One of the most amusing parts of the hacking scandal has been the increasingly shrill voices of the Right, who have taken it upon themselves to defend someone they perceive as their man from the Guardian-BBC Axis of Lefties. Somehow, all this phone-hacking nonsense is all the fault of dreadful unwashed types who hate that nice Mr Murdoch for that worst of crimes, being successful.  After all, they say, if you want to take a pop at an organisation with an excessive influence on the media, look at the BBC, which positively dominates our daily life, and refuses to accept that hanging should be brought back and that unmarried mothers should be forcibly sterilised. Clearly its influence upon our lives is pernicious.

Well. That’s quite a strong claim. Contrasted with it are the triumphant cries of the left, sensing the blood of their ancient and decrepit prey in the water. Mr Murdoch is eighty years old, and if he was a bit more poverty-stricken and in a nursing home surrounded by snapping paparazzi, would suddenly find his erstwhile persecutors become his greatest allies. Clearly, once this decrepit Emperor falls down the central shaft of Fox News, we’ll have an immediate revolution in the way our media represent reality.

Okay, perhaps no-one’s making the latter claim, but the former paragraph does summarise the attitude of the likes of Phillips. What’s interesting about this issue is that both left and right manage be simultaneously correct and wrong in exactly the same way.

You see, the media is two different things:

  • A means by which the population access information they use to inform their decisions. This is a clear public good; an educated populace is both more economically productive and better at engaging with democratic decision-making.
  • A means by which the population accesses information that entertains them. This is a clear public good; everyone likes titillating pieces of info, be it gossip, jokes or just an interesting story about something a long way off, and it helps make people happy.

Obviously, there are crossovers, making the above more of a continuum with The Open University at one end and The Daily Sport at the other. Nonetheless, they should both be perceived as separate public goods, with separate means of delivering them. It is immediately clear that different organisations will contain more of one and less than another, depending on their priorities. Herein lies the dispute: lefties think the media is all doing more of the first bit, while righties think the media is all doing more of the second bit. News International is perceived as poisonous by the Left because they think it’s contaminating public discourse by failing to stimulate real debate, while the Right resents the BBC at least in part because it’s hampering the ability of private companies to deliver similar offerings to the market.

What we want, if we’re good liberals, is to determine the most efficient method of delivering a given public good. The answer to this may simply be ‘The Market’. This is clearly true of the second aspect of the media – people have direct access to their preferences and desires with regard to entertainment, and can make the best choices for themselves. It is not, however, entirely true with regard to the first statement – you don’t know the things you don’t know, and can’t determine how best to access them if you have no information on how to access them. You need some mechanism by which people can access information that doesn’t depend upon the information they already possess. The media market can’t deliver that, as people obviously can’t express a preference for something they know nothing about.

Of course, the first aspect of the media is also provided through other methods – via schools, education, public awareness campaigns and self-directed learning. The question for liberals is whether these methods in themselves are sufficient to produce the reflective citizens considered by the likes of Adam Smith to be necessary for a flourishing society.

I feel safe to say that Smith would advocate making learning endemic throughout our society, and in the media especially – the most immediate form of information present to us. Information should not be simply dumped, but presented in many and varying ways in order to stimulate reflection upon it. A significant percentage of this can be left to the markets for art and literature, but they present their own informational barriers to entry. We require an institution that delivers information that encourages reflection and analysis to everyone via modes accessible to them, and does it on a daily basis.

This is the thinking behind the BBC as a means to deliver part of a public good. By and large, it is successful in doing so – its soap operas deal with social issues, it has innumerable documentaries and a solid news service. It is, however, guilty of ‘bloat’ into areas that are more properly the preserve of media intended to serve that second aspect – for example, is it really necessary that the BBC produces little Doctor Who computer games? It can also, especially in the present context, be guilty of not being able to differentiate between objectivity and its perspective as a media organisation, resulting in allegations that it has had an inappropriate focus on the hacking scandal. This may require some institutional tinkering to remedy.

It’s also important to be clear that the BBC isn’t left-leaning – perhaps its individual staff members are, but there’s a strong distinction between individuals and an organisational perspective. What it does do is follow the established line of the main democratically elected parties. None of the main parties advocate a complete halt to all immigration, so the BBC excludes anti-immigration voices – except when they’re elected, like the BNP. None of the main parties is calling for the criminalisation of homosexuality or endorsing discrimination against homosexuals, so the BBC has no space for homophobes. More broadly, questions of its political persuasion actually appear to be a feature of phraseology – referring to Government cuts as Government cuts, for example. This is a matter for the parties to debate between themselves and make representations to the BBC on the back of, which it is institutionally committed to take into account.

So, the BBC is a public service designed to deliver information to the public. This is not the same thing as News International, which is designed to deliver a news product to the public for them to buy if they wish it. They don’t ‘compete’ per se, because they’re designed to do different things, and the public understands that. To illustrate this, compare two figures. One is the audience share for all BBC channels (32.9%), versus the audience share for all Sky channels (6.61%). The other is the audience share for BBC News (70.67%) versus Sky News (4.41%). If the BBC were producing the same product as Sky, it would attract news watchers broadly in line with its overall audience. It’s not, because people actively want news delivered by an institution designed to deliver it as objectively as possible, and simply do not trust non-BBC providers to do so. The market couldn’t deliver that result.

Source for figures: BARB