Nick Faith: When it comes to policy, Downing Street needs to get the barnacles off the boat

5 Jul

Nick Faith is Director of WPI Strategy.

The next general election in the UK will be held no later than Thursday 23 January 2025. In other words, the Conservative Party probably has six to 12 months to get its act together. So where should it start?

While there has understandably been a lot of focus on the Prime Minister, whoever leads the party into the next election will need to have a coherent and positive vision for the future of the country.

Simply rolling out the 2015 election “coalition of chaos” warning that voting for the Lib Dems will lead to a Starmer/Davey/Sturgeon government won’t cut it with many voters across the country who simply don’t fear the Labour leader in the same way they did Jeremy Corbyn.

A positive and confident vision must be supported by a consistent set of policies. There are signs that Number 10 understands this.

In a recent article for this very website, Andrew Griffith MP, the Director of Policy in Downing Street, suggested that any ideas emanating from the Government must foster economic growth and improve public services, reduce costs for hard pressed families, and be consistent with a conservative philosophy that people and businesses are better placed to spend their own money more wisely than technocrats in Whitehall.

There is also the small matter of whether voters understand and want to buy what the Conservatives are selling. Griffith covered this off with an additional fourth test for any new policy. It must be “clear and simple enough that MP colleagues can successfully retail it on the doorsteps of busy families across the UK,” he stated.

So far, so good. But the major fly in the ointment is that no such test appears to have been applied to existing policies. As a result, the current Conservative offering is something of a mixed bag that is being weighed down by too many deadweight policies.

A recent poll by WPI Strategy underlines this, shedding light on which policies are cutting through and which are either turning voters off or simply failing to resonate.

The poll, carried out by JL Partners, took ten policies which the Conservatives have committed to, and which they aim to deliver between now and the next election – disregarding policies they have already delivered, or policies that have been floated but not confirmed, as well as policies that cannot be put into effect until after the next election. Respondents were asked to say whether they supported each policy, and then to put the policies they supported in order of priority.

The polling shows that the party does have some broadly popular policies that can capture the public’s imagination, as well as policies with the ability to appeal to its base and create dividing lines with Labour that can work in an election campaign. For example, we found strong support for the two most popular policies: upgrading and building new hospitals and delivering full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home.

When it comes to business taxes, there has been a great deal of discussion about reversing the decision to raise corporation tax next April. While this u-turn may be sensible, cutting business rates to boost high streets would be a much more visible and popular policy – as our polling reveals – and one which would likely lead to much bigger bang for buck in terms of the local jobs and investment created, not to mention boosting social value in communities across the country.

Other policies may be less popular with the general public at large, but at least they resonate with those people who voted Conservative in 2019.

The plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda is a perfect example. We can see that while the policy has quite high levels of opposition as well as support overall, it is seen as a high priority for those who do support it and the second highest priority for those 2019 voters. The same can be applied to scrapping EU regulations, with 2019 voters in particular wanting the Government to prioritise making the most of a Brexit dividend.

Gimmicks, such as reviving imperial measurements (which according to some business leaders will actually increase their costs) need to be binned before they make it out of the No 10 press office.

When it comes to other policies, the party needs to purchase an industrial-sized shredder.

Channel 4 privatisation fits into this category. As many Conservative MPs have publicly pointed out, not only does this appear to be a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist, but a change of ownership could fundamentally damage a thriving sector of the economy: our independent production companies.

The public also appear to have no idea why the Government is hell-bent on privatising Channel 4. It had the least support of any of the policies we tested. And for the tiny minority of respondents who did think it a good idea, only one in 20 thought it should be a priority.

Unsurprising really, given it has absolutely nothing to do with easing the cost of living crisis or growing the economy.

In theory, the four tests set out by the Downing Street policy director should help the Conservative Party to perfect its policy offer as the election approaches. But in practice it still needs to be laser-focused on delivering policies that the public, and especially those who voted Conservative last time around, both support and think should be prioritised

To put it another way, and to quote election campaign supremo Lynton Crosby, the party needs to “get the barnacles off the boat”.

