Auntie Gets A Spanking

We all love the BBC – don’t we? I know I do.

I’ve experienced the BBC from inside – I briefly worked there in the 1980s in the External Services, which then had many language branches – and as a viewer. You never would become a BBC journalist for the money; staff salaries always were (and still are) lower than the commercial sector. You joined because the BBC represented the very best in journalism and as a BBC reporter people took you seriously. I’ve also lived in the US where there are a 1,000 TV channels and none worth watching. Unlike the BBC.

But back in the 80s Auntie was a very stuffy place. I had been working for a year as a successful talks writer and broadcaster for the English language section. I interviewed for a job in a sister department called Central Talks and Features, but was turned down because (so my section head embarrassedly informed me later) “it was not the done thing to wear a woolly jumper for a BBC board”. It was a cold day; I had a sober suit-and-tie on and a black V-neck jumper. That did for my career with the BBC; I immediately left and joined Granada TV, a more brutal place but one that couldn’t care less what you wore.

Of course it’s all very different now. For one thing the BBC has expanded tremendously. And so has the money to be made from it. As of now it has more than 100 senior executives earning annual salaries of £150,000 and above (versus £142,500 for the prime minister). Jeremy Clarkson, who was not a BBC staffer, reportedly made £14 million from Top Gear in 2012. Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, likes to say the “BBC does not belong to its staff. The BBC does not belong to the government. The BBC belongs to the country.” Which is of course meaningless; you and I do not have any supervision over the BBC and therefore we cannot be said to own it.

A review of the BBC’s operations every 10 years seems to me a pretty relaxed way of going about things.

Reith’s baby

We tend to forget the BBC largely exists thanks to a deeply conservative – indeed quasi-fascist – Victorian, John Reith. When Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Nazis in 1939 Reith wrote in his diary that “Hitler continues his magnificent efficiency.”[i] And he had no love for Winston Churchill, referring to him in his diary as “that bloody shit”. But we owe Reith what remains to this day the best description of the BBC’s mission: to inform, educate, entertain.

And now that mission is once more coming under government scrutiny. Every 10 years the government of the day conducts a Charter Review of the BBC. The latest such review, unveiled last week, has evoked a storm of protest from BBC bosses and celebrity sympathisers – many of whom of course owe their livings to the BBC. Back in 2005 the media landscape was completely different. Outsiders may be scratching their heads at all this protest against what in theory ought to be an opportunity to stand back and soberly consider what the BBC is, what it is for, how it is funded, and what it should be doing in today’s digital age.

What’s wrong with asking some profound questions of an entity for which about 90% of UK households are legally obliged to pay a licence fee of £145.50 a year? If everybody pays the license fee who ought to, the BBC makes about £3.33 billion a year from this source alone. That’s a chunk of cash. How our national public broadcaster sends this and much more besides need regularly scrutinising. We should ignore the comments of such as Ben Stephenson (BBC drama controller) who weighed in early back in March this year, and was quoted by the Radio Times (RT) as saying that the “BBC is always on the front pages for the wrong reasons and it’s effing nonsense.” Even the esteemed (Lord) Melvyn Bragg’s views – in the same RT issue he was quoted as saying that the BBC is the “greatest broadcasting organisation there is” and that the government should “leave it alone” – really shouldn’t weigh in the balance. A number of celebrities – several of whom work for the BBC – have written an open letter to 10 Downing Street arguing that “a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain”.

These people are not neutral in this matter; they are open to accusations of bias. In Reith’s day objectivity was the cornerstone of the BBC’s ethos; what Bragg, Stephenson et al have to say would be reported by Reith’s BBC, but it would also report more neutrally on what the Charter Review consultation document actually says. Anyone superficially reading the headline news might imagine that the whole BBC is under attack. It really isn’t.

A cool look at the Charter Review

At least, not if the Charter Review consultation document means what it says. Let’s not forget the government review of the BBC is, in principle (and perhaps there’s the rub), a very open and transparent process. The review is online here; anyone can make their views known either online, via email, or letter, and I counsel everyone to at least read it – it’s a very clear and comprehensive document.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport says in the consultation document that it wants to “make sure that all views are given proper consideration”. If the government did not have a rolling 10-year review of the BBC’s mission, scope and finances, we would all be up in arms about failing to do its duty. The foreword to the consultation document by John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, says that the “BBC remains much-loved by audiences, a valuable engine of growth and an international benchmark for television, radio, online and journalism. It has showed this countless times over the last Charter period…” He goes on to mention the various scandals that have mired the BBC since the last Charter Review, not the least of which was the internal cover-up of Jimmy Savile’s appalling character; but also the complete failure of the Digital Media Initiative which cost £100 million. “Governance systems have proved opaque and cumbersome,” he says.

He’s right. So before we succumb to the luvvie propaganda we should spend the time between now and 8 October this year, when the consultation process ends, calmly thinking and writing to Whittingdale about what we like and dislike about the BBC. Remember – you won’t have a chance to do that again for another decade…

[i] Radio Modernism: Literature, Ethics, and the BBC, 1922–1938: Todd Avery (2006), Ashgate Publishing, p. 17.