Although national elections, with the notable exception of those in the US, are often parochial affairs, today’s British general election could have massive repercussions for the global media landscape.
Whilst most polls are suggesting that none of the three main parties are likely to gain an outright majority, it seems more than likely that The Conservatives, led by David Cameron, will take the largest share of the vote and, probably, the largest share of seats in the House of Commons (the fact that one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other is one of the many idiosyncrasies of the British electoral system). If that does prove to be the case then whilst he will have a massive to-do list, one of the things he might be looking at is the role of the BBC in the 21st Century.
At present the BBC, funded by a universal licence fee on all TV owners in the UK, provides free content on TV, on the radio and, importantly, online. The fact that the BBC website provides an incredibly comprehensive news service on its site that anyone with web access can view has, I feel, had a massive impact on the global publishing sector: ranked by Alexa as the 42nd most popular site on the planet, the BBC has essentially acted as a barrier to any news site looking to put its content behind a pay-wall.
Why pay to access news (which many argue has no ‘value’, as opposed to the sort of insight & analysis provided by sites such as the Wall Street Journal & The Economist) when it’s all there for free on the BBC? Why use the sites of national newspapers, which often now have limited foreign coverage due to cost reductions, when the BBC has correspondents in just about every country worth talking about? On top of this is the fact that, outside of the UK, the BBC takes advertising on its site, thereby providing a direct challenge to the hundreds of other content sources vying for the ever-decreasing bucket of ad-dollars.
Cameron’s Conservatives have never threatened to dismantle the BBC but they have suggested they feel it has outreached its remit and suggested that the licence fee, which pays for the vast majority of its operations, might be cut were they to form the next government. They have also broadly backed a recent review which recommended that the BBC should cut back its digital operations by as much as half. Whilst the review states that the BBC should concentrate on producing the ‘best journalism in the world‘, and that this should be ‘free at the point of use‘ it doesn’t specify whether this has to be true anywhere outside of the UK.
So, imagine this: in order to scale back its size, and open up opportunities to commercial properties (including British ones, many of which are now hugely popular outside of the UK), a new Conservative government decrees that, going forward, access to the BBC should be blocked outside of the UK, or, if not, should be paid for by overseas users. It sounds, even to me, far fetched, and it’s possible that they will do nothing of the sort.
But if they did, it would please many of their backers in the media (of the UK’s 9 national papers, all but three are supporting The Conservatives), would be a huge shot in the arm for the flailing global publishing industry, and would fundamentally change the nature of the web. All in all, it would make a pretty impressive way to mark your first few weeks in office.
BBC image by Dan Taylor on flickr