The BBC : Aunty Beeb or Mummy knows best?
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was set up in the early 1920s, in order to establish a radio service for both the UK and its empire. Its first Director General was a fiery Scot called John Reith, who despite saying that he’d little idea of what broadcasting actually was, set a commendable corporate ethos, which was that its mission was to inform, educate and entertain.
It’s funded by a compulsory tax, called a television license, levied on any household which has a television set. It is annually in receipt of 3.5 billion pounds sterling via the license charge, on which it pays no taxation. To this income is added profits from marketing its products domestically and to other countries, which brings the turnover up to about the 5 billion pound mark.
It styles itself as being totally independent of the government of the day and any particular political party. As its current Director General said recently, it’s owned by the people. Well, it’s certainly financed by the people but whether they actually own it or have any effective say in what it broadcasts, is a highly debatable point.
Like any massive bureaucratic organisation, it has gone through some highs and lows, but the BBC, more than most, has had a lot more of the latter. In its very early days, it reflected solely the views of the ruling upper class and the elitists amongst them too. In the ten years prior to the outbreak of WWII, it pushed the line of appeasement with the Nazis, and simply denied access to its programmes to any dissenting viewpoint. Does that sound familiar? In that decade, Churchill, who saw Hitler and National Socialism for what they really were and the danger they would become, only managed to get on it once a year.
During the war years, it basically did as it was told by Churchill and the coalition government, and it did it well. While it certainly turned out its own fair share of propaganda, it was those six years that really earned it a worldwide reputation as a trustworthy source of information, irrespective of to whom it might be inconvenient.
Throughout the fifties and early sixties, it didn’t seem to be able to escape the iron control it had been placed under during the war years, resulting in the widespread perception that it was simply a right-wing mouthpiece of government. That perception was essentially correct, but since it had both a wireless and television monopoly, nothing could be done about it.
The sixties and seventies were better eras for it. All the old schedules were thrown out and new ones, more focused on the ordinary person put in place. Out went the plum Oxbridge accents, to be replaced by a few originating from outside the London catchment area. This change was forced upon them by plunging audiences, caused by the appearance of commercial television channels and later by the deregulation of radio broadcasting, courtesy of the pirate stations broadcasting from outside territorial waters. Again, all the radio schedules were scrapped in favour of programmes that did things like playing the music the people actually wanted to listen to. The quality of the news, reporting and especially the entertainment, became exceptional, to the point where the new programmes were sold to other countries, for development into local formats.
Having made the change to be more representative of the ordinary person, the trend continued into the eighties but not to good effect. Increasingly, it lost contact with and any interest in nationwide concerns and concentrated more and more on minority issues, at lot of which were highly political. News output gradually made that subtle shift from reporting the news to presenting the news. This was supposed to make it more hard-hitting and relevant but all that was actually happening was the distinction between news reporting and news commentary was now blurring. Mainly, this took the form of spin but it also included a less than even-handed selection of what exactly was to be reported or not.
They were still trying to compete mindlessly with commercial broadcasters in the same style and genres, instead of using their unique advantage of not having to earn an income, to produce quality rather than populist content.
Looking back over its 90 year history, certain trends are apparent in its evolution. The most obvious one is that like any big organisation, it only changes in response to threatening situations. Given that its income stream in guaranteed, irrespective of the reception of its product, it more than most has no incentive to change unless its very existence is under threat, and it never has changed without that compulsion. That only happens when its audience share plunges to dangerous lows.
The second observation is more subtle but nonetheless just as real. It started off as a vehicle for the upper class, run by the upper class and exclusively for the benefit and pleasure of the upper class, or aspirants to that bracket. During the war years, it really came of age when it became the voice of the nation, talking to the world. It was then as close as it’s ever been to talking to the ordinary british person. After that, it moved to being London centric. Watching it, you’d hardly know life existed north of Watford, and with a few terrific exceptions like Alan Bleasdale’s plays, life up there was not painted in any realistic light. It still isn’t, in my opinion, and the same applies to the south, east and western directions from London as well. In the last twenty years, it’s evolved to cater for an even more specific niche; medialand.
