Contents | March 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.
Who Needs the BBC? - Page 2
1 | 2
ith the best will, none of that is any longer true of the BBC. What happened? Why, television happened. The corporation actually pioneered television broadcasting before the war (and suspended the new medium for the duration, to start again in 1946), but in the 1950s BBC television was left behind technically by American television. It has continued intermittently to put out marvelous series on art and history, along with some very funny sitcoms. But its monopoly is gone, and in England as elsewhere, viewers and listeners can now choose from dozens of radio stations and television channels. The BBC's position seems more and more incongruous—and more and more beleaguered, with continual accusations of political bias.
This is highlighted by several recent events. A comparatively trivial one came in May, when the BBC decided it would not televise the July celebration of the Queen Mother's hundredth birthday, leaving it to be picked up by independent television. This provoked howls of not entirely factitious rage from right-wing newspapers, but the decision was telling enough. The BBC does have a broad political—or, more accurately, cultural—bias, which is almost inevitable in an organization run by educated children of the sixties and seventies. As I have patiently tried explaining to the readers of Tory tabloids, the BBC's apparatchiks are not revolutionary socialists who favor heavy redistributive taxation (not on the salaries they earn), but they are yuppies, bobos, and partisans in a quite unconscious way, people for whom the very idea of a royal birthday is vaguely risible and embarrassing.
Less trivial was the choice of a new director-general (as the corporation's chief executive is called) of the BBC. Greg Dyke spent years as an executive in commercial television, and seems to have made a tidy sum of money thereby: so much so that he could afford to give the equivalent of $80,000 to Tony Blair's Labour Party over the course of five years. Last year, not long after Dyke's arrival, Andrew Marr was appointed the BBC's political editor. A former editor of The Independent and a columnist for The Observer, two liberal papers, he is a popular and admired journalist but unquestionably a sympathizer with the Labour government, not to say a man who takes the mysterious Blair project seriously.
Attempts to defend these appointments were very revealing, and exposed two fallacies. One center-left columnist wrote that a conservative journalist couldn't have been chosen, because most conservative journalists are polemicists, rather than people who "tease out the truth." The fallacy here is that partisanship and partiality are found only on the outside edges of an imaginary spectrum of left and right, and that the nearer one is to the center, the nearer one is to virtue and truth. This is contrary to both logic and everyday observation: there's often no one so tendentious as an extreme moderate.
But much more ominous for the future of the BBC is the other fallacy: that such an organization could ever be completely neutral and pure at political heart. In fact, the BBC has been repeatedly attacked for political bias, notably on the question of European integration. Last December there was a ferocious spat on the Today program, the BBC's radio flagship, when the show was accused by one bitter critic of promoting Euro-federalism. He might have sounded a trifle hysterical, but he had a point: wrongly or rightly, those yuppie bobos who run the BBC are more sympathetic than the average British voter to the European idea. And yet they take refuge in the fable convenue of absolute objectivity and utter detachment from politics on which the BBC was built and which today seems less plausible than ever. For all their obvious failings, most American television and radio companies at least don't encourage this illusion; only in occasional fulsome moments do CBS and NBC pretend to be quasi-divine institutions. As for the London press: when you buy the liberal broadsheet Guardian or the Tory tabloid Daily Mail (for both of which I manage to write), what you see is what you get. There is no pretense of that Olympian impartiality to which the BBC aspires, but which looks so comical in light of those appointments. In a newspaper column Marr has brushed this aside with genial facetiousness: "When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed. It was a solemn and intimidating ceremony, carried out in a back room at Television Centre, involving a conclave of senior executives, a pair of rusty secateurs and a brandy bottle. Damn painful, though the sutures are out now and at least it wasn't broadcast." But behind his little joke one might detect a certain unease about how much longer that pretense can be kept up.
The BBC has been suffering larger tribulations lately. The previous director-general was John Birt (then Sir John, now Lord Birt, as the first of his predecessors became Sir John and then Lord Reith). Years ago, with his then colleague Peter Jay, he announced television journalism's "Mission to Explain." During his tenure at the head of the BBC, from 1992 to 2000, he spent less time explaining and more time imposing a "market discipline" on the BBC's everyday internal operations; this meant subjecting even the most mundane procedures (using the photocopier) to micro-accounting. The internal market caused untold inconvenience. Anyone who has had experience of a large organization in the hands of zealously innovating bureaucrats will know the feeling. And the results were perverse, as always. Someone decided that, for accounting purposes, departments would be charged several pounds every time a staff member borrowed a book from the office library. "So we just pinched the books instead," one staff member recalls.
Needless to say, Greg Dyke has reversed various of his predecessor's policies. There is now what a corporate catchphrase calls "Building One BBC." Other changes have been more expensive. From Reith's time, BBC radio headquarters was at Broadcasting House. The World Service was based at Bush House, near the Strand. Television expanded from Broadcasting House to Alexandra Palace, in North London, and Lime Grove, in West London, and then to the nearby Television Centre. Birt moved radio news and current affairs to Television Centre, including Today, which runs on Radio 4 from 6:30 to 9:00 each morning. The staff had no choice, but the interviewees did; the pols and pundits who are interviewed on the program daily were prepared to go to Oxford Circus early in the morning but not to the outskirts of London, with the result that more and more such interviews are done over the telephone. Now news is to move back into central London, although there is no plan to undo another change that caused much woe: the postponing of the main BBC-TV evening news from 9:00 p.m., when it had been almost as much of an institution as the old radio news at the same time sixty years ago, to 10:00 p.m., when it clashes with Independent Television News and Radio 4's main evening news.
