Monday, April 25, 2005

Despotism and the BBC

To understand the why liberal institutions behave the way they do, you need to understand the mechanics of despotism. This post gives an example from the BBC.

Despotism is:

...government by a singular authority, either a single person or tightly knit group, which rules with absolute power.

Of course in a modern society there are no absolute monopolies and so absolute power - but plenty of institutions come close. The purest despots in the US are the Federal and State Supreme Courts. They invent new laws, rule laws that they don't like to be unconstitutional, or just ignore them. These judges are appointed for life, and so are only accountable at the time of appointment.

The BBC is also despotic, but it has one weakness - it relies on the Brit government for its funding - via something called the BBC Charter. This gives it the right to collect, Gestapo-style, about $220 each year from every TV-owning household in the UK, regardless of whether they watch the BBC (75% do not).

Students of economics will see from this that the BBC's client is not in fact its viewers, but rather whichever government is in power when their Charter comes up for renewal every 10 years. Between times it's an unchecked despotism.

So now bemused Americans will understand this story (my ellipsis):

The BBC was last night plunged into a damaging general election row after it admitted equipping three hecklers with microphones and sending them into a campaign meeting addressed by Michael Howard, the Conservative leader.

Hecklers were recorded shouting:

"Michael Howard (Conservative party leader) is a liar", "You can't trust the Tories" and "You can only trust Tony Blair".

The BBC is planning to include this footage in an "educational" documentary just before the upcoming election. The BBC claimed that it's non-partisan, but:

...was unable to provide details of any other campaign meetings attended by the BBC3 crew.

OK, a typical CBS/Rathergate style sandbagging. But why is the BBC supporting Blair - didn't the BBC undermine Blair on the Iraq war?

It did. At the time of the 2003 BBC attack on Blair, its Charter had just 3 years to run - to 2006. Going up against Blair was a bet that he would be out of power by then. But this was risky - the Conservative opposition disdains the BBC and might not renew their Charter, and although Blair looked weak in 2003, he has a lot of resilience.

But despots find it hard to accept limits to their power. So they took a chance, and lost. And then had to make peace with Blair or lose their monopoly in 2006.

Their chairman and their CEO apologized and resigned, and a reporter was busted. Suitable replacement managers were then installed and the Blair government proposed renewing the BBC Charter for another 10 years. But here's the neat thing - they haven't quite done it yet!

So, that's why the BBC is sending wired lefties into Conservative meetings, and that's why they're getting footage of them heckling, and that's why they'll run the story just before the Brits vote. And that's why, when Brits can access hundreds of TV channels and millions of web sites, they will be paying for the BBC for the next 10 years.

That's the only rule of despotism - protect your monopoly.