularly as the BBC starts to lose credibility amongst its home supporters as it wrestles against the forces of a rapidly changing market, and risks looking much the same as everyone else.

The public are therefore rarely alerted to the value of the BBC as an asset, and how they/we could benefit if the corporation was sold. On this basis the BBC has to do a lot more than just produce good television. It also has to make sure that it covers its societal opportunity cost also - e.g. extra schools and hospitals and housing or measures to reduce climate change.

The value we could derive from the BBC would help - in part - tackle some of the most significant problems the UK faces today and help ready the country for challenges in years to come. It maybe that people are still happy for the value to be locked into BBC and to continue to fund it too - but it is difficult to make a choice without all the options out on the table.

Threats and opportunities

Of course, for the BBC's crop of competitors there is both threat and opportunity in a sell-off. A privatised BBC would have new options and be in a position to suck up major competitors. It could quickly diversify too, taking significant stakes in major film studios, satellite or cable platforms, or even telecom and technology companies.

But such a sell-off would also offer other companies a chance to get on the inside and buy a significant stake in the new company. Indeed, for many, the spectre of existing global media companies buying into the last bastion of British media would in itself be a major reason for keeping the corporation off the market.

This is short-sighted. Timed correctly, a sell-off would be fiercely competitive and realise massive returns - in part due to the fact that all major players will have to look seriously at taking stakes.

Overall, this is likely to stimulate longer term investment in quality television and media production in order to realise a return in a market where increasing numbers of delivery channels will make it difficult to merely charge advertisers or levy subscriptions for weak content.

It would also sharpen the existing market, particularly given that for competition and plurality reasons, existing media UK owners such as the Murdoch family would almost be certainly prohibited from buying a stake in the BBC without first divesting other interests - perhaps a key reason that despite being the BBC's most vociferous critic Sky rarely mentions its privatisation.

That would leave the public with one remaining problem: ensuring that the government really does then allocate the funds - raised in a way that genuinely provides a legacy for selling something so precious to so many - wisely. ®

Policy analyst Luke Gibbs co-founded the Ofcomwatch blog.

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