THE new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, has wasted no time in appointing a panel to review the BBC’s future. The review is needed. Conventional broadcasting faces transformation, possibly a slow collapse in favour of online viewing and listening. Unfortunately, most of those appointed to the panel have a strong interest in drastically hacking back the BBC’s remit.
I must declare my own vested interest. I am a BBC groupie, having worked for the Corporation in radio and television for 22 years. Its values formed me as an adult and as a person, and continue to do so. When I watch W1A, the comedy about the BBC, it is with instant recognition of the foibles and pretensions of the institution.
Having been in college, university, and church life since, I now recognise that institutions are all rather maddening places, capable of being sent up, and inviting attack from a scornful and sometimes envious outside. This is especially so if they are functioning as they should.
The point here is that institutions are created to last. They are resistant to sudden ill-thought-out change because at least part of their purpose is to create the stability and cohesion that enables continuity. This is not only for themselves, but also for wider society — a point that the critics often miss. Lord Reith understood the mission of the BBC. He would be appalled at the suggestion that “quality” could be extracted from popularity. Entertainment was part of his mission, alongside information and education.
The BBC’s critics believe that a much pared-down BBC would be fairer to commercial broadcasters. They appear to envisage a diet of nature programmes, period drama, serious documentary, mainstream music, and minority interests, such as religion. Scrap the fun and the irreverence, they seem to suggest, the unselfconscious pomposity, the scope for innovation and failure, the screen-filling game shows that occasionally (but not, alas, predictably) come up with gold. Above all, scrap the irony, the faint sense of benign conspiracy that permeates the Corporation’s output.
The problem is that it is just these institutional characteristics that contribute to our sense of national cohesion. There is an underlying strength to British culture, but it is challenged by our growing diversity. The BBC is one of the platforms, together with the C of E, the monarchy, and the ancient universities, which keep society together. But, once broadcasting is reduced to a jostle between competitors, and the BBC is dulled down and ineffective, we risk becoming a more aggressive and fractured society, where competing minorities listen only to the voices that they already know.