Who Needs the BBC?

The British Broadcasting Corporation is having a hard time living up to its past. But what a past! Our correspondent reviews its history, seeking the roots of its present troubles

Not many sets of initials became universally recognizable during the twentieth century, and those that did often had ominous overtones, from SS to KGB. Foreigners know some American initials better than others (CIA and FBI, say, rather than IRS or SAT), and an Englishman doesn't suppose that every American recognizes LSE or QPR. But everyone knows the BBC. You need only to say it the local way—bay-bay-say in France, bee-bee-chee in Italy—to be instantly understood. Leonard Slatkin is the first American to become chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was no doubt thinking of his own country when he said after his recent appointment that those three letters have a magical ring.

The reputation of the British Broadcasting Corporation can be truly vexing, at any rate to its competitors. Although the BBC's monopoly on British television ended more than forty years ago, people outside our damp little island don't seem to have grasped that. Crews from the other British television companies always report that they get the same response when working in America: "So, you guys are from the BBC." "No, actually, we're Granada" (or ITN, or LWT, or whoever). "Yeah, British TV—the BBC."

But it isn't only resentful professionals from rival companies who now wonder if the BBC's reputation may not be a shadow—albeit an awfully big shadow—of former glories. The past year has seen turmoil at the corporation's London headquarters and heavy criticism of the BBC as an institution, not for the first time but in a manner more insidious and damaging than ever. Some of the criticism is political, and politically partisan, but more of it addresses the deeper question of purpose. The BBC's domestic output has grown so varied that generalizing about it makes little sense, and that raises the question of whether preserving the corporation as a single entity makes sense.

The BBC's international standing was hard-earned. There is a worldwide BBC television network, competing so far not very effectively with CNN and other satellite companies, but more than 150 million people around the world listen to BBC World Service radio, which was long famous for its integrity, high standards, and unembroidered, unsensationalized news. American addicts now complain that this once splendid station shows signs of decline—the result of what those who engage in it call promoting greater accessibility and the rest of us call dumbing down. These critics may have a point.

Certainly the BBC's position is peculiar. Its founding concept was one of "public-service broadcasting," a phrase with both an elevating and a patronizing ring. As long as it was the only broadcaster in the country, it could do as it liked, without giving any thought to the audience. Now it competes in a marketplace, though without being driven by the commercial imperatives of a market; and it has to chase viewers and listeners, though without making any money from them: most of its income derives from the license fees levied on television sets whether the owners watch the BBC or not. It's an odd and unsatisfactory arrangement.

The BBC's origins are likewise unsatisfactory, and also curious. Radio was born as a mass medium in the 1920s. How different countries responded to its arrival vividly illustrated their differing political cultures. America had a free market (at the very beginning federal and state governments didn't even regulate wavelengths, which were held by squatters' rights). In most European countries the state soon established a broadcasting monopoly under its own direction. Appropriately enough in the age when the business of America was business, American radio became wholeheartedly commercial. Appropriately enough in the age of totalitarianism, European radio became a prime vehicle for party propaganda and indoctrination.

As usual, the British way fell somewhere in between. After a very brief experiment with commercially sponsored broadcasting—a concert of songs by the diva Dame Nellie Melba, in 1920—a privately owned British Broadcasting Company began in 1922 with an exclusive license. In 1927 it became the British Broadcasting Corporation, a state firm ostensibly kept at arm's length from the government by a board of directors (appointed by the government, of course), and financed, in what was meant to be a high-minded and detached fashion, by fees exacted from all owners of what were then called wireless sets. Advertising was unknown and unthinkable.

As the historian A.J.P. Taylor observed in English History 1914-1945 (1965), this arrangement suited both political parties: "Conservatives liked authority; Labour disliked private enterprise." It should be said that Taylor was bitterly hostile to the BBC, owing to clashes of his own with the corporation, and that such hostility colored his contemptuous and absurd dismissal of even the BBC's contribution to musical life. But his claim that for years it rarely aired controversial views is harder to deny.

The BBC was the bland leading the bland, tending almost unconsciously to take an establishment view. It certainly supported the reigning dynasty, in whose reinvention as a wholesome model of family life the corporation played no small part, with, for example, the monarch's Christmas Day broadcasts, which began with George V. Presiding over the BBC's formative years was John Reith, a stern Scotch Calvinist much mocked as a cultural dictator and a prude. James Thurber described another prude, Harold Ross, of The New Yorker, as the only man he'd ever known who spelled out euphemisms in front of adults: Ross would say of some couple in the office, "I'm sure he's s-l-e-e-p-i-n-g with her." In Reith's day radio announcers were expected to wear dinner jackets in front of the microphone, and any employee suspected of a-d-u-l-t-e-r-y was fired immediately.

Rare incidents interrupted this decorum. In the 1930s there was a nighttime review of the Royal Navy, with a former naval officer providing the commentary. As he repeated the words "The fleet's lit up ... now it's gone" over and again in slurred tones, it became clear that he was in no state to continue, and he was cut short. The episode caused much public merriment and doubtless shocked Reith. (Funnily enough, it's often easier to tell on radio than on television when someone is drunk, though I do have a happy memory of Brendan Behan visibly sozzled on BBC television.)

Altogether Reith did not encourage dissent; he had a very exalted conception of his own importance; and he was obsessed by the BBC's mission to educate and improve its audience. In hindsight he doesn't seem so contemptible. He was a man of great ability, who truly believed in the grandiose slogan posted in the lobby of Broadcasting House, north of Oxford Circus: nation shall speak peace unto nation. And he believed just as passionately in the Victorian principle that we must educate our masters—the "demos" who should be fitted for democracy.

