Thursday 7 December 2006

BBC: Worth It for International News Alone

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 7 December 2006.


While these blog pages have looked at a couple very significant media launches over the past few weeks, it is worth remembering the real value of what is still one of the greatest media organisations on the planet: the BBC. I've written about the first week of broadcasting at Al Jazeera English, and my fellow blogger Nina Brenjo has looked at the start of France 24, but the UK's public service broadcaster is also in the headlines these days because a decision is imminent on the renewal of its licence fee for another seven years.

Negotiations with the government have been going on for a while, and what it comes down to essentially is this: the BBC would like to see an increase in its funding just above inflation, and the government would like the BBC to take on some additional new tasks, including the country's switchover from analogue to digital. Timothy Garton Ash has a great piece in today's Guardian outlining the issues, and I encourage everyone, not just UK citizens, to read it if you are at all interested in media.

I agree with his praise of the BBC entirely, especially as it relates to news coverage. The broadcaster does have its problems, and it does alter the media market in the UK in some challenging ways for competitors at times. But still, despite its problems, the BBC is a model for independent public service broadcasting around the world, and it is one of the things that really does make the British half of me feel very lucky indeed when I hear journalists from other parts of the world talk about the difficulties they have in their media markets.

It's the licence fee arrangement that really allows the BBC to cover international news, for example, in a way that would be difficult for commercial broadcasters to sustain. This shows in their coverage of crisis zones around the world most particularly. Take a few examples in recent years: think about Hilary Anderson's work in Darfur, Fergal Keane in Rwanda and Congo, or Lyse Douset in Afghanistan -- just to take a few of their top performers on the TV side. Then there is Radio 4, the station that plays host to the country's public debate day after day.

The real cost of the increase the BBC is looking for would work out to 41p per person per day, apparently. Even if you just took its international news alone -- and forgot about its entertainment programming and everything else included in that charge -- it would still be the best deal anywhere for a population to keep itself informed about what is going on in the world.

So, while everyone is talking about all the new international news start-ups, it's worth remembering just who they are all aiming to beat.

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