BBC director general Mark Thompson was a bit wimpish during the Newsnight debate [watch here] about the future of newspapers, when it was put to him that BBC online news was “distorting the market”. The corporation is unnecessarily defensive on this issue.
The BBC is distorting the market only if you buy into the idea that news must always be a “market” whose terms of trade are defined by commercial organisations like the FT, News Internatonal, the Guardian and Associated Newspapers. Whenever such organisations get the chance, of course they will complain that free BBC content is cramping their ability to make profits out of online news.
If, on the other hand, we talk about ‘funding models’, we see a different picture. The BBC has a funding model which is very successful and the big commercial organisations have one which, thanks to big cultural and technological changes, is currently less so. The BBC model — non-commercial news provision funded by what is effectively a hypothecated tax — is a triumphantly brilliant idea which has served this country extremely well for many decades.
BBC output is high-quality, trustworthy, independent, accessible and fantastically popular. (Yes, they get things wrong sometimes, but producing a news service is not like running the Faberge egg factory: perfection is not an option.) More than that, the BBC provides a benchmark for all the other journalism we see; by its example and reach, it keeps journalism (relatively) virtuous in this country.
If commercial organisations have trouble making money on the internet, let them go away and find a solution. That their funding model doesn’t work is no reason to go smashing up one that does.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University. He tweets at @BrianCathcart