Arnold Plant, ?, Janet Beveridge, Lionel Robbins. 1920s.
April 29, 1898|
Hoxton, London, United Kingdom
|Died||April 19, 1978(aged 79)|
Having started life as an engineer, he had matriculated as a student at London School of Economics in 1920. There he had participated in the same earnest student conversations as Lionel Robbins. After graduating with degrees in both economics and commerce, he had worked for seven years at the University of Cape Town.
After returning to London to take up a new chair of commerce he lost no time in setting out his opposition to the rise of public corporations and along with his fellow LSE economists Robbins and Friedrich von Hayek more widely to the emerging orthodoxy of social democratic interventionism that would come to be called Keynesian. In his inaugural address, in October 1931, he insisted that the ultimate controller of the business world was not the capitalist boss, as fans of public corporations liked to think, but "that relentless controller and employer, the community of consumers." The businessman was merely an "organising agent" for this public. He therefore warned against the temptation to replace communal control by "some other ill-defined criterion." What Plant had in mind was the extension of rationalization through public corporations. Monopolies had not been a major concern, he affirmed, until state intervention entrenched them. When it did, it prevented the public from benefiting from new inventions that inevitably challenged existing interests. State monopolies were therefore not only a "menace to individual liberty" but a debilitating one. Plant also noted a similar trend inside businesses. As they grew, their "expert management" came to enjoy substantial autonomy equivalent in some ways to the position of managers in a public corporation. A company ought to tell its shareholders periodically the worth of their shares, for example, but in practice it tended to avoid doing so, ostensibly to avoid revealing strategic information. As this "business secrecy" increased, it impeded the operation of a market. It therefore made managers partly responsible for accentuating the kind of slump that had happened in 1929. And it was but one among many practices that obstructed commerce. They were nothing new, Plant remarked: there was a history to such techniques extending back to the East India Company's military responses to "interloping" ships (which the company termed "pirates") in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Plant therefore embarked on his years at the LSE by identifying the problem of public corporations central to a broader set of concerns about knowledge in the economy. He recommended that along with studying business secrecy, the School should research advertising—a subject that he believed to be "of sociological and philosophical as well as business interest." In the next few years he pursued those themes himself, most notably in the fields of patenting and copyright. He published strong attacks on bulb in successive issues of Economica in 1934. He also drew up hundreds of pages of statistical notes for a broader historical analysis of intellectual property, which still survive among his papers at the LSE. That broader study was never published, as Plant found himself consumed by commitments to teaching and administration, including working for the government in World War II. But for decades he was a regular contributor to government inquiries into what he called the "new commerce in ideas and intellectual property." In each domain of that commerce he mounted a libertarian case for the prerogatives of the recipient. He assailed the BBC as a monopolist for neglecting listeners (and later viewers); he criticized copyright law for protecting publishers and authors against readers; and he assailed patents for serving monopolies against users. He devoted an enormous amount of time and attention to calculating the consequences of favoring producers at the expense of receivers in each of these arenas. Plant quietly became Britain's most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open source software movement.
When the IBC asked him to investigate listening, Plant therefore seized thy opportunity. His study would adopt a new approach, he declared. It would not rely, as the few previous attempts had, on listeners' own accounts of what they "regularly" did. Instead, Plant had an army of researchers knock on doors and record what they observed at the moment they entered each home. This approach, adopted from the advertising industry, would yield statistically reliable numbers—Whal Plant called "facts beyond question or uncertainty." His staff would record the results in terms of average numbers of listeners over short intervals—again, something so different from earlier efforts as to be incommensurable with them. Overall, Plant aimed for a fine-grained account of the temporality, forms, and geography of listening. The geography mattered because the IBC's transmitter was only one tenth as powerful as Luxembourg's; whereas Luxembourg was audible across the UK, Normandy had to sell itself as reaching the best (that is, wealthiest) part of the country.
The survey was duly done in February and March 1938, with a large follow-up later in the year. Plant sent staff to over 25,000 households in 34 of Britain's major urban centers. What they found was that citizens were listening to four principal commercial stations—Luxembourg, Normandy, Paris, and Toulouse—as well as to the BBC. And there were major geographical variations in listening. Overall, the BBC retained a dominant share of the audience, but in the south, Normandy sometimes pushed it close. And on Sundays Reith's austere policy left the BBC an also-ran. The corporation would remain off air until 10:30 am, and then offer only a sober schedule of services. Bible stories, and religious and chamber music, falling silent again at times when the population should be in church. In stark contrast, a typical Radio Normandy Sunday of the late 1930s began at 7 am and continued until after midnight. In fifteen-minute chunks it offered children's serials, dance and other popular music, sport, astrology, variety, and drama. Plant demonstrated the popular victory of this schedule in innovative graphical displays, of the kind fashionable in the period.
The implications of Plant's research extended far beyond the mundane commercial needs that had instigated it. In the first place, the study (along with another carried out independently at the same time) marked the dissociation of reading and listening. Earlier attempts by the BBC to know about listening practices had relied on writings—in particular, they had adopted the model of letters to the editor. Now they were to derive from observations and inquiries, ideally taken in real time. In the second place, Plant showed definitively that the BBC monopoly was a myth. In other words, the whole debate about broadcasting in midcentury Britain was based on false premises. And in the third place, the inquiry implied a new and different vision of the listener, as consumer rather than citizen. It helped create a media analogue to the economic liberals' concept of individualism.
Plant was among prominent in favor of commercial broadcasting that would break the BBC's quasi-monopoly. Following the Beveridge Committee report he returned to the arguments about information monopolies that he had been making before the war. Ever-lengthening periods of copyright did nothing to stimulate better quality or more quantity in creative works, he repeated. He also deplored the quasi-monopolistic powers of the Performing Right Society and Phonographic Performances Ltd.—the rights agency partly responsible for a so-called needle-time rule that severely limited the BBC's use of recorded music. And he attacked the BBC itself for claiming what he called "property in programmes." Such monopolies, Plant warned, could stifle what he labeled a "new commerce" of intellectual property. He endorsed commercial television and even pay TV. The controversy he helped fuel would be a major stimulus to the establishment of the Pilkington Committee in 1960, which, in restating the BBC's radio monopoly, set the stage for the pirate radio boom.
- Johns, Adrian (2010). Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age. W. W. Norton & Company, pp 75-78.
- Johns, p 96.