Barbarians at the Gate – Britain’s Broken Public Sphere

October 11, 2010

Alan Rusbridger’s What is the future of the fourth estate prompts a thought on the state of British media, or – more simply – the BBC/Murdoch duopoly.

The BBC commands radio, online, magazines (Top Gear, Gardener’s World) and mainstream TV viewing. Sky and Newscorp command subscription TV and print.

They are – natch – deadly rivals. Newscorp thinks of the BBC as a patrician and parasitic not-for-profit, leeching money off those who reap no benefit from the licence fee whilst simultaneously punishing any free enterprise (think News 24 removing the commercial base for Sky News). The BBC for its part has replaced the Church of England in the lives of the nation, and its combination of sanctimony, saintliness and soap.

The Guardian is – of course – squeezed by both.

Such is the power of the duopoly that one is obliged to take sides. As BBC loyalists will tell you with the air of sympathetic, but impatient teachers: to criticize is to undermine; to question the licence fee effectively heresy. As News’ people will tell you – the BBC &**ç%!!

But this misses the point. The BBC is effectively apolitical, unable to campaign to change the establishment on which it reports. Newscorp is a weapon unsheathed in defence of its own quixotic interests. One has the artistry and affectations of decadence, the other the vitality and viciousness of barbarism.

Neither option in the duopoly offers plurality. But it has, until recently, mirrored rather well Britain’s political system. Of course, coalition government has interrupted that…

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