one of these things is important in itself so much as symptomatic (as I say, this is familiar to anyone who has been in a large organization that is losing its way) of rudderless direction, an impression confirmed by a heavy turnover of personnel, with senior managers from both radio and television abruptly departing. By no means is every woe self-inflicted. For decades after the coming of commercial television the BBC rose to the challenge and was stimulated by the competition. But satellite television, particularly in the form of Rupert Murdoch's vast operation, presents an almost insuperable threat. Once upon a time the BBC showed every important sporting event. Then it lost them, one after another: cricket, rugby, racing. The most devastating blow was when Murdoch's Sky Channel bought the rights to air all games in the Premiership, as our soccer major league is now pretentiously called. The BBC has recently been fighting back, trying to secure the rights to some of the great sporting occasions once more.
Even this raises an awkward question: How much should a public-service corporation pay for what it shows? The question is raised in another way by, for example, Have I Got News for You, a smart, witty, and—to Americans, who sometimes take part—startlingly lewd panel program. Its three regular performers are each paid, I've been reliably told, as much for a few hours' work a week as many players in the BBC orchestras earn in a year. The fees wouldn't be anyone else's business except in a corporation with unique legal and moral responsibilities. Does the license fee exist to enrich comedy performers, or soccer clubs, on a vast scale?
As ever, the BBC plays an important part in British cultural life, above all musical life. It puts on the Proms (more formally, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts) for eight weeks every summer at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, with each concert broadcast live on Radio 3, successor to the Third Programme. This is sometimes described as the greatest music festival on earth, and for once the boast is hard to deny. A season ticket for "promming," or standing in the arena, to hear more than seventy concerts costs the price of a single ticket at the Salzburg Festival. Last summer prommers heard the Berlin Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, with such conductors as Michael Tilson Thomas and Bernard Haitink.
But the clamor for accessibility has infected every corner of the BBC, even Radio 3, which now broadcasts all day and night like any other classical FM station. Radio 3 has trashy gossip programs about music, and it has Making Tracks, a perfectly detestable twenty-minute spot at 3:40 p.m. in which two gruesomely winsome presenters from children's television chatter to those of all ages with a mental age of nine. Even the World Service has suffered. Its standards are still very high at its best, but the tendency toward lightening the news is evident there, too, not least in the belief that listeners can't bear one newsreader's uninterrupted voice for several minutes at a stretch. From 1:00 to 5:35 a.m. Radio 4 switches over to the World Service, and as a hardened insomniac, I often listen to it. During the Olympic Games, The World Today on the World Service included a saucy item about the influx of prostitutes to Sydney which had every catchpenny cliché short of the hallowed News of the World reporter's line when a hooker propositioned him: "I made an excuse and left." Without making an excuse I switched off.
Like everyone else, the BBC has been under pressure to favor cultural diversity. And quite right, too, I was about to add piously—but then, the World Service practiced diversity long before it had been named. The foreign-language departments at Bush House have always been as diverse as one could wish, and also fascinating hotbeds of exiled dissidence, from anti-Nazi refugees on the German service sixty years ago, to anti-Communist refugees later, to refugees from Iran who may have helped to undermine the Shah. The English-language service was also diverse, but it has undergone a subtle change of late. The one great advantage of the standard—or the Oxford, or, indeed, the BBC—accent is its comprehensibility to foreigners. Now you can regularly hear Indians speaking on the World Service in accents so thick that they would be understood only with difficulty by English-speaking Africans or West Indians. BBC English was not so much an imperial caste mark as a genuine lingua franca. No longer. This may be connected with the kind of guilty angst associated with the BBC. Only in January, Dyke made a bizarre attack, saying that it was "hideously white."
The BBC's final and possibly fatal problem is that there is just too much of it. From one national radio station it became two and then three; now there are five. Radio 2 is classic pop music, from Broadway ballads to early rock, and I must admit (as a culture snob who is also a Boomer) that I am a secret devotee of such series as one sublimely presented not long ago by Little Richard, and another given over to a deconstructionist topographical analysis of Chuck Berry's great coast-to-coast song "Promised Land." But Radio 1 is straight commercial pop, equivalent to a hundred American FM rock stations, and although it might seem strange to us refined English to hear a string-quartet recital introduced by a sponsor, it sounds almost as odd to hear all-day rock without ads.
For various reasons it is hard to believe that the BBC will survive in its present form for very much longer. An absolute ban on advertising makes no sense when so much of the output, on television and on radio, is indistinguishable from that of commercial rivals. The license fee is half fiction and half extortion: you have to pay it even if you never watch anything on your television but Channel 4 Racing, CNN, or obscene videos (I watch a good deal of the first two). And the almost fanatical defense of the BBC's purity is odd coming from journalists who, however politically correct they may be, would not want to write for newspapers or book publishers owned by the state.
The most likely end is a gradual breakup, with BBC-TV taking advertising and the popular radio stations, which bear little resemblance to Reith's ideal of public-service broadcasting, privatized, as so many of our state-owned enterprises have been. If British Airways and British Telecom, why not British Broadcasting? Having no fanatical objection to public subsidy of culture and education, I would be happy to see Radio 3 continue in something like its present guise, and also the World Service—for no other reason than that at its best it has been a great mass medium and a good deed in a naughty world. The slow demise of the BBC might be a reason to grieve that the shade of that which once was great has passed away; but then, as a simpler saying goes, all good things must come to an end.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Who Needs the BBC? - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 53-58.