Thursday, January 10, 2008

The true masters of broadcasting

Whatever our gripes with the BBC – and they are many – there is a tendency to think that its structure, funding and indeed survival are domestic issues, to be decided by our provincial government in Whitehall and approved by the under-employed drones in Westminster.

To that effect, we have seen in recent times no end of turgid debates about the funding of the BBC and the license settlement, but never once do we recall the role of our supreme government in Brussels being discussed.

One is brought up short, therefore, by the news that our supreme government has today launched a public consultation "on the future framework that will apply to state funding of public service broadcasting," amending EU laws set out in 2001. This is the EU commission speaking, which has told us, its "citizens" that "key issues for discussion" are the public service remit in the new media environment and "control of overcompensation".

The details are set out in a lengthy Commission press briefing - with further background briefing here - in which we are gaily informed that "member states and stakeholders" now have the "opportunity" to submit their views at an early stage, before any Commission proposal, on "the possible revision of the Broadcasting Communication – first adopted in 2001".

Competition commissioner Neelie Kroes happily warbles: "I want a constructive exchange of views with all Member States and stakeholders on the design of the future framework for State aid to public service broadcasting," adding:

The present Broadcasting Communication provides valuable guidance to media companies, public broadcasters and Member States alike, but there may be ways it can usefully be improved to increase transparency and legal certainty, also as regards the way public service broadcasters fulfil their mission in the new media environment.
In case you did not know, the consultation marks the beginning of the review of the Broadcasting Communication announced in the State Aid Action Plan of 2005, and the review will "build on the fundamental principles applicable to the financing of public service broadcasting as laid down by Community law and in particular the Amsterdam Protocol."

What is quite stunning – although it should come as no surprise – is the extent to which Brussels already controls the funding of public service broadcasting, having the final power to determine the level of the license fees paid.

In pursuit of this, it has already adopted in 2001 a "Communication on the application of State aid rules to public service broadcasting" (see here) and has since taken approximately 20 decisions in which it has "further clarified" the application of the State aid rules to the broadcasting sector.

Of course, while the BBC devoted many broadcast hours to discussions on the last license settlement, you can bet that it will give no time at all to this far more important "consultation", not daring to admit that the real power to determine the whole framework in which it operates is held not by our provincial government in Whitehall but by our real government in Brussels.

But this does to an extent explain why the BBC is so deferential to the EU and so quick and constant in relaying its propaganda in the most favourable of terms. It is not the British government that decides on its longer-term future but the Eurocrats in Brussels, so the BBC is merely acknowledging where the real power lies, keeping in with its true masters.

No wonder it shines blue lights from its windows. The only surprise is that it does not hang the ring of stars from its flagpoles.

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