That will firstly require taking a look at what is currently in the mix and assessing whether these policies do indeed align with Downing Street’s stated priorities. It will also mean developing a clear and consistent narrative on both short to medium term challenges, such as how to manage rising inflation, while also setting out a long term vision on how the Conservatives view the future growth prospects of the UK.

Get this right, and the polls suggest Sir Keir Starmer is there for the beating. Get it wrong and the voices for change will only grow in number.

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Emily Fielder: Only privatisation will let Channel 4 compete with modern media giants

8 Apr

Emily Fielder is the Head of Communications for the Adam Smith Institute.

As to be expected, the reaction to the Government’s decision to privatise Channel 4 has been fierce.

Detractors of DCMS argue that Margaret Thatcher, who originally oversaw its inception, would be spinning in her grave, and that it would destroy a great British institution.

Their desire to protect an important cultural asset is admirable, but such appeals entirely miss two of the most compelling arguments in favour of privatisation; firstly, that the broadcasting landscape has changed beyond all recognition since the 1980s, and secondly that emancipating Channel 4 from state ownership is the best way to ensure that it continues to succeed in the future.

At present, Channel 4 is funded in much the same away as other privately owned TV stations, with the greater part of its revenue derived from advertising. To its credit, its finances are in a stable position; it made a total annual revenue of £985 million in 2020, and it has not received money from the taxpayer.

Having said that, it’s net revenue has remained broadly stable since 2006, and is likely to continue to do so. Moreover, during the torrid year that was 2020, it was forced to cut content spending by 21 per cent, in contrast to Netflix, which actually raised spending by 26 per cent in 2021.

The new giants of the media landscape are able to continue spending vast sums of money on producing new shows, whilst Channel 4 is fettered by its inability to raise private funding or capital.

On a similar note, under its current charter, Channel 4 is barred from creating any of its own intellectual property, and instead it must commission work. One way of competing effectively within the market would be to allow the broadcaster to set up its own production company, which would sit alongside the commissioning work it would continue to do.

However, producing IP would likely engender huge start-up costs, and therefore would necessitate raising a large amount of revenue.

Critics of the move to privatise Channel 4 have raised concerns about the potential impact on the UK’s creative industries.

It is certainly true that our independent arts sector is something we should be proud of, but they have failed to note that the major firms now dominating the media scene are driving investment into the British production sector to a record high. In 2018, for example, Netflix and Amazon spent £280 million on big-budget British-made shows.

Moreover, British commercial broadcasters, such as ITV and Sky manage to commission UK-made programmes without direction from the Government. ITV invests around £1 billion a year, whereas in 2021 Channel 4 spent £700 million.

Giving Channel 4 access to greater investment would allow it to both produce its own work, and likely commission more in the UK than it is already able to do.

The question, therefore, is not how effectively did it function in the past, but rather how sustainable is its present funding model in the future?

For the Channel to really grow in the future, and therefore be able to compete with streaming giants, and even other British commercial channels, it will require more revenue, which will either have to be derived from taxpayer money or from private sources.

Liberating it from state control would mean it would be able to access private capital and investment, and diversify its revenue streams, rather than having to have recourse to public money.

It is right that a close eye is kept on exactly how the Government intends to sell the Channel. It is likely that it will either be sold to a bidder, the direction in which the Government appears to be moving, or it will be floated as shares on the stock market.

If the latter, this would mean that the British public, through purchasing shares, would actually have more direct ownership of the Channel. If the former, Ofcom should take its deliberations over who is fit and proper to purchase it.

Previously, the Adam Smith Institute raised concerns that the acquisition of Channel 4 by ITV would reduce private sector competition within the British TV market, and so should be designated as an ineligible bidder. The notion of fit and proper should include questions of competition in order to ensure the sustained success of Channel 4.