It may be that the BBC's true golden age began with World War II, after Reith's departure. From 1939 to 1945 the BBC became a national institution, as the British people gathered, in defeat and in victory, for the news at 9:00 p.m. Given that the country was engaged in a total war for survival, the news was remarkable for its honesty and objectivity. Those days still resonate. Although I wasn't yet born, let alone listening, at the time, I have folk memories of the wartime BBC, from Winston Churchill's great speeches in 1940 to Wynford Vaughan-Thomas reporting from a Lancaster bomber over Berlin in 1943 and Richard Dimbleby almost speechless with horror at liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The war years also saw the BBC become a national institution in terms of entertainment, from serious music (there was a principled resolve to continue playing German composers, whatever the latest corruptions of Kultur) to popular comedy, most famously ITMA (It's That Man Again), another folk memory, a quite indescribable variety program combining absurd sketches, catchphrases, and songs, and drawing on two authentic English traditions: the music hall and nonsense humor. Radio comedy has remained one of the most distinctive voices of the BBC ever since, with a long line of brilliant series.

At this point I should perhaps follow the practice of the House of Commons and declare an interest. Apart from the occasional appearance, pontificating on some topic or other for a minuscule fee, I have never worked for the BBC, but I seem to be surrounded by its employees. My sister used to be a senior BBC-TV executive, like her former husband; my other brother-in-law (wife's brother) directs art programs, and my late father-in-law, Frank Muir, belongs to the corporation's calendar of saints. Muir began writing for the BBC just after the war, and he and his partner of fifty years, Denis Norden, practically invented the zany radio sitcom years before they created their delightfully dotty language program, My Word!, which had a considerable American following. Their shows were laced with a clever and allusive humor in the manner of P. G. Wodehouse. I've often met people who remember fragments of their Take It From Here from more than forty years ago, such as the sketch, lasting only a minute or so, in which a Roman legion is being drilled on the parade ground by a centurion who bawls, "All right ... by the right—number awf!" and is answered "Eye!" "Eye-eye!" "Eye-eye-eye!" "Eye-vee!"

Another wartime development made the BBC the greatest of all international broadcasters. Radio was widely used for propaganda, although there were significant local variations. Well before the war every German knew the sound of Hitler's voice from his ranting orations, but the Russians didn't know Stalin's voice until he broadcast for the first time, after the Soviet Union was invaded, in July of 1941. His listeners must have been taken aback by his Georgian accent, just as the Japanese were bemused by their Emperor's lilting court intonation when he broadcast for the first time, after the bombing of Hiroshima, announcing the coming surrender in the memorably meiotic words "The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage."

Because shortwave transmissions can cross frontiers and even circle the globe, one country after another began to use radio for external as well as internal propaganda. During the war Germany beamed disheartening news at England—read by William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw—while Ezra Pound spewed anti-Semitic bile from Rome. And as the war progressed, the BBC found itself broadcasting internationally, in English (with George Orwell working for the Indian Service) and forty other languages—messages of hope to occupied Europe in French, Czech, and Danish, news bulletins and discussions in Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi.

In Dean Acheson's phrase, Great Britain lost an empire without finding a role, and by the 1950s something of the same was true of the BBC. There was a fierce campaign to start an alternative, advertising-financed television channel. Nowadays the utter worthlessness of American television is an article of faith in chattering-class England, uniting the anti-American left with cultural conservatives. (As a pretty good Schubert-and-Tiepolo-loving culture snob myself, I would say that if American television can give us The Simpsons and The Sopranos, it isn't doing badly.) But it's interesting to find that back in the 1950s someone like the critic Kenneth Tynan—politically very much part of the anti-American left—not only supported commercial television but also insisted on the superiority, cultural as well as technical, of American television.

The BBC excited the admiration of a certain type of anglophile American, and in the case of BBC radio not without reason. If there was one thing that justified the BBC's exalted reputation when I was growing up, it was The Listener. This was a weekly magazine that looked very much like The Spectator and the New Statesman—or The New Republic and The Nation—of those days, but most of its contents were taken from BBC broadcasts. Writing in 1956, Dwight Macdonald (a distinctly if not besottedly anglophile American) said sourly that in America a magazine on such a level as that of The Listener and drawn from a similar source would have to appear not weekly but annually.

At the time, Macdonald was living in London and was formulating his theory of culture, high, low, and middle—or, as he called them, High Culture, Masscult ("a parody of High Culture"), and Midcult, which "pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them." To his great amusement, the BBC then had three radio stations exactly fitting his pattern: the Light Programme (Masscult), the Home Service (Midcult), and the "tactfully named" Third Programme (High Culture). The Third Programme was uncompromisingly and brilliantly highbrow. One could turn on an opera relay from London or Vienna or a superb concert—maybe played by the BBC's own symphony orchestra, which over the years gave the British premiere of such works as Schoenberg's Erwartung and Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony—and hear an interval talk given by Bertrand Russell or E. M. Forster. Plainly, the service was not run on a commercial basis; its employees thought it bad form even to discuss ratings, and working for it was regarded as a privilege. The story goes that when a venerable scholar had given a talk on some ineffably esoteric subject, the producer said to him as he was leaving, "The fee will be fifteen guineas, Professor," and the don replied, "Very good, and to whom shall I make the cheque?"

For anyone who grew up in England in the quarter century after the war, the Third Programme and The Listener were rivaled only by Penguin paperbacks as profoundly influential conduits of unofficial education. In his recent memoir, A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, the veteran political columnist Alan Watkins describes his boyhood in a South Wales mining village, whence he won a university place in 1950. Fifty years on he remains convinced that more than anything else, it was reading the series Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians, which The Listener printed from the Third Programme, that got him into Cambridge.

With 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.

None 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.