Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has proposed the launch of a sister company to the BBC which would be called the British Digital Corporation (BDC) and funded by a tax on technology companies like Amazon and Google.
Corbyn put forward the idea along with a slew of other media reforms during his Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival today (23 August).
What is the BDC?
The new BDC would exist as a free to access service alongside the BBC.
Though the BBC has plans already in place to develop its landmark iPlayer service, which director general Tony Hall said was vital to the future of the public broadcaster, Corbyn has tabled the creation of a much more radical separate bespoke digital service that would futureproof its existence.
The Drum approached the BBC for comment but the broadcaster declined to discuss the proposals.
The leader of the opposition proposed the BDC plan in the hope of generating "some thinking" around a public sector body taking advantage of new technology, he said. The proposition builds upon the idea of a BDC, first floated by James Harding, the former BBC director of home news.
“Imagine an expanded iPlayer giving universal access to licence fee payers for a product that could rival Netflix and Amazon. It would probably sell pretty well overseas as well,” he said.
In addition to an organisation that would commission content he said it might also create a secure social media platform that would rival Facebook.
“A BDC could develop new technology for online decision making and audience-led commissioning of programmes and even a public social media platform with real privacy and public control over the data that is making Facebook and others so rich,” he explained.
Corbyn said he did not want the public realm to sit back and "watch as a few mega tech corporations hoover up digital rights, assets and ultimately our money".
A BBC funded by tech giants
Corbyn said this venture would be funded by a "digital licence fee" that would be issued to a “few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires” who “control huge swathes of our public space and debate”.
Under his scheme, media companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon operating in the UK would be taxed.
Corbyn noted that "the licence fee itself is another potential area for modernisation".
“In the digital age, we should consider whether a digital licence fee could be a fairer and more effective way to fund the BBC," he said.
On its implementation, he added: “A strong, self-confident government could negotiate with these tech giants to create a fund, run entirely independently, to support public interest media.
"Google and news publishers in France and Belgium were able to agree a settlement. If we can’t do something similar here, but on a more ambitious scale, we’ll need to look at the option of a windfall tax on the digital monopolies to create a public interest media fund.”
Google and Amazon both declined to comment on Corby’s speech when asked by The Drum.
In the lecture, Corbyn also made a number of additional proposals on the future of the BBC.
He suggested that the corporation could be freed from government control by having the taxpayer elect representatives to its board.
He also suggested granting charitable status for not-for-profit journalism outlets, creating an independent public service journalism fund and for the BBC to regularly produce internal reports on its operations for greater transparency.
On a wider level, Corbyn set forth an agenda for the media industry. “To improve our media, open it up and make it more plural, we need to find ways to empower those who create and consume it over those who want to control or own it.”
He also expressed concerns with the monopolisation of the UK’s media. “Just three companies control 71% of national newspaper circulation and five companies control 81% of local newspaper circulation. This unhealthy sway of a few corporations and billionaires shapes and skews the priorities and worldview of a powerful section of the media.”
Corbyn concluded: “We need big, bold, radical thinking on the future of our media. Without it, at best, we won’t take advantage of the opportunities in front of us as a country and for the kind of journalism that makes the world a better place. At worst, a few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires will control huge swathes of our public space and discourse.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) issued a statement in response to Corbyn's comments.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The NUJ welcomes bold proposals that seek to protect and bolster public service broadcasting, and aim to carve a future for the BBC that is free from the ceaseless political pot-shots lobbed its way in the last two licence-fee settlements that have undermined its resources and threatened its ability to deliver quality content and programming. As a union we want to see an end to the raiding of the licence fee – which has put the BBC in the unenviable position of having to fund free licences for the over-75s or be the organisation that is forced to wield the axe on what had always been a government-funded welfare benefit.
“Extending freedom of information legislation to include private companies in receipt of public contracts can only be good for public interest journalism. As will be the long-overdue need for action on digital monopolies that have so badly hit traditional media players in the industry – whether it’s an agreed settlement with the likes of Google and Facebook or a windfall tax, that is money that could be a shot in the arm to journalism in the UK."
Rowly Bourne, founder of media adtech firm Rezonence expressed skepticism about the launch of the BDC. “Firstly, I love it when politicians and big corporates make it sound so easy to create a new product or company from scratch. There is overwhelming statistical evidence that big corporates and government fail to disrupt even themselves, let alone sectors they are not experts in. Ask any entrepreneur or early-stage investor, they invest in the team and the entrepreneur, who will have the sheer bloody-mindedness to deliver, not government backing.
“Everyone talks about Facebook which has won market share, but there have been so many fallen stars along the way, from Bebo, Myspace, and let’s not forget Google has had an attempt at making its own social platform (Google Plus) and failed. Facebook is powerful because it has create a product and evolved a product to meet the needs of its customers base, as voted for by its customers, who could leave to use another platform at any point. “
“Instead of trying to challenge the tech players who have global scale and have left many competitors who did not find product-market fit in their graves, we should be thinking about how we can use their technologies to empower British editorial media, but also understand how they achieved their wealth.”
He concluded: “For British Digital Corporation to exists and be a success, it would need to provide a standardised CMS for editorial media to publish, and have content discovered, and paid for based on engagement with the content. Naturally, we don’t think tax is the answer for funding this service, but through an ad-funded medium that enables editorial media to stand apart from the user-generated web."