Another Kind of Public Option

LONDON--We're being prepared, it appears, for the sacrifice of the public option in whatever health-care reform bill manages to crawl out of Congress.  This might be a good time, therefore, to look at another form of public option in another country.  Specifically, the BBC's news channel.

It's on my mind now because, aside from having it on in my hotel room, it was the target a couple of weeks ago of a broadside attack by the head of its chief competitor, Sky News.  Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival, James Murdoch (son of Rupert and a chip off the old bludgeon) revived his dad's twenty-year old broadside at the same venue against the same target.  The BBC, James complained, was unfair competition.  A Murdoch complaining of unfair competition, of course, is like a crocodile complaining of reptilian behavior.

The complaint by young Mr. Murdoch, though, echoed the accusations of those who oppose a health-care public option: a government-run non-profit enterprise makes it hard for profit-making outfits to compete.  The BBC example is instructive.  It is, of course, not government-run (see the row between the BBC's news division and the Labour government during the run-up to the Iraq War, a row whose flames were fanned by, surprise, Rupert Murdoch), although the government does collect the license fee that funds it.

And Americans should disabuse ourselves of the antiquated view of the BBC (gleaned from all those PBS reruns) as some gold standard of television generally; two hours of the daytime output of its main channel would bring you right up to date with the Beeb's capacity to generate benign trash.

But, when you want to understand the impact of the particular public option that is BBC News (and, specifically, its news channel), just compare Murdoch's Sky News and CNN International--which do compete with BBC's output--with Murdoch's Fox News and CNN's domestic product--which don't.   The former are, by any standard, more serious, more balanced, more--to boil it down--grown up.  In fairness, not only the competition with the Beeb is responsible for the relative sanity of Sky (though it does, in the Murdochian mold, play more downmarket); British communication law has a requirement that news broadcasts be, here's a twist, fair and balanced.

But CNN, which goes head-to-head with BBC's World news channel in global competition, is a good couple dozen IQ points above what CNN offers its American audience.  And it's been that way for a while, which leads one to assume that Time Warner can make money that way, too, or the International channel would long since have vanished.

The public option makes for better choices?  Where have I heard that before?

Photo Credit: Flickr user hyku