Monday, May 22, 2006

SELL OFF THE FAMILY SILVER, SAYS SHADOWY GROUP

With the privatisation of the water, nuclear and rail industries having been such a glittering success, it's only natural that anything else not nailed down would get a small crowd of the greedy and ignorant calling for that sort of asset-stripping madness to be brought to it.

The semi-annual calls for Radio One and Radio Two to be privatised have just occured, with the European Policy Forum carrying out a study which has concluded that they should be sold off.

The EPF exists to "generate market ideas for public policy", so while it may have done a bit of think-tanking to come up with the plan, but it's hardly a surprising conclusion. It's like asking a street-fighting gang to come up with criminal policy ideas and then trying to feign surprise when their key idea is knuckle-dusters for all.

"Our argument is that whereas you can put forward a pretty compelling case for a public sector role for Radios 4 and 3 - and also Radio 5, it gets a bit thin when you look at Radios 1 and 2 - and they could survive quite easily in the private sector," said the report's author, economist Keith Boyfield.

The report argued that the UK radio sector was suffering from "stunted growth", and the problem had been intensified by the BBC's ability to cross promote and cross subsidise across a number of media platforms.


There are quite a few problems with this - even if you don't have an ideological problem with a bunch of overpaid plutocrats demanding access to a public service at a knock-down rate (the report suggests the two national radio networks are worth £500 million).

First of all, there's the standard assumption that the report takes as a given, that the BBC shouldn't do anything to impact on commercial organisations. This always turns up in reports on the BBC's supposed market impact, and nobody ever asks the key question: surely the key decision is what is best for the people and cultural life of the nation, rather than what will be best for private companies to make profits?

To say that "if it wasn't for the BBC doing X, then a private company could do it and charge money for it" is just bizarre when you think about it - we're still almost a democracy, and I've never heard anyone switch off Eastenders or log off from bbc.co.uk/news with a little sigh "I wish I'd been able to pay for that programme."

More importantly, the European Media Forum branch of the European Policy Forum doesn't seem to have heard either of the stations - do they really believe that, say, Imran Ahmed's oneclick documentaries, or Sunday Surgery, or Best of Jazz or multi-part documentaries on Robert Johnson would be made by the commercial sector? Actually, we seriously doubt that the members of the EMF have listened to any pop music radio in Britain in the last thirty years if they believe that One and Two's programming would be picked up by an organisation running on ad revenues.

They, of course, would argue that the reason why Capital and Century don't do anything much beyond putting on one CD after another is because they don't have the money, and that they don't have the money because Radios 1 & 2 distort the market. But that's just simply not true. Even if you gave Capital a squillion pounds (£1 x 10 lots, they still wouldn't do a half-hour programme with music reflecting the Acension of Christ at Sunday tea-time, as Radio 2 will this week, because they wouldn't get the same audience they'd manage with Johnny Vaughan sitting on a chair making squeaking noises and playing Westlife. Again and again.

And, with the radio advertising market supposedly in difficulties, how would it benefit smaller station operators to suddenly find themselves having to compete with two stations offering slots in the middle of Jonathan Ross and Chris Moyles' shows?

The Forum grudgingly admits that Radio Five Live couldn't function as a commercial station, presumably because news is something they understand. Before anyone suggests dicking about with the world's two premier pop music stations, they should at least be asked if they understand the difference between, say, desi beats and crunk. Otherwise, they're not the people for such an important job.