Turning aside from purer economics, there is also the Conservative philosophical argument to consider. When Thatcher set up Channel 4 in 1982, there were only three TV channels, so by introducing another, she was following her principle of improving a sector by increasing competition.

Now, however, there are over 460 channels available in the UK. The idea therefore that the Government knows how to run a TV channel in such a varied market is as ludicrous as it is fundamentally unconservative.

What’s more, it is surely a curious thing in this country that we are so quick to deride other countries for having state-owned broadcasters, but are so fiercely protective of our own – even when it is detrimental to the broadcaster’s finances and future growth.

This, indeed, is the most fundamental point. Calls for Channel 4’s privatisation should not be seen as an indictment of its previous successes, but rather an endorsement of it and an acknowledgement that its future would be better served through its liberation from state ownership, as befits its place in the media landscape of a modern, liberal Britain.

The sale of Channel 4 is yet another missed opportunity to drive real change

5 Apr

The decision to sell off Channel 4 looks like it will play out the same way as most of the Government’s other vaguely culture war-y stuff: generate lots of sound and fury, and change very little.

Yes, the broadcaster’s supporters are predictably furious that the move might, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, “commission independent, unproven programmes and keep a Left-of-centre news approach.”

But in truth it isn’t obvious that privatisation will change all that much. Unlike the BBC, whose modus operandi is built around its unique status, Channel 4 is a commercial entity and, if we’re honest, its content largely reflects that.

There’s on need to take a Tory’s word for it. David Elstein, a former Director of Programmes for ITV, wrote on Open Democracy in 2017 about the state of its output:

“…Channel 4’s flagging commitment to education delivered just nine hours of programmes at a cost of £2 million, down even on 2015’s paltry sixteen hours and £5 millions.

“Yet, despite the evident absurdity of the claim, Channel 4 continues to boast (admittedly on page 168 of a 176-page report) of showing 2,795 hours of programming that was “educative in nature”.

He goes on, at fairly damning length – a view which perhaps explains why he is less fearful than others about the impact of privatisation on the broadcaster’s operations. And some with first-hand experience of working with it claim that today is largely coasts on the reputation it earned in the 80s and 90s.

But turn the lense away from Channel 4 and onto the Government, and this is still perhaps a disappointing decision, or at least one which doesn’t say much good about the current state of the right in Britain.

This thought does not arise from the sort of reheated Thatcher worship offered by Damian Green; it’s perfectly reasonable for ministers to decide not to prop up a ‘business’ whose operators have decided they quite like being propped up.

Rather, it’s simply the poverty of imagination behind the move. A straight sale is simply a different form of reflexive Thatcherism; it gives the impression of action, and raises some cash, without ministers having to make any substantial decisions about how public service broadcasting should work or what it should compass.

Elstein’s charge sheet against Channel 4’s commissioning and educational record could have formed the basis for a root-and-branch reappraisal of how we fund public-service television. But it isn’t. One might expect a government with a cultural agenda might have been able to find a use for a state-owned broadcaster. But not this one.

The same problem plagues the Government’s approach to the BBC. Without doing the intellectual heavy lifting and coming up with a positive, pro-active centre-right vision for public sector broadcasting, ministers are reduced to speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.

All of this means that it looks increasingly likely that when Labour eventually oust the Conservatives, they will inherit an institutional landscape which largely resembles the one they left behind in 2010. The Government has cringed away from court reform, made scant headway on quangos, done nothing bold to restructure public sector broadcasting, and may even be gently winding back the bolder elements of Micheal Gove’s school reforms.

The sale of Channel 4 is basically fine, but uninspiring. It does not warrant the pearl-clutching response, certainly not from Tories who can’t grasp that a bold and worthwhile innovation in the media landscape of 1980 may not be especially relevant to that of 2022. But it is another missed opportunity to use the historic 2019 majority to do something historic.

