In David Lodge’s novel Changing Places, the American anti-hero Morris Zapp spends six months of exile in the city of “Rummidge” in the English Midlands. Seeking something that might remind him of California, he tunes in to a pop music station and is entranced by a brilliant satire of the worst kind of American AM radio. The disc jockey only advertises one product: himself — occasionally breaking off to play jingles about himself or to advertise the names of his own listeners. Eventually Morris grasps that this is not a satire: “Radio One was like this all the time.”
If he returned to the UK today, on the BBC’s 100th anniversary, Morris would find that pretty much all of its output is one long advertisement for itself. In one series, the presenter unearths “lost” BBC recordings with all the reverence one might expect an archaeologist to accord to some piece of Etruscan pottery. In another, the son of the DJ John Peel (the BBC gives much airtime to broadcasting dynasties) discusses his father’s record collection. The BBC, forbidden from carrying paid advertisements on its own channels, pays for posters that advertise its own programmes but also for a more general form of advertising that promotes the whole BBC with slogans such as “This is our BBC”.
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The sense that the BBC is “ours” and that it is a “national institution” has, in fact, done great damage to the broadcaster. There is a cosy, self-congratulatory tone to much of its programming. Its presenters can expect to become “national institutions”, which greatly increases their earning power from sources other than their formal salaries. Meanwhile, its position as the national broadcaster has made its political reporting lazy. It expects to be at the front of the queue for interviews and inside information: there was, for example, much indignation last Friday when Liz Truss failed to give the BBC first dibs in her press conference. This means that its definition of journalism often means just repeating what politicians tell their interlocuters: “Friends of the Prime Minister tell me that…”, and so on. What gets lost in this is real research.
The keystone of the BBC is the licence fee — an institution similar to one of those ancien regime taxes on windows or powder for wigs. Everyone who watches is required to pay for the privilege and the fee is complicated and messy to collect. Every householder in the country gets stern letters telling them that they must pay and, ostensibly, detector vans can pick up illegal sets in much the same way that the Gestapo could find the position of Special Operations radio operators in occupied France. The exception to this is the BBC World Service, which is paid for out of general taxation. It is also the part of the BBC that commands most respect. Anyone following events in Ukraine will note that the experts from the World Service are usually less smooth than their counterparts in the mainstream BBC, but they are almost invariably better informed and more interesting.
The problems with the licence fee are obvious. Once the BBC had an effective monopoly on Broadcasting in the UK — though there were always a few heroic dissidents who insisted on getting their information from Radio Tirana. Independent television companies have existed since the Fifties but they were regulated in ways that meant that they had to observe the same kinds of rules as the BBC. Now, however, anyone with a computer can watch programmes from anywhere in the world and many don’t bother with television sets at all. Anyone who listens to France Culture or watches the Franco-German television channel Arte would regard the suggestion that the BBC is the best broadcaster in the world as laughable. Most of all, the BBC faces competition from the big American streaming services which have deep pockets and the advantage of starting from scratch, unencumbered by the veneration for its own traditions that does the BBC such damage.
There is a simple way out. Sell the BBC, or sell the particular programmes that it makes. This would be less of a break with the past than it might sound. The BBC already sells its formats to foreign broadcasters. Some say that it would be wrong to sell the BBC because its programmes are popular, but this is an absurd argument — popular programmes are precisely the ones that will get made by private sector companies. And they will be made much better. Not least this will be because Netflix will make celebrity programmes that feature real celebrities rather than just people who are slightly famous because they have appeared in other BBC programmes. There is a core of news and documentary programmes that will probably not attract commercial buyers. But these are precisely the kind of programmes that are made well by the current BBC World Service. A slightly expanded version of this service could be funded by the state — perhaps from the receipts from selling off the rest of the BBC. It would concentrate on factual broadcasting and its gravity would be greatly enhanced by the fact that its presenters would be relatively unknown people who would concentrate on doing their job. They would not have their own twitter accounts and they would certainly not perform cringe-making imitations of Duran Duran, which is what Andrew Marr, until recently the lynchpin of the BBC’s political reporting, once did on one of those charity marathons that the BBC periodically inflicts on its audience.
So why does no one do it? The Right claim to believe in the free market and constantly mutter about reducing or abolishing the licence fee, but the truth is that they like the BBC as it is. It is, like almost all parts of the establishment, conservative at heart: its coverage of the death of the late Queen would have embarrassed the most slavish of Soviet broadcasters. The Chairman of the BBC from 2011 to 2014, Chris Patten, was a former Tory politician — only in the insane world of current British politics can someone who was a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher be described as a member of the “liberal establishment”. There is plenty of pantouflage between the BBC and the Conservative Party. Michael Gove has worked for the Corporation and Allegra Stratton moved from being a presenter on Newsnight to being Boris Johnson’s press advisor. Robbie Gibb had a 25-year career at the BBC before spending two years in Downing Street under Theresa May and then returning to the BBC board. When Jeremy Paxman stepped down as presenter of Newsnight, he was filmed in a matey little scene cycling a tandem into the sunset with Boris Johnson.
Most of all, Conservatives like the BBC because it is easily bullied. Every time a journalist says something that they do not like, they can make threatening noises about the duty of impartiality and hint that they might appoint some particularly brutal Gauleiter as chairman of the governors. Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph perfectly encapsulates this relationship. For a while, he refused to pay his licence fee. The ostensible casus belli was, in fact, a good one. The BBC refused to sack the oafish, pretentious, and unfunny comedian Russell Brand after he used a radio programme to make offensive remarks about a young woman to her grandfather. However, refusing to pay his licence fee has not stopped Moore from appearing on the BBC or from presenting programmes (for which, one assumes, he was paid with licence payers’ money). It was even suggested that he might be made chairman of the BBC governors.
The Left should put a stop to all this. Getting rid of the BBC would end the absurd Tory pantomime of simultaneously getting uncritical coverage and complaining about Left-wing bias. An enlarged World Service would be much better. Neutrality, objectivity, and balance are all problematic words but a broadcasting service that has managed to annoy the governments of China and Russia must be doing something right.
The next government is probably going to be a Labour one and no one doubts either that it is going to have to deal with appallingly difficult circumstances. The BBC has done much to trivialise politics — think of the cringe-making television career of Ed Balls after he lost his parliamentary seat. But if a small, news-focused BBC core were built around the World Service, it would encourage seriousness about public affairs and a new level of clarity and concision from our leaders. Perhaps we will go back to the wonderful days when Clement Attlee was asked whether he wanted to comment on some matter and replied with one word: “No.”