14 May 2020
Bad days at the BEEB
Bye, Bye, Auntie?
The best time to go to bed is at 9.59pm. That way there is no risk of accidentally watching even a moment of the 10 o’clock BBC news, and thus inducing pillow rage and bad dreams. The BBC, dear old Auntie, seems in her declining years to have a remarkable ability to get up the collective noses of viewers. Declining years they are; the number of UK citizens paying their TV tax (licence fee, if you wish) slowly diminishes year on year, down 82,000 so far in 2020. Still a healthy 25 million plus compulsory payers, at £154.50 a year, but to an organisation as perpetually cash strapped (so it says) as the BBC, a problem. Those new non-subscribers can still watch their TV’s, on-demand or catch up channels – Netflix and so on – and for that don’t need a licence. And as those new channels get better and better, so the number of BBC viewers also goes inexorably down.
The Licensing Authority will not believe that you watch only Amazon Prime and goes on sending those nasty threatening letters, and TV addicts can’t argue they only watch ITV and Channels Four and Five as a defence – it’s only if you don’t watch live TV you can dispense with a licence. As that is precisely what many do, and as less and less folk watch BBC, they increasingly wonder why they should go on paying for Aunties expensive habits.
Which is a good question. Aunty has not only expensive habits, she has some nasty ones. So say persons of leftish persuasion, rightish leanings, LibDemish and no doubt Libertarian orientations, Communists, Freelovers, Flat-earthers, meat eaters, vegans, and every other group which has had much to do with the Beeb in its news and documentary guise. They all think the state broadcasting service is biased against them, and unfairly in favour of their opponents. “Ah-ha” says the Beeb, “that proves we aren’t, that we are getting the balance right”. Well, no, it doesn’t. The Beeb has always been part of the establishment; it still is and has a dislike for everything that is anti-establishment. That used to mean it had favourable leanings to those who had been to private school and spoke nicely and were white males and lived in agreeable suburbs (or Chelsea). Now it is against all those things, rather strongly in some cases. And its dislike of the non-establishment shows more than somewhat – right leaning Tories and Brexiteers and Covid19 sceptics are top of its current list of hates. So were Corbynistas and that crowd. It likes moderate lefties of internationalist and progressive outlooks, much akin to its own staff.
We would not expect The Guardian to be keen on Donald Trump, and The Telegraph did not run many (any) pieces on John MacDonnell’s taste in home décor. But we know the rag’s politics when we buy the rag, indeed, that is probably why we buy the rag. When we tune in to the state owned broadcasting service what should we expect? In Russia, praise of Mr Putin’s physique, and in France a reflection of what the Ministries are thinking; in China nothing on Covid19 other than its American origins, and in Saudi no exposes of the royal family. But in the UK we ought to, certainly used to, expect scrupulous neutrality and politeness.
Ah, politeness. There is perhaps the reason why all those disparate viewpoints have come to so despise the Beeb. Robin Day started and Jeremy Paxman built on a new approach; hectoring rudeness to those in the interviewee’s chair. Auntie found that audiences liked to watch savaging of politicians – “answer the question, Minister, answer the question. Answer the question”; never pausing for breath so that the Minister could. That has become the house style as Laura Kuenssberg seeks to prove that she is louder and ruder and less inclined to let the interviewee get a word in edgeways than any other journalist. Not just her, of course, it is the way of the world now. A half hour interview with a cabinet minister will generally reveal nothing as the poor minister is prodded and goaded and talked over.
Remember Alan Whicker? Mr Whicker was a master of the revealing interview, not by shouting over his targets, but, having done careful and thorough research, by asking an artfully composed question, then sitting back and silently listening to the response. The poor interviewee was allowed to run on at length, usually digging a hole as they went. Whicker listened and let the poor sap dig, occasionally chucking them a bigger shovel with another careful question.
Can you imagine any political interviewer now patiently sitting and listening? Not alas that rudeness and hectoring behaviour is the preserve just of the Beeb, it is a media standard that, let’s be honest, we the audience perhaps rather enjoy. But if there is any point to the BBC, it ought to be to uphold standards of debate, of analysis, of sheer good manners. If we tune in now at times of national crisis it is probably out of sheer habit, a reflex back to the measured and calm times of Richard Dimbleby and Cliff Michelmore and Sue MacGregor. But what we actually get from our national broadcaster is almost invariably disappointing.
But why should we expect more from the broadcast media than the printed version? We know what to expect from the Guardian and the Daily Mail and the New Statesman. Only the BBC has to straddle the gulf of the whole population’s prejudices and opinions, leavened with a need to keep up audience numbers up with bizarre games shows and dire comedies and a bit of decent drama. A need, we say, but in truth no need, because those 25 million plus of forced financial supporters cannot influence anything by voting with their “off” buttons because that makes no commercial difference.
What do we need it for? It has given up any attempt at neutrality, its prejudices and the personal ones of the presenters screamingly showing (yes, we do include you, Chris Packham). It does nothing that other enterprises cannot do, usually better. Imagine the howls of outrage if the government proposed a state owned newspaper. It would be a dangerous political football only duplicating what was already out there. We only put up with Auntie because she has always been there, even though she costs a fortune to support, and upsets somebody, and often many persons, every day.
So let’s admit the time has come; break the Beeb up, sell off the bits, Radio 1 in one direction, BBC2 in another, BBC Enterprises to a publishing house, Radio 3 to Classic FM – or to a classical competitor. The purchasers can fund it as all other media is funded – by selling access and by advertising . Audiences will at last be free to vote with their remotes – and their monthly payments. Bye-bye Auntie, we loved you once but it really is time you left the studio.