Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Should government speech be free?

Free as in beer, that is. This story indicates that a watchdog group is criticizing the BBC's plans to make its programs available free on the internet on the ground that this will unfairly compete with, and discourage investment in, the private provision of content. My first reaction was disdain; the common content providers' attitude that it's unfair to have to compete with free is both ugly and silly.

But maybe I should be more skeptical of free government-provided content that could be provided by other sources -- that is, editorial and entertainment programs, as opposed to reports drawing on resources the government is uniquely positioned to marshal, such as statistical data. Perhaps what the BBC is offering is the circus part of bread and circuses. (Ah, Torchwood.) Government already has a bully pulpit or two. If Neil Netanel is correct that an independent copyright-supported sector is an important counterweight to government views, then perhaps government content sources shouldn't be allowed to undercut that sector on price as well.

Ultimately, I'm still on the BBC's side. Given that its programs are already produced with public funds and available to anyone who pays the TV license fee, the marginally increased competition seems unlikely to drive private producers out of business, and it could provide people with access they'd otherwise lack. But I might not be as sanguine about the system if I thought the BBC was an Orwellian propaganda machine, producing slick ads for government policy in the guise of harmless entertainment.

In the US, government propagandists have increasingly inserted their material into supposedly independent news reports. Because news is low-margin, many outlets are happy to take government-provided content and pretend that it's their own reporting. This seems to me much more detrimental to democratic principles than BBC-branded entertainment, and it's direct subsidy rather than competition.

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