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Earth to Ofcom: They're our airwaves. Give them back

A better Public Service Broadcasting

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A few years ago, as now, Ofcom saw how funding for high quality "public service" programming as we know it would dry up. It came up with a very good idea - a "Public Service Publisher" - which would give an additional source of funding for programme makers.

The BBC, insulted by this challenge to its monopoly, fought this concept tooth and nail, and succeeded in killing it. (The "PSP" resurfaced with a Web 2.0 flavour as the notorious "Nathan Barley Quango", that Reg readers helped shoot down last year - Thankfully, that was absent from yesterday's discussion document.)

But with the BBC dying a death of a thousand cuts - why not revive the PSP in its original form? The funding could come from... well, the BBC.

One of the most attractive ideas I've heard in years is to take the license fee and divide it up in £25,000 chunks - and give it to anyone who wanted it. The argument is: we have so many excellent TV people in the UK, quality would win out. We'd still get Top Gear, and The Archers, but imagine what else we could have, too? Once we have the spectrum back, we ought to have the programming back, too.

But as promised, we won't duck the issue that Ofcom avoided - which is what criteria should such £25,000 chunks, or £4bn chunks, be given out?

Well here's a suggestion that came up at El Reg during our "BBC Week" last November. I think it's a good one. (If you're squeamish, when you see the word "BBC" in the next paragraph, just substitute the word "gatekeeper" - for the point is applicable to whoever holds a substantial amount of commissioning money). Take it away, Luther Blissett:

The BBC has to decide if people are stupid or intelligent.

If the former, then embedded reporters will continue to be interviewed in politically correct terms by talking heads about unverified snippets from dubious sources while spilling the beans in selective fashion, and people will use the internet to find the other side of the coin.

If the latter, then it has to get out of the way and allow disparate points of view to be put by those who hold them, and their narratives aired sufficiently fully so people don't have to use the internet to make up their minds. Since some narratives are more complex and/or harder to put across, it has to jettison its specious simulacrum of a concept of "balance" - which in any case would be irrelevant. (The question of when to pull the broadcasting plug on a narrative might be settled in various ways. One would be to see when it degenerates into tedium, repetition, blatant adversariality, tendentiousness, ad hominem attacks, personality cult, etc).

And here's the punchline:

Rationality... really needs an intellectual overhaul which does not leave reason itself as the privilege of a select few tribes or as a mode of life which one tribe can seek to impose on another. In other words .. either we all are capable of reasoning in one and same way, or none of us are.

In other words, we're all capable of thinking for ourselves. In the week that the Beeb cowered before a fact-free fanatic, touting the "emerging truth" of an "infant science") this seems particularly poignant.

Now here's the BBC's Adam Curtis, on what a fragmented landscape looks like when the "public service" media don't know what they're doing.

What marks out all these groups is that they're fundamentally negative - they're looking for something to criticise. They don't have a political ideal - and they don't know what's going on. So they retreat into a simplified and often very dated view of the world.

Which is fine, because actually you're right, most people throughout history have a simplified view of the world. What a journalist's job is to try and do, is go a tiny bit further than that, and actually try and open people's minds up, and ask, "Have you thought of looking at it this way?" That's its job.

What's happening on the internet is that people are retreating into their citadels where they will not have that. And if you try and do it, they don't like it. Because you're joining up the dots in a way that isn't the way they joined up the dots.

What really happens now, is that they're so entrenched in their self-referential groups, anyone who joins up the dots any other way is a bad person.

That's the kind of groupthink so beautifully exemplified by Ofcom's idea of public service: BoingBoing, RealClimate and the Dawkins personality cult.

So from those two starting points, we can see a real strategy for Public Service Broadcasting begin to emerge. It should start with giving us the airwaves, and unlocking the talent. ®

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