Last Thursday John Whittingdale proved his title of Culture Secretary was ironic with the publication of a Green Paper on the future of the BBC. The document carefully vouchsafed the corporation’s role at the heart of British life while floating ideas for how this enemy of the government’s friends, principally champion of the incurious, News UK, and disappointed middle age mirror, the Daily Mail, could be shrunk, marginalised and ultimately privatised; a set of objectives one can group under vandalism. If you were moved by the destruction of Nimrud by the fascists of ISIS, wait: the government’s about to make that look like graffiti on a post box. The medievalists only wanted to corrupt history after all. Whittingdale, backed by the hereditary privileged stupidity of George Osborne, targets our future.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Tories are out to eviscerate the only UK broadcaster that’s consistently held them to account, bettering the scrutiny offered by institutionalised and vacillating opposition parties; they’ve been intent on undermining the BBC’s universal service for 70 years.
Churchill, outraged by the corporation’s critical coverage of his 1945 election campaign, later had ITV spitefully created to undermine Lord Reith’s benefaction to the nation. The Thatcher government went further, first deregulating television so the country’s creative economy was spread as thin as possible, then wrenching ITV franchises from experienced broadcasters with fine production pedigrees and handing them to consortia who knew as much about making quality programming as you do. The idea was to create an ecosystem where public service broadcasting was the exception not the rule. In such an environment the licence fee would look as archaic as the ration card.
With the proliferation of pay TV, niche channels and online media, you’d have to be a brainmulched not to realise that the BBC looks increasingly conspicuous. Its enemies cite this as a reason to destroy it. Why have this flat tax funded behemoth when there’s so much other media available at thrice the price? Sure, the newspapers and Murdoch networks struggle to do anything other than entertain – inform and educate being areas they’d rather not touch as there’s no money in it, for the incurious get so very bored with that shit, but the existence of an organisation that has a broader, more sober view of what media can and should do, is an outrage to them.
Of course the real reason the Beeb’s enemies hate it, and here I refer to people who think about such things not fans of MacGyver repeats on CBS Action who resent paying for networks they never use, is because its reach and prominence frustrates their attempt to inculcate their junk values into the population. In the world the Mail and Sky dream about, the bulk of the public would be made up of Orwellian proles, kept docile with simple entertainment and assured in their conservative beliefs by a helpful, nakedly manipulative press.
Having the BBC around must be like living with a scrupulously even-handed liberal, who dares to question everything they’re told and open the subject up to discussion. The annoying bastard is minded to consider everyone in the house, not just themselves, sometimes daring to suggest they try new things that may conceivably broaden their horizons. The audacity of this housemate! The paternal arrogance! One can see why it would better to live in an environment where you’re never challenged or subjected to new home grown experiences.
So those that would kill Aunty and bury her in a plot with once great ITV companies like Granada and Thames; companies that challenged the government of the day and were rewarded with annihilation; pretend the debate’s about tax and media plurality, when in truth it’s an underhanded attempt at terminating thought, punishing an orthodoxy that (on paper at least) privileges universality over demography, and closing off alternatives that impede their attempt at establishing cultural hegemony.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that some aspects of the government’s BBC critique aren’t reasonable. But both those who support the corporation and privately will its destruction can point to similar themes with very different solutions in mind. The BBC’s universal service requires it provides something for everyone. The Tories look at the corporation’s output and say, “why the Voice? Why Strictly? Why chase ratings?” but that’s the wrong question and the programme examples are facile. The BBC must maintain a high audience share to justify its universal funding but there’s no reason why popular programming should be safe programming.
Forget imperial expansion, if the BBC’s been guilty of anything these past twenty years it’s timidity. The corporation could and should be trying to develop new formats, redefining popular tastes. Instead it’s pandered to them, leading to schedule stagnation and a loyal but apathetic audience. There’s more staples in the BBC’s TV schedule than a stationary warehouse. Few of its biggest hits, either on TV or Radio, were commissioned this century.
Worse, the Beeb has fallen into the trap of trying to stake a multi-channel presence in the world of digital TV – an unnecessary move given its privileged position at the head of the electronic programme guide. The result has been fragmentation, niche broadcasting, and with it the disastrous decision to create channels aimed at largely imaginary strata of the British population.
Once BBC TV would make a show for either of its two main channels, within a broad remit, and take a punt on finding an audience. Now it imagines the audience and makes the programmes it thinks this unknowable group wants. The result? Patronising, Reith-reversing channels like BBC3; uneducating its audience in what television can be for younger audiences.
So the government claims the BBC’s risk averse, and that’s true – the role both it and New Labour played in fostering that timidity brushed aside. But the idea that you dismantle a cultural asset because it’s frightened to innovate is palpably absurd. The Beeb, contrary to the rhetoric of crisis engineered by its enemies, is in pretty good shape. One Savile doesn’t make a summer, or indeed a case for abolition. Most of the BBC’s services are excellent and welcomed by those licence fee payers who had the nous to seek them out. The Tories say the BBC’s trying to do too much, but why shouldn’t it develop new online tools, for example, if it has the resources to do so? Isn’t looking for better ways to deliver local news or weather reports serving the people who pay their fee? Isn’t the benefit of the licence fee that there’s a pot of money to try these things?
There are many people in the country who resent stumping up for Aunty. In some respects this is understandable. Perhaps the fee should be variable in some cases, based on ability to pay. The sense of unfairness to those who’ve never been enticed by BBC TV or Radio, the idiots, must be palpable. But such people only speak for themselves. I pay for services and infrastructure I don’t use, I pay for people and spaces I’ll never see. But I believe in universal health care, maintained communities and welfare for those who need it. Oh, and free education. By the same token I believe that broadcasting shorn of the commercial imperative should exist for everyone in the country, whether they opt to consume it or not. If public service broadcasting becomes the province of a small, paying elite, it will be diminished and inevitably limited in its ambitions.
If we had a government that supported the BBC, guaranteed its independence and told it to think the unthinkable, promising that audience share wouldn’t prejudice charter renewal, we could have HBO, or whatever byword for innovative TV you want to use, on a scale unseen anywhere in the world. As things stand we must hope there’s a few people in the Culture Department and Treasury who know the value as well as the price of the licence fee, so are minded to preserve what we’ve got, until their successors set it free to make good on its promise.