Medialand reflects its inhabitants. They’re all enlightened people intent on building a beautiful new world, and they know exactly how well they’re doing in that endeavour, because they constantly tell each other how well they’re doing. Beyond a few personal bitchy spats, they rarely disagree with each other. They’ve all done Media Studies, did politics, journalism or marketing at college and do the obligatory stint at the BBC, before heading out to the Guardian. Their politics are overwhelmingly liberal, which is medialand speak for left of centre. On any serious political question, there is only one approved viewpoint, with a complete and dismissive intolerance of any other.
If you thought consensus science was bad, you’ve never had an encounter with consensus journalism.
They’re obviously aware there are people out there who don’t live in medialand but they’re very patient with them, since it’s their mission to lead such people to the light. Although they all of course agree with Voltaire’s maxim of I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it – that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever get to say it using any organ of medialand. That makes complete sense to them, because you see there are one set of laws for those who live in medialand, and another for the rest of us poor Morlocks, shambling around in the darkness of our unenlightened underworld.
Over its lifespan, the BBC’s class divide became a geographic divide, then a political divide, and now a cultural one, but what has never changed is that its mindset was always and is still elitist, in the very worst sense of that word. It’s always been about broadcasting to the common folk what their betters consider is best for them, and they know exactly what that is.
You may disagree that the BBC inhabits an elitist medialand, which is out of touch with its audience, but if that’s the case, you’ll have to come up with an alternative explanation for the string of furores it’s been involved in.
Who on earth thought that two sniggering louts ringing up a retired and well-loved elderly actor out of the blue and regaling him in explicit detail with the sexual exploits of his granddaughter was a good idea? Who thought that broadcasting live and without his knowledge on national radio, an elderly man in his seventies trying to defend his extended family could possibly be tasteful, never mind fair? Did they even ask the poor girl before they trashed her reputation to the nation? What sort of reaction did they think that would provoke from the ordinary person?
How could it possibly be alright to stand in high judgement on other people’s shady deals when all along, they’d retained all their highly paid stars and top executives via external service companies, which meant both the BBC and the people themselves ended up paying considerably less tax?
How can it possibly be right to take the decision to give no time to the climate realist viewpoint and furthermore, go to court to defend the identities of the cabal of people who actually were the only input into that decision? How can you possibly defend giving something as important as the global warming question, the same unique protection you once gave to the policy of appeasement?
So many times, they offend the sentiments of ordinary people, because they simply don’t know what that those sentiments are. They seem incapable of understanding the very idea of some basic things like love of country and respect for the men and women who are prepared to put everything on the line, to protect that old-fashioned idea. Notions like that are very out fashion in medialand.
They desperately wanted to spin the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as some sort of variant of Britain’s very own Vietnam, by almost eagerly reporting each casualty on the evening news, but their silly agenda was beaten by the quiet dignity of a bunch of villagers nobody had ever heard of. The people of Brize Norton heard the transports droning in with the bodies aboard, so they knew the hearses would be driving by in a while. Everything stopped in the village for five minutes, as they lined the streets to pay their final respects to the hearses driving by.
They knew each of those hearses contained someone’s son or daughter and irrespective of the politics of the thing, it was a person who’d lost their life in the service of their country. Old fashioned stuff but even a bunch of sophisticates like you couldn’t sneer at it for too long, because people found it grossly offensive, which yet again surprised you. You repackaged it as your very own condescending take on little England but let’s face it, you’ll never understand anything like that. That would involve something called patriotism.
For years your reporters stood there in a helmet and flak jacket, twenty miles away from where the metal met the meat, looking suitably heroic as they rehashed the press handout just given to them by the liaison officer. It took a soap star called Ross Kemp to actually live with the troops, go out on foot patrol with them and dodge bullets with them, to shame you into doing some real war correspondent reporting and you’ve still not caught up with him. I’ve never watched the soap he was in and probably never will, but I have to hand it to him, he’s got brass ones. Like all good interviewers, he asked a decent question, stayed quiet and let them talk for themselves about what they thought of the war and by doing that, gave us a good picture of its realities from their viewpoint. You’ve done a service to the troopers you’ve obviously grown to love Mr. Kemp, so my hat comes off to you.