Radical: FOI requests have exposed how much gender ideology has captured our institutions

9 Jun

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they founded Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

Stonewall keeps hitting the headlines. When we wrote a fortnight ago about the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s decision not to renew its membership of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Scheme, we said that a similar decision couldn’t come soon enough from the scheme’s other members, particularly the vast number of public organisations that’ve been blindly following the charity’s guide. These organisations have faced huge costs in money, time, and resources, only to be misled on important matters of law, and fed an ideology that leads to serious physical risks to women and children, and ironically, an implicit homophobia.

Since then, Stonewall’s chief executive has made a vile equivalence between people who are ‘gender critical’ (ie who believe that human beings can’t change sex) and antisemites. And, as predicted, many public and private bodies have quickly followed in the EHRC’s footsteps, withdrawing from the Champions scheme. Channel 4, universities including UCL, and police forces have all quit, as has the Ministry of Justice with the comment that the charity has “totally lost its way”. Liz Truss is reportedly “pushing for all government departments to withdraw”.

Growing recognition of Stonewall’s sad moral downfall is welcome, but clearly overdue. We thought it worthwhile, therefore, to highlight the process by which politicians, journalists, and wider society have become aware of Stonewall’s transgressions.

This is not by way of MPs holding ministers to account, or by journalistic investigation, but rather is thanks to the determined action of individuals, mainly women, who realised what was happening, and used tools such as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to bring the truth into the open. These individuals are too many to name, but particular recognition must go to Nicola Williams and Fair Play for Women, Maya Forstater and Sex Matters, Naomi Cunningham and the Legal Feminist lawyer collective, and members of the policy-analysis group MurrayBlackburnMackenzie.

In honour of this important work, here’s a list of five of the most shocking and revealing disclosures concerning gender ideology that’ve been made following FOI requests. Such requests represent a formal way in which members of the public can obtain information held by public authorities, under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

  1. Top place among the latest revelations must go to the University of Oxford, whose submission to Stonewall’s WorkPlace Equality Index was revealed last week: 135 pages of substantial check-lists and supporting evidence, including screenshots of prescribed “social media activity”. It’s hard to imagine how much all this must’ve cost the university to put together — on top of the membership fees they paid Stonewall. Attached to the submission are two further documents, however: Oxford’s substantial 2018 Transgender Guidance document, and the slides of a powerpoint presentation entitled “LGBT+ 101”. These documents also reflect the classic hallmarks of Stonewall wording — e.g. references to sex “assigned at birth” — and its classic misrepresentations of the law. Some of the UK’s equality law is complex and contested, but it’s really not difficult to get the Equality Act’s “protected characteristics” right, as Oxford fails to do here. Moreover, it’s mind-boggling to conceive of one of the most respected universities in the world, long revered as a home of the acquisition of knowledge and commitment to searching out truth, putting together a document about its practices that includes the diagram above. Close behind Oxford comes the University of Bedfordshire, however. On being asked to provide information about its relationship with Stonewall, Bedfordshire’s FOI team confidently responded that “we do not have dealings” with the charity — on a letter featuring the Stonewall logo.
  2. Less amusingly, Fair Play for Women recently used the FOI process to obtain the Equality Impact Assessment carried out by the Prison Service in connection with the establishment of accommodation for transwomen prisoners, including dangerous sex offenders, in a women’s prison. This document revealed that the service disregarded the single-sex exceptions legally available, and prioritised the claimed need of transwomen (ie male) prisoners to “associate” with women and have access to “female services”, over the safety of women prisoners. The fundamental right of these endangered women prisoners to be treated as equal members of society has been violated, leaving them instrumentalised, by the state, in order to meet the interests of a certain set of male prisoners. The seriousness of what this FOI has revealed is hard to overstate.
  3. We’ve written several times over the past year about how gender-identity ideologists’ attempts to hijack the census have dangerously risked the accuracy of essential national data. In March, the ONS was obliged to correct the guidance it had issued for the 2021 census, following a successful legal challenge by Fair Play for Women. However, as we emphasised back then, many questions remain, not least about the determination process of the wording of crucial census questions. This is also the case regarding the upcoming 2022 Scottish census, which is being run by the National Records of Scotland (NRS), and about which MurrayBlackburnMackenzie has revealed the following: “[d]uring the question development phase for the sex question in the [2022] census, NRS met only with LGBT advocacy bodies. There is no evidence of consultation with independent statisticians or census data users in this period (see FOI correspondence)”. 
  4. The tireless work of the Safe Schools Alliance has uncovered and challenged many instances of the capture of schools by gender ideology. This includes recently obtained confirmation, through an FOI request, that Stonewall had urged the schools inspectorate Ofsted to mark primary schools as “requires improvement” or “inadequate” — the lowest grades in Ofsted inspections — if children as young as five had not been made “specifically” aware of “sexual orientation and gender reassignment”.
  5. The last document to make our top five is not an FOI request, but rather a recent insight into why public bodies are so reluctant to make this kind of material available to the public. The NHS had published its “glossary” of equality and diversity terminology. But when social-media users reacted with serious concern at the document’s embrace of contested terms such as “gender identity” and “white fragility” — alongside its failure to discuss legally-protected equality characteristics such as sex and religion — the NHS quickly moved to “password protect” it. Nonetheless, further inquiry can be expected into the document, not least from the MPs who’ve signalled their discontent.

