New Broadcasting House. The BBC is a fine institution, but needs to get its house in order. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Leader: Blind faith in the BBC

The BBC is the best broadcaster in the world - but it needs to get its house in order.

The former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson once said that the National Health Service was the nearest thing the English people had to a national religion, but surely the BBC must come close behind. Our state broadcaster is frequently mentioned as a source of Britain’s international “soft power”, with Top Gear alone sold to more than 200 countries around the world.

The comparison between the NHS and the BBC is apposite, because these institutions suffer from several of the same malaises: overmanaged while their front lines are under-resourced, a few individuals at the top enjoying bloated salaries while low-paid workers with insecure contracts pick up the slack from redundancies and cutbacks at the bottom.

It also must be said that both organisations are too often blindly defended by the left. That is understandable. If neither existed, our country would be much the poorer for it. Yet affection for the history of these great institutions should not lead us to treat questions over their efficiency and purpose as an assault on our values. During the last election, Ed Miliband spoke of “weaponising” the health service; in the end this amounted to a handful of small-scale proposals, such as one-week tests for cancer, and a panoply of misty-eyed “I heart the NHS” badges and Twitter ribbons. Labour’s health policy was never bold or innovative: the service was supposed to function merely as an applause line, its very existence an implicit rebuke to the supposedly uncaring Tories.

It is tempting for progressives to pursue a similar strategy towards the BBC, particularly because it now seems to be coming under sustained assault from a Tory party that has always chafed at the licence fee funding a supposedly “left-wing” broadcaster. (This suggestion of left-wing bias is laughable; the BBC’s bias is merely towards the establishment.) John Whittingdale, who has long been hostile to the licence fee, is now Culture Secretary; and on 5 July the Chancellor, George Osborne, told Andrew Marr that he would curb the BBC’s “imperial” ambitions by reducing its budget. Mr Osborne added that the lifestyle features and the recipes on the BBC’s website were practically turning it into “the ­national newspaper as well as the national broadcaster”.

Tempting as it is to dismiss this analysis as one merely intended to help the (mostly right-wing) newspaper industry, it is fundamentally correct. For example, the BBC website publishes articles that recap trending topics on Twitter – traffic-chasing content that is in plentiful supply elsewhere. The reality shows on the youth-focused BBC3, such as Snog Marry Avoid and Don’t Tell the Bride, are hardly in the Reithian tradition. At the same time, the corporation’s coverage of news and politics has fallen far behind that of Channel 4 and Sky News in terms of the diversity of voices it represents (it is still, in Greg Dyke’s phrase, “hideously white”, but we could add to that: southern, male and middle-class). And as Jason Cowley notes in this week's issue, there are too many long-time senior executives collecting huge salaries with far too little to show for it.

The BBC is eminently defensible. It is the best broadcaster in the world. Thanks to the licence fee, it produces content of a quality and breadth that the commercial sector could never hope to match. And it is clear that it will need to be defended as the Conservatives enjoy the newfound power their overall majority in the Commons gives them. But the BBC must overhaul its practices and get its house in order.

Budget blues

The perversity of the British tax system is that it falls most heavily on earned income. Successful entrepreneurs pay more tax on their earnings and business than their children do on inheriting the fruits of that labour, while the very rich are adept at avoiding taxation altogether. A homeowner whose house triples in value pays no tax on the asset other than council tax – based on property valuations fixed in 1991. Land ownership, an increasingly valuable commodity, is subject to almost no taxation at all.

This requires a fundamental change in our attitude. We need a new business model in Britain, one that shifts the burden of taxation from earned to unearned income; from taxes on income and consumption to those on static assets – property, inheritance and land. As Vince Cable has written, we should shift taxation away from “profitable, productive investment” and towards “unproductive asset accumulation”.

For his next Budget, instead of tweaking inheritance tax to benefit the already property-rich, Mr Osborne should think again: levy more tax on assets, and less on income.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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A global marketplace: the internet represents exporting’s biggest opportunity

The advent of the internet age has made the whole world a single marketplace. Selling goods online through digital means offers British businesses huge opportunities for international growth. The UK was one of the earliest adopters of online retail platforms, and UK online sales revenues are growing at around 20 per cent each year, not just driving wider economic growth, but promoting the British brand to an enthusiastic audience.

Global e-commerce turnover grew at a similar rate in 2014-15 to over $2.2trln. The Asia-Pacific region, for example, is embracing e-marketplaces with 28 per cent growth in 2015 to over $1trln of sales. This demonstrates the massive opportunities for UK exporters to sell their goods more easily to the world’s largest consumer markets. My department, the Department for International Trade, is committed to being a leader in promoting these opportunities. We are supporting UK businesses in identifying these markets, and are providing access to services and support to exploit this dramatic growth in digital commerce.

With the UK leading innovation, it is one of the responsibilities of government to demonstrate just what can be done. My department is investing more in digital services to reach and support many more businesses, and last November we launched our new digital trade hub: www.great.gov.uk. Working with partners such as Lloyds Banking Group, the new site will make it easier for UK businesses to access overseas business opportunities and to take those first steps to exporting.

The ‘Selling Online Overseas Tool’ within the hub was launched in collaboration with 37 e-marketplaces including Amazon and Rakuten, who collectively represent over 2bn online consumers across the globe. The first government service of its kind, the tool allows UK exporters to apply to some of the world’s leading overseas e-marketplaces in order to sell their products to customers they otherwise would not have reached. Companies can also access thousands of pounds’ worth of discounts, including waived commission and special marketing packages, created exclusively for Department for International Trade clients and the e-exporting programme team plans to deliver additional online promotions with some of the world’s leading e-marketplaces across priority markets.

We are also working with over 50 private sector partners to promote our Exporting is GREAT campaign, and to support the development and launch of our digital trade platform. The government’s Exporting is GREAT campaign is targeting potential partners across the world as our export trade hub launches in key international markets to open direct export opportunities for UK businesses. Overseas buyers will now be able to access our new ‘Find a Supplier’ service on the website which will match them with exporters across the UK who have created profiles and will be able to meet their needs.

With Lloyds in particular we are pleased that our partnership last year helped over 6,000 UK businesses to start trading overseas, and are proud of our association with the International Trade Portal. Digital marketplaces have revolutionised retail in the UK, and are now connecting consumers across the world. UK businesses need to seize this opportunity to offer their products to potentially billions of buyers and we, along with partners like Lloyds, will do all we can to help them do just that.

Taken from the New Statesman roundtable supplement Going Digital, Going Global: How digital skills can help any business trade internationally

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