You think we’ve no longer got things like the average family, where there is a Mom and a Dad and a few kids. That’s all been somehow replaced with transient partnerships of metro sexual hermaphrodites, with a rainbow alliance of brats from hell, all doing their own thing and being very creative, which as everyone knows, is shorthand for bringing down the quality of life for everyone else in their community. Believe it or not Ladies and Gentlemen of the BBC, there is a world where parents love their children and the children return that love. It doesn’t even involve sexual abuse, it’s just ordinary. Yes, I know that might be hard for you to believe but it’s true. Apart from the usual family squabbles, it may not exactly make a riveting programme but that’s the way it is.
When it comes to the entertainment part of the BBC’s offering, we get well into that divergence of reality between that fabled medialand they live in and the world everyone else lives in.
I turn on the television and am treated to programmes about people you obviously value and think I should be interested in but whom I just naturally find either depressive or totally abhorrent. The “good” criminal who’s spent most of their adult life preying on the vulnerable but who’s now written a book, totally justifying all the pain and misery they’ve meted out to ordinary people, because it was all somehow society’s fault, which is to say, our fault.
The brainless penis on legs, whose only claim to fame is how many women he’s porked and how many children he’s fathered, before he did a runner on to the next one. The blowsy cow with five children of various colours, who’s never heard of contraception but definitely knows how to claim each and every state benefit going. She’s never worked in her life and never will either. If she should perchance miss one benefit allowance, there’ll be some grim-faced believer in the big society, determined to get it for her and get it backdated too.
Do you really seriously think the average person is interested in the incoherent philosophical musings of trailer trash like that? I’m sure you feel it’s part of you doing your own particular penance for living in the more fashionable areas of London or something, but we actually don’t feel that need. It’s no wonder people are deserting the channel.
Elitism, because it breeds an over class, will always lead to betrayal of the under class and betrayal is systemic; it doesn’t confine itself to just the intellectual but the personal and very human. The latest scandal to hit the BBC falls into that category and it’s a complete new low. One of their major stars of light entertainment, Jimmy Savile, has recently been exposed as a serial paedophile with a 40 year history of preying on young people of both sexes. Some of the offenses are alleged to have been committed at parties on BBC premises and it’s yet to be ascertained if any staffers were involved.
The people who let their adolescent children go to the Top of the Pops programme at the BBC, trusted implicitly that they would be safe, not knowing they were handing them over to the mercy of a predatory and protected sub-culture of paedophiles. It is no defense by middle and especially upper management, to say that they didn’t know. It’s their job to know and don’t forget, over and above that obvious duty, we’re talking here about a journalistic organisation. If there’s one thing I know about any organisation, is that more information always flows up the structure than down it.
The fact that the director of the charity Children in Need, which holds an annual 24 hour fund-raising telethon at the BBC, stipulated explicitly that Savile was not to be involved in any way, is particularly damning. You can read into that as you wish, but to my mind, it means a senior person outside the corporation had picked up on the rumours about him, which leaves senior people within the BBC without any credible excuse for not having done the same. It all happened on their watch and it continued for decades.
It simply verges on the incredible that they didn’t know.
The most outrageous part of the whole episode is that when for the first time in years, BBC journalists actually did some investigative journalism – the mess was right on their own doorstep after all - and produced a programme exposing Savile, it was dropped by management in favour broadcasting tributes to him, as he’d just recently died.
The executive who communicated that decision looks to have fallen on his sword, but it’ll take a lot more than that to remedy the reputational damage and restore a vestige of trust in the institution.
Longer term, it’s difficult to see how the corporation’s current licensing system can stay viable. When the handheld transistor radio became commonplace, any attempt to enforce a radio license became impossible. As broadband speeds increase, web users will find themselves with hundreds of television channels to watch on a netbook computer, rather than on a TV screen. Will a TV license have to be replaced by a computer license? I think not. The financial model will simply break down, and that may turn out to be a mercy killing.
John Reith’s mission statement for the corporation has slowly degenerated over the years until it now reads; to selectively inform, politically educate and provide a stream of grotesques for our amusement.
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