This NHS incident reflects the way in which much of the information discussed above has had to be prised from public authorities, who — supported by Stonewall — sought to withhold material on the grounds it could cause reputational damage.

Now, fear of reputational damage is not a good enough reason to withhold disclosure under the FOI Act, but these organisations were surely correct in their presumption that information acquired could damage their reputations. So why was awareness of this reputational risk not a signal to the officials concerned that they should have thought harder about what they were doing?

And, as we asked in our last column, in that many of these organisations have their own legal and HR departments, how did they find themselves publishing formal policy documents including such basic, dangerous errors?

The biggest pressing questions, however, focus on why such crucial information about our public organisations was not openly available until formally requested by resourceful citizens. And what it is that our elected representatives — including the Women and Equalities Committee, whose persistent failings we’ve catalogued in these columns — are going to do about all this, now the extent of the capture of the UK’s institutions is finally being fully revealed?

Ryan Bourne: GB News will offer viewers a new choice – within the rules. Which is precisely why the left fears it.

25 May

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

There’s a fundamental conflation error in much coverage of the soon-to-air GB News. From the Guardian’s Marina Hyde to the campaign group “Stop Funding Hate,” many on the left think that because Andrew Neil, the project’s founder, and Angelos Frangopoulous, its Chief Executive Officer, are vocal about incumbent broadcasters’ inadequacies, GB News is somehow “anti-impartiality.”

The thesis goes like this: “Andrew Neil says he wants GB News to counter an “increasingly woke and out of touch” news media, which is “too metropolitan, too southern and too middle-class.” That sounds like he wants a very partial right-wing channel pushing culture war politics, and acting as a political mouthpiece for the Conservatives. Have you seen what’s happened with Fox News in America?”

Now given GB News hasn’t aired yet, and repeatedly says it is committed to the UK’s impartiality rules, which the US doesn’t have, speculating like this seems a bit unhinged. For the record, as a libertarian, I really do object to the Ofcom rules on free speech grounds, especially given the rampant discretion in interpreting them. But my views aren’t the point here: the new channel’s critics are confusing different concepts – “impartiality”  rules and the inevitability of human “bias.”

Ofcom’s rules insist on “due accuracy” and “due impartiality.” Broadcasters have a responsibility to use facts accurately and to explore different viewpoints on a show, or across episodes of the show, on news matters for news shows or issues of political controversy generally. Presenters can express opinions, especially where viewers expect them, but other viewpoints should be represented, even if only through presenters challenging guests from various perspectives.

“Due impartiality,” then, is about making efforts to hear different sides of a story, without a strict requirement for equal airtime or a duty to cover all views. It’s what Andrew Neil himself is a master at as a political interviewer.

