November 2nd, 2009

A golden chance for the BBC to return to what it’s good at

Now is the time for all good men and women to stand up and defend the BBC. Of course it is true that Auntie has turned into a greedy, confused vulgar old bat. The people looking after her are greedy, confused and irresponsible themselves, but she must be protected.

The BBC was, and could easily be again, something to be proud of, a force for good and unique in international broadcasting. It would be a great national loss if the Ross-Brand Radio 2 scandal were used as an excuse to destroy Auntie by all those who would love to see her brought down.

I share the general view that it is unforgivably nasty and cruel to torment a harmless man, publicly on air, by insulting him and his granddaughter in messages on his answerphone. The recording of these messages is much worse than the edited reports: Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were like a pair of psychopathic school bullies on acid and even suggested that their victim might kill himself.

It is a mystery to many millions, and to me, that anyone should for an instant consider broadcasting such a piece of sadism, let alone the BBC. But Ross and Brand have their defenders. Such stuff has an enthusiastic audience and so the editors at the BBC must have thought at the time, when they decided to let this programme go out. Defending Brand and his show last week, Noel Gallagher of Oasis said: “You know what? There’s now a massive divide. Them and us.” That’s true and the BBC was on the wrong side.

Admittedly the waters are slightly muddy.

It is not so far clear, from the BBC’s own website report, that Andrew Sachs did refuse to give his permission to use the material. It may not be relevant that his granddaughter works as Voluptua, the Goth vampire stripper, for the group Satanic Sluts, has boasted about her liberated lifestyle and had indeed slept with Brand. And it is important that the BBC and its artists should be free to be offensive, within reason, or as people now say “edgy”, although if in doubt they can rely on the commercial media to take up the burden. It’s not as though sexual innuendo, bullying and abuse are underrepresented on the airwaves, edgy or not. Even so, the whole episode is without a doubt bad enough to call the future of the BBC into question.

This could be a wonderful opportunity.

Bloated old Auntie could at last be subjected to tough love and restored to her former glorious purpose by a strict new regime of self-denial and self-discipline. Instead, we see media jackals hovering.

Commercial television would love to be rid of the unfair competition suffered from the BBC – and understandably so. It is entirely wrong for a public service body such as the BBC to compete, with taxpayers’ money, against private sector media groups. So it’s hardly surprising that they welcome the corporation’s disastrous embarrassment.

Meanwhile, television apparatchiks and the great and the good come up with all sorts of hopeless tinkering to sort this injustice out, such as top-slicing – each one more complex, tedious and unworkable than the last. You cannot share out bits and pieces of the BBC’s public sector protection to the private sector. It always was a self-contradictory nonsense.

In all this the forces of commercial competition are supported by those who see no need for subsidised television at all – a motley collection of latterday Mary Whitehouses, extremist free marketeers who obviously don’t see much foreign television and those who wrongly think the BBC’s political bias is reason to shut it down.

Indeed it is quite hard for the BBC to defend itself these days. Quite apart from general dumbing down, vulgarisation and liberal bias, it has had plenty of scandals. As John Humphrys pointed out on the Today programme last week, there have been three in only a couple of months and each time the trustees talk about tightening editorial control. They are doing it again, having been astonishingly spineless throughout this drama. To hear Sir Michael Lyons, the top trustee, on the radio last week, or Sir Christopher Bland before him, is to hear what is wrong with the great and the good in our day – ineffective, overcautious, overprotective and with all the decisive elan of Dickens’s Circumlocution Office or, as Kelvin MacKenzie put it last week, “a diamond-encrusted dud”.

Meanwhile, the BBC has put out a remarkably nasty comment about the Queen and her genitals. And to my astonishment in Little Dorrit, Andrew Davies’s lavish BBC adaptation of the Dickens novel, a genteel Victorian lady was made to remark to a single gentleman that she thought Chinese ladies were different “down there”. Apart from being the most sensational anachronism, it is astonishingly vulgar – typical of the vulgarisation of the BBC, even in its best work.

I still believe that the BBC could rise like a phoenix from the ashes of its reputation if it tried radical simplification. The corporation should drop most of what it does. It shouldn’t be providing silly chat shows, game shows, local radio, pop stations, breakfast television, bought-in programmes and all the low-skilled, low-grade rest. The simple way to make these cuts is to remain firmly on the right side of Gallagher’s divide – the side of civility and maturity, of high standards, of education, even of elitism, of fairness and decency, of the good and of the best. That’s what the BBC is for.

First of all, it should abandon the commitment to serving every audience, a pledge made long before the explosion of the commercial media: others can do that. Besides, plenty of audiences are actually undesirable, such as the hard porn community and the paedophile community and the Wossy apologists.

The BBC should ignore them and serve audiences that need protection from the cold winds of the market or the stale breath of populist taste; it should dump programmes that others do as well unless it can do them better and stick to doing well things that others do badly or not at all. Quality news, documentaries, drama, education, religious programmes and comedy come to mind.

This would save the BBC millions and since, as Mark Thompson, the director-general, said not long ago, the BBC is “wallowing in a Jacuzzi of cash”, it ought to be able to do a lot less a great deal better. How about some value for all that money?