The either/or* argument is something we'll have to get used to over the next few weeks, as the election rumbles into town - your town, my town, every single crummy town around. You can only have one thing or another. There is no other choice, so this is what you're stuck with.
People use the argument when talking about a finite pot of money from which things must be paid. Why don't we just scrap Trident and use the money to pay for better schools and hospitals? Or, alternatively, why don't we just sack loads of public sector workers and then we can afford lovely tax cuts for the poor hard-working private sector people who are so hard done by in comparison? The trouble is, I think, when you open the door to one of those either/or arguments, you validate the other; and then it's simply a question of whose MPs get over the finishing line first, rather than what's actually best.
I might not like replenishing Trident, for example, but I imagine a lot of the billions of pounds quoted for its installation will come in the form of wages to keep people in gainful employment, often in deprived areas. To argue against it in mere cost terms is a detriment to the genuine counter-arguments in terms of whether it's really needed, whether it's an effective deterrent to the modern threats, and so on. And you might not like public sector workers, but you have to bear in mind that a third of that money quoted for their wages goes straight back in tax and national insurance as well, so arguing against them in pure cost terms isn't the whole story either.
Sometimes it's not so simple to just say you can make a saving by doing something; you have to attack it with a series of arguments beyond cost. A lot of things cost money, and they're good or even reasonable value for money. Just saying you could save X, Y and Z is enough, and it could be harmful to your cause.
The either/or choice is also an argument that people are using when trying to save BBC 6Music and, to a lesser extent, the BBC Asian Network radio station and the BBC website. It's the idea that if you, for example, simply threw Chris Moyles under a bus, or blew up BBC3, you'd have the funds available to keep everything ticking over. You'll have heard a lot of these arguments over the past few days after the news that the radio stations could be scrapped.
This kind of negotiation is a bad idea, I think. Firstly, it is telling the BBC that you don't mind them making cuts - you are simply disagreeing with the cuts they are making. That automatically assumes that there's a need for cuts to be made. If you think there is, then fine, but you need to give business reasons. It's not true, for example, to say that all of the BBC's competitors have suffered throughout the recession - Sky has taken on many more subscribers. So is it really the time when Auntie must cut back operations in order to help her beleaguered commercial rivals? Or is it just that simplistic "It's a recession, the public sector must suffer" attitude that I keep hearing?
Don't get me wrong. The BBC is, I'm pretty sure, an organisation that could do with a bit of trimming here and there, as most big corporations are. A lot of us, in the private and public sector, work in offices where a man walking in with a shotgun and massacring a quarter of the workforce - so long as it was the quarter of the workforce who happened to be the ones who don't do a lot of work - wouldn't make a material difference to output whatsoever. But it's not that kind of either/or, either. It's easy to imagine you could just come in and sack a few people, and that would improve things; but that would assume that (a) management consultants know what they're doing and (b) that the sackings would justify the utterly enormous fees those consultants would command. It's not always the case.
A better argument, I think, and one that is happily being made in this instance, I should add, would be to look at the positive output of Asian Network and 6Music and the BBC website - the things they do that aren't done anywhere else and wouldn't be picked up by commercial rivals. That makes them unique products which should be supported by the licence fee. Sure, you could behead Chris Evans and pay for several journalists, but that's not the point; the point is that you need to be making a case for Chris Evans and the journalists remaining intact. You need to make the case why 6Music and the Asian Network and the quarter of the BBC website under threat are doing things that are brilliant and shiny, and commercially irreplaceable. That's the battleground, not saying that someone somewhere else should get the chop.
Which isn't to say that I listen to 6Music or Asian Network, because I don't, and I do happen to think that Chris Moyles is an abomination who makes me cry through the sheer misery of it all whenever I stray across his radio programme in the morning. But that's not the point. I still think they should exist, and they have a right to exist, and each one is vital. I can't stand BBC3, either, and some of the programmes on it seem to me like they were made as a joke, but then I only have 30 days left before my 35th birthday, and I'm not allowed to watch it after that, anyway. I may think BBC3 is shit, but that doesn't mean I don't think it should exist, if it's doing stuff that other people like. It's not an either/or choice, and it's not about what I like or dislike.
Having said all of which, and I'm going to be really hypocritical now, if the BBC really is going to take a machete to its website, can I make a personal plea. While I think it's been a delightful experiment to allow some of the most noxious arseholes in Britain to have a blank canvas on which to vomit up last night's pease pudding, if you're going to start anywhere, could you please start with BBC Have Your Say? It doesn't serve any purpose other than to make prejudice, kneejerk unpleasantness, xenophobia and the BNP seem more popular than they really are, and I'm fairly sure that wasn't what people had in mind when it was set up. All it's done is made people learn how to be slightly more careful when expressing their racism.
In that instance, I would like there to be an either/or choice, and I would like the choice to be for HYS to be chucked in the bin. Keep all the moderators on in jobs, mind - they have done such sterling service in sieving out the hatefulness that they should be given medals really - but that's the only place where I would really love my licence fee not to be spent on something. Just my own personal prejudice, you understand, and I know that in reality all the great stuff on the BBC website will go, and HYS will remain like a stumpy boil, but I am asking all the same. Go on, BBC, I love you really.
* It's funny, but when I write 'either/or' I use a slash, which, come to think of it, means 'and-or', so in effect I'm saying 'either and or or', which isn't especially beautiful. I think that's when little symbols like slashes can come to your rescue a bit.
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