Yet as Channel 4 News shows us every day, you can meet due impartiality rules while still being “biased” in the loosest sense of the word. To be unbiased means not having any personal prejudice and predilection. Yet relative biases are inevitable: journalists ultimately must make subjective editorial decisions on what to cover, who to interview, and how to present arguments. All these are shaped by the prior views of journalists.

Past and present BBC employees, including Andrew Marr, Peter Sissons, and Roger Mosey, admit, for example, that given the background and demographics of BBC staff, the organisation is biased towards a left-liberal worldview compared with the UK population.  Nobody can watch or listen to BBC shows without concluding they are hostile to free enterprise, anti-Brexit, anti-Israel, and usually anti-questioning of the policy response to climate change. Yet the BBC can exhibit these relative biases without falling foul of Ofcom regulations.

A left-liberal BBC worldview can create “biases by omission,” where certain viewpoints are just not entertained as serious. Hardly ever does a BBC watcher see a libertarian objection to a government function. For years before the referendum too, except for  Nigel Farage, you would rarely hear someone who explicitly wanted Britain to leave the EU, despite at least a third of the population backing that policy.

We see “bias by selection” too. How many more major TV items do we see on inequality or climate change, over the importance of economic growth? Or appearances by left-leaning Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman rather than, say, Eugene Fama? The evaluative judgments of journalists considering what’s important or appropriate guests reflect their own prejudices.

Then, of course, there’s “bias by presentation.” The way guests are treated can tilt the deck. This might come through interruptions, or via “health warnings” that make viewers question a guest’s credibility. Other times it can come from the presentation of  a statistic: remember the BBC’s Norman Smith describing spending cuts as taking us “back to the 1930s”?

Now some biases, no doubt, are in the eyes of a beholder. There are Corbynistas who think that the corporation is biased against the left, after all. SNP types often see it as a unionist propaganda unit, and many republicans think it overly dotes on the Royal Family (which is tougher to argue after this week).

So my point here is not to suggest then that the BBC is uniquely biased against conservatives or that some totally unbiased media organisation is even attainable in reality. It’s to simply point out that believing the public is ill-represented by the current news media’s cultural biases, and so building an institution to ameliorate them, is just not synonymous with trampling on due impartiality rules.

In fact, it’s perfectly within the Ofcom rules to build a news channel that will run different stories or perspectives – and Neil wants to run “good news” stories and shift away from assuming every problem has a government solution. You are allowed to hire, as  GB News has, card-carrying conservatives, ex-Labour MPs or people from outside of London with very different assumptions in thinking about what news is important. And, yes, you are free to have colourful presenters with attitude to liven up discussions, provided you still showcase various perspectives.

Why, then, are some on the left so afraid of this pluralism? Maybe they don’t accept biases exist on other news channels (Channel 4 News, really?), and so think any stated attempt to counter them is retrogressive. Perhaps they simply fear a politically strengthened  conservatism. For others, no doubt, there is a concern that the Government’s mooted appointment of Paul Dacre to Ofcom is a precursor to watering down impartiality rules as well.

But given that no such policy has been signalled, and we have not yet seen GB News in action, we must judge them at their word. Neil himself thinks, rightly, that a “British Fox” riding roughshod over Ofcom rules just wouldn’t be successful. “Overwhelmingly, Brits value impartiality and accuracy and, during recent years, in fact, the proportion of Brits thinking the BBC and ITV provide an impartial service has fallen.” GB News is keen to harness that particular audience, yes. But having spoken to numerous staffers, they are determined to avoid political bias, and to be robust in providing respectful disagreement more broadly too.

That’s the key point here: Ofcom’s rules that say “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality” still leaves huge scope to decide what to cover, who to interview, and how to present the stories. Those regulations require hosting various perspectives and doing so accurately. But we still live in a world with enough liberty for a new channel to attempt to reach an audience and hire journalists with different priors and interests to employees of the BBC or the Guardian.  And, you know what? That’s a good thing.

Ed Vaizey: Government must will the means, as well as the ends, in supporting public service broadcasters

8 Apr

Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative peer and member of the Lords Communications and Digital Committee. He was the UK’s longest-serving Arts Minister (2010-16).

