The glory of minor tyrannies: The B.B.C. & N.P.R.Posted: February 5, 2014
I miss a lot of things about the country of my birth; Chip shop chips, Irn Bru, free healthcare, the acceptability of lunchtime beer, etc. the list is long and really only of interest to myself, the prominence of items on the list constantly shift depending on my mood or who i’m talking too, the one thing that sticks in the top three is, and will most likely always be, the British Broadcasting Corporation.
My feelings toward the Beeb have been heightened just now by the fact that my Local N.P.R. affiliate is currently in the middle of it’s winter pledge drive. For the uninitiated public radio in America is based on a convoluted system of funding from various trusts and charities, a small amount from the federal government, individual donations to local affiliate stations as well as local companies underwriting individual programs. In theory this is a pretty good system, it certainly makes for a much better and interesting news outlet than literally any other American media outlet, and is generally the broadcaster of record for people who don’t sincerely believe the American dream was taken out back and shot on January 20th 2009. Unfortunately I’ve been spoiled by the B.B.C. being a ubiquitous presence in my life from birth.
Before I continue I should probably explain my feelings regarding the B.B.C.; as an organisation it shares the space in my heart I assume other people have patriotism with the N.H.S., Stilton and the Digger movement, It is one of the few things I really really love about the UK. For the uninitiated the B.B.C. is funded via a very unconvoluted system were by owning a a color television that receives outside transmissions requires paying for a licence which is the corporation’s main source of revenue along with selling merchandise and leasing out T.V. to other countries etc. This system, enforced by law and a weird level of intimidation does come off to the casual foreign observer as a little over the top and specifically to an American observer as down right Stalinist as it involves being required to pay for a shared enterprise that doesn’t involve killing anyone. However the B.B.C.’s system of essentially taxing people for the right to use one of it’s services is superior, not just in the resulting product but the attitude it breeds around it.
There are some basically superficial reasons I Think the B.B.C. is just better. I hate pledge drives; my experience of major broadcasters asking me for financial aid was – until moving to America – exclusively the preserve of comic relief and those times Blue peter asked for milk bottle tops (It’s sometimes very hard to make my childhood not sound like it happened in the 1950s), it’s therefore really jarring to hear someone on the radio ask you for money for themselves as opposed to an impoverished third party. It doesn’t help that the manner in which at least my local affiliate asks for money is an unpleasant tonal pendulum, swinging from begging and desperate to passive-aggressive guilt tripping, this is usually carried out by two people discussing pledging in these two styles, the gist of which is;
Person 1: Well we need money so we can continue broadcasting news and such every day
Person 2: Indeed, if you don’t call this second we will literally stop existing and you won’t ever hear from us again
Person 1: I mean it’s weird, because we know a lot of people listen to us but so few people send us money
Person 2: Oh that’s hard to believe, do you mean there are people who don’t care enough to give us as little as $10.00 a month?
Person 1: It’s sad but it’s true, I think there are in fact heartless people who listen to us but don’t think they need to pay for such quality broadcasting
Person 2: Wha? but people are innately good! who would even think of behaving in such a manner?
Person 1: I don’t know, but they must really hate us…. whoever they are…. Maybe you should give us a call.
To be fair pledge drivers do acknowledge that they’re annoying whilst they’re doing this weird arm twisting, this however doesn’t make it better despite the weird American cultural trope that being aware something is wrong is the same as nullifying it. To be much more fair I was raised in a middle class English household were to acknowledge that you are anything but financially comfortable is incredibly vulgar and as a result a direct appeal for cash, particularly from a middle class bastion such as N.P.R. crawls under my skin on a visceral level, so you can put my objection to pledge driving neatly under petty snobbery with short sleeved shirts and Iced white wine.
However this system of funding and the way it manifests itself is still infinitely inferior to the British model as shown by this commercial for the B.B.C. made about 17 years ago;
If you weren’t around in Britain in 1997, and this is the first time you’ve ever watched that video you did in fact just see David Bowie, Bono, Elton John, Shane McGowan and a symphony orchestra cover a Lou Reed song about heroine use with Lou Reed for the sole purpose of demonstrating how worthwhile enforced public funding of broadcasters is. The thing I love about that advert is that it’s point is the B.B.C. is for everyone and as many types of broadcasting as it’s possible to have. The B.B.C. manages to be the antithesis to the argument that free market capitalism = quality; Because the Beeb is a centrally organised, publicly owned by the whole country, it has to create things like BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, which is broadcast in a language that is spoken exclusively by people who also understand English fluently, there is no profit motive for such an enterprise, no one would underwrite such an economically pointless station, it only exists because the nature of the Corporation requires that it speak to everyone.
The BBC is probably the only thing that I have no control over and still some sense of ownership, and I don’t think that’s particularly weird, The BBC isn’t just a series of T.V. and Radio stations it’s a public service. A great example of this is that after facts came to light about a pedophile ring operating at the B.B.C., one of the B.B.C.’s flagship investigative journalist outlet investigated another flagship investigative journalist program for allegedly killing the story. This is in contrast to Sky News covering the Phone hacking scandal, whose coverage of the subject is minimal.
I don’t want to come off as dismissing N.P.R., or pretend the B.B.C. is a god-given example of perfection. N.P.R. is currently my main source of news and really is better than any alternatives in America, I should also mention that my local affiliate broadcasts the World service for about a quarter of the time. I’ve just been spoiled by the B.B.C. home service which is wonderfully unapologetic about the licence fee whilst N.P.R.’s tin-rattling always sounds like it comes through an embarrassed smile which is always going to hobble the station because constant worrying about were the next underlining check is coming from doesn’t make for the most diverse or interesting programs possible. I hope everyone in the U.K. reading this feels lucky that they live in a country with such a well funded public broadcaster because I can tell you that life without one isn’t better. My life is not richer because I don’t get to hear Britain’s most senior Rabbi clumsily try to make current events relevant to Judaism at ten too eight in the morning any more. I also don’t know what about having to listen to companies fit commercials in between news items adds to the whole experience. If thinking these things makes me a servile lack of the state, I suppose I’ll have to live with that but until we dispense with hierarchy in all forms of life and create collectivized mass media I’m still going to think the B.B.C. has the best model for a broadcaster in the world.