by Giles Fraser
Monday, 10
February 2020
Debate
16:59

Advice for the BBC’s next director-general

Radio is so obviously the best bit of BBC output, and could easily shoulder the Reithian mission at a fraction of the cost.

BBC TV is rubbish, says my Moral Maze colleague Tim Stanley in the Telegraph today. In contrast listening figures out last week showed that BBC radio output continues to thrive, with Radio 4 and 5 live growing audiences. 

So why not dump BBC TV and the website, I muse to myself? Radio is so obviously the best bit of BBC output, and could easily shoulder the Reithian mission at a fraction of the cost.

“Oh no”, said my wife over breakfast, “you have to keep Attenborough”. Yes of course, I said: “And Peaky Blinders”. Oh agreed, I said. And, on behalf of the children, she put in an unanswerable case for CBeebies — the BBC delivering what has to be easily the best children’s television in the world. Hey Duggee is a work of genius. Yes, yes, I keep on retreating. OK, apart from Attenborough, and Peaky Blinders, and Hey Duggee … I am beginning to feel like John Cleese here … let’s cut the lot of it apart from the radio.

“And, of course, you have to keep the news”, she insists. “We couldn’t do without BBC news”. I feel on stronger ground here. Sky does a good job, I suggest, and isn’t it all terribly woke now on the BBC? “But you never watch Sky” she replies. And it’s true. I can feel myself losing every point. BBC News reaches nearly 400 million people a week, worldwide. By the end of the porridge, I have lost the argument. And glad to have lost.

After all, the BBC and the Church of England have a great deal in common. They are both nationalised industries; indeed, I would say, both national treasures. Both with a moral mission. Both custodians of culture. Both, apparently, in need of reform. Both obsessed with attracting young people.

My own view is that when the Church starts chasing a younger audience simply as an end in itself it ends up losing sight of its core mission — and that the same is probably true for the BBC. No, concentrate unashamedly on the edification proposed by your founding fathers. Don’t be embarrassed by a commitment to higher culture. And stick to what you do best.

In the foyer of Old Broadcasting House building there is a Latin inscription. In English it reads:

“This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first governors of Broadcasting House in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being director-general. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”

The reference here is to St Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Not bad advice for the next director-general.