Like so many people, I’ve watched more TV in lockdown than I have done in years. And it’s not just because we haven’t been allowed out.

There is some brilliant stuff out there. None more so than that shown on the main public service broadcaster (PSB) channels – Line of Duty on the BBC, The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV, It’s A Sin on Channel 4, and All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5. Great programmes that huge audiences are watching and talking about.

These are a few of the brilliant programmes the PSBs make, and a tiny example that doesn’t do justice to how much they contribute to the country and its social fabric. Whether it’s the contribution they make to democracy through their news services, the social value they have bringing the country together through national moments and sporting events, or the significant economic contribution they make with their huge investments right across the UK.

To put this into context, the UK TV and film industry helped the country avoid recession in summer 2019. It can now help our economy recover in 2021 and beyond.

Since 2011 the creative industries have created three times more jobs than the UK-wide average. Prior to the pandemic, the creative sector was growing five times faster than the wider economy and contributing £111.7 billion to UK plc – more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and oil and gas industries combined.

The Chancellor’s ‘Restart’ reinsurance scheme has helped the cameras keep rolling in TV and film, supporting 160 titles in four months, protecting almost 20,000 jobs and generating £680m of economic activity. This support has helped the screen industry bounce back and record the second highest production spend in history. The creative industries are central to the UK’s future economy, and the PSBs have proven their value as the lynchpin of this internationally successful sector.

The PSBs have also played a pivotal role during Covid. Sharing accurate, reliable news and information when there is so much disinformation. Promoting public health messaging and advice and working together to support the take-up of Covid vaccines amongst BAME communities. And bringing joy in a joyless time.

Independent, impartial public service broadcasting also showcases the Britain’s culture and promotes our values to the rest of the world. It tells uniquely British stories to international audiences. It commissions programmes exported widely across the world, enhancing the UK’s reputation, influence, and soft power abroad.

The economic, social, and cultural benefits PSBs deliver are not restricted to London’s metropolis. Channel 4 has new offices in Leeds, Bristol, and Glasgow, while the BBC is moving staff and programming outside the capital. PSBs support creative and production clusters in all four nations of our Union. They provide training opportunities for young people from different backgrounds. They reflect, represent, and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions.

But PSBs are let down by outdated laws. They operate in a hugely different market from when the regulation was set up in 2003 – pre-digital switchover, when Netflix was LoveFilm’s DVD delivery service. We need to act quickly if we want the PSB system to continue delivering for the country, and I urge all my colleagues to make the case to the Government.

This has been powerfully illustrated by the latest DCMS Select Committee report, which has concluded that there is a need for urgent reform. The Committee calls for draft legislation in this parliamentary session, before finding time to introduce and enact this legislation before the end of 2022.

The single most important thing Government can do is here is to update the prominence rules so PSB content remains widely available and discoverable across devices and platforms. The alternative, if we don’t act, is that eventually we will only have Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. Great services though they certainly are, they don’t reflect life in the UK particularly, there’s no news on them and you will search in vain for anything that reflects a particular nation or region of this country.

As Julian Knight, the Committee Chair, has said: “To enable public service broadcasters to compete in a digital world, Ministers must renew broadcasting laws that are nearly 20 years out of date. It’s a question of prominence – too often public service broadcasters lose out on dominant platforms…”

It is easy to take for granted the fundamental contribution the PSBs currently make to the UK’s culture, democracy and economy. The reality – as the Select Committee has so robustly set out – is that unless politicians act now to support them, they will increasingly be unable to deliver anything like the scale of social benefits that everyone in the UK currently enjoys.

By contrast, the Big Tech platforms are so large and powerful that they will be in an invincible, unassailable position in ten years’ time. As Parliamentarians and policymakers we must will the means necessary to support Britain’s public service broadcasters, as well as welcoming the positive end results they bring.

Philip Booth: The BBC should be owned by subscribers

29 Aug

Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The BBC has come under severe criticism recently for the way in which it seems to be ditching the nation’s history, apparently because many of the party pieces at the Last Night of the Proms are anachronistic.

As many people who understand the origin of the words of “Rule, Britannia!” and similar songs have pointed out, the BBC seems to be totally misguided. However, there is a deeper irony here. The BBC itself is a living, walking, talking anachronism.

The BBC has been financed by a hypothecated tax levied on television sets since 1946. The link between television sets and watching mainstream television no longer has any meaning.

In the UK, 18-34-year-olds watch seven times as much Netflix and YouTube as BBC1 content, and spend more time watching Netflix and YouTube than all other public service channels put together. The average time spent by all adults watching Netflix and YouTube is greater than the amount of time spent watching BBC1. Interestingly, most non-broadcast content is now watched on a television set.

The idea of linking the funding of a television channel to the ownership of a television set does not belong in the 21st century. Collecting licence fees in relation to the use of other devices is unenforceable.

The BBC tells us that compulsory licence fee funding is appropriate because the channel brings the nation together. But, not only are young people not sitting in front of the fire with their parents watching The Generation Game any more, they are enjoying their own ‘shared experiences’, without the BBC. Amongst young people, the proportion of shared viewing of content is increasing dramatically, and the length of viewing sessions is increasing.

The economic case for licence fee funding and compulsory funding of the BBC has evaporated, and the BBC no longer makes such a case. The case it makes is basically cultural. But broadcasting has become like publishing became in the 18th and 19th century, and nobody argues that a state-owned publisher, funded by a tax on books, would add to culture.

Around 200 years ago, in the publishing industry, technology improved, raw material costs fell in real terms and real incomes rose. As a result, publishing blossomed.

A similar phenomenon is happening in relation to broadcasting and content provision today.

In both broadcasting and streaming, there is a huge variety of genres, delivered in different ways through different platforms and responding to different tastes and by different organisations. This is similar to how bookshops, libraries, pamphlets, novels and newspapers all proliferated in the nineteenth century: in 1898 there were around 400 publishers in Britain and Ireland alone. The growth in publishing both encouraged and was encouraged by a growth in literacy. Good quality literature was read and literature from the period is still read today. We did not need a state-funded publisher to produce great books.

The parallels between publishing and broadcasting continue almost down to fine details. In publishing, as well as a variety of formats (magazine, newspapers, serialisations, books and pamphlets) there was also a variety of payment mechanisms (subscriptions to series or serials, pay-per-chapter, pay-per-book and subscription to lending libraries, which would allow readers to read as much as they wished in return for the subscription).

Surely the BBC should be funded by subscription by those who wish to avail themselves of its services. There is no justification in the modern world for requiring people to pay for television services they do not wish to watch. But this leads to the question of the ownership of the BBC. If it remains a state-owned corporation it will surely become an irrelevance.

Even if politicians thought a commercial sale of the BBC desirable, surely that is not on the table (though this should be pursued for Channel 4). Perhaps we should consider something else. In a thriving free economy we see a wide variety of ownership arrangements. And, in the field of culture and education, mutual, co-operative and similar forms of ownership are very common.

There is a strong case for turning BBC subscribers into owner-members so that the BBC would become a subscriber-owned mutual. In fact, this was the Peacock review’s preferred model. It would be very difficult for a subscriber-owned mutual BBC to be captured by closely connected political and commercial interests as its ownership would be dispersed. But it would be possible for it to expand into the 95 per cent of the English-speaking world that lives outside our shores through joint ventures and wholly-owned subsidiaries.

We should not pretend that a subscriber-owned BBC will not remain a participant in the left-dominated culture wars. The executives will not necessarily reflect the views of the members (as we have seen with the National Trust). However, we should be able to choose whether we support the BBC with our wallets.

Whatever the economic and cultural arguments for compulsory licence fee funding (and they are very weak), there is no moral case for requiring people to finance the BBC if they have no interest in its services.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.