Despite everything, the BBC is still one of our great cultural forces
Over the last four years I have had the good fortune to write on this page about a wide range of cultural matters — notably music, architecture, cinema and books — that I hoped might strike a chord with Standpoint readers. This, I am afraid, is the last such column. I’m sorry, too, that some cultural subjects have not come into this column. I have never been able to understand why it is that I adore cinema but find the theatre leaves me cold, given that the same actors and actresses perform in each. Similarly, I can appreciate the visual beauty and message of a building but more often than not I struggle with a painting: I am trying harder on that front, not least because I have never had any problem with fine photography. Dance, however, is something I know I shall never manage to understand or appreciate so long as I live. We all need to have some philistine element within us somewhere.
I did not want to leave this column, however, without looking at one of the great cultural forces of our country, and the uncertain future it faces. The appointment in May of John Whittingdale as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was at once interpreted as spelling upheaval and doom for the BBC. Mr Whittingdale is a long-standing critic of the licence fee: not so much, I think, for ideological reasons but because he recognises that technological developments in the last 25 years — satellite television, the digital revolution, the internet and high-speed broadband — make the assumptions we had about the nature of the delivery of a television service, and how it is paid for, redundant. Unlike many secretaries of state catapulted into jobs, he actually knows an enormous amount about his portfolio, having chaired the House of Commons select committee on what is now his own department for the last decade. If one looks at the reports the committee has made on this subject there are no threats to end the licence fee; but there are clear intimations that things cannot go on as they are. This may not be Armageddon for the BBC, but when the charter is renewed next year it may be on terms unlike those imposed in the past. The BBC, which already has a big commercial arm, may be called upon to develop it further, and to become used to less public money and fewer resources.
At this stage I should declare an interest. I have had the good fortune over the last few years to make numerous programmes for Radio 3, which I believe (irrespective of any involvement I have with it) to be the finest cultural radio network on the planet. In this era of internet radio one can test that for oneself. In my experience of Radio 3 it is staffed by producers of the highest calibre, with rare intellectual gifts in both speech and music programming. Making programmes with such people is an absolute delight and immensely creative. I know I am not alone in thinking these things. Any government policy that led to a diminution of Radio 3’s quality or reach would be an act of vandalism and insanity. Nothing in the private sector could match it — dip into Classic FM for ten minutes if you doubt me — and its very existence is the perfect example of what public service broadcasting should be. It fulfils the Reithian ideal of informing, educating and entertaining. The quality of this country’s civilisation would fall if anything happened to it.
There is no doubt the BBC is going to be reformed, but there is a real danger when it is that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water. There is much the corporation now does that is, or could easily be, replicated in the private sector. I would contend that when it does replicate what is privately provided there should be a business case for its doing so. I suspect that even in the post-Clarkson era Top Gear would be a programme that would sell around the world still, and bring in money for the corporation. So too would many of the dramas that are put out. But if the BBC is trying to ape the private sector and failing to do so commercially successfully, then it should not even try.
It is those things vital to the nation that the private sector cannot do — such as Radio 3, but also a substantial part of what goes out on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra — that the BBC must be encouraged further to develop. Similarly, on television there should be documentaries of a truly enlightening nature — as, from time to time, there still are — of a tone and expertise that the private sector simply seems to show no will to put on now. Television may not be a superior medium to radio, but it is one that does not inevitably have to behave in a way of which Lord Reith would have been ashamed.
Many Tories object to the BBC because of what they see as its institutional leftism. The weekend after the general election a number of newly-elected or re-elected MPs, who had not watched the BBC’s coverage of the unpredicted Tory victory because they were at their counts, sat down in front of their digital televisions and watched recordings they had made of the evening’s programmes.
Many of these felt that aspects of the coverage reflected first of all a sympathy with their political opponents, and exuded a disbelief that the Tories could possibly be winning. I watched the coverage live and, with the exception of one or two unfortunate misjudgments, felt it was reasonably objective. It has, however, become the latest stick with which to beat the corporation, and it will be used.
The BBC may have become an overmighty subject. But it has an important function still in our society, doing things the private sector either will not do, or will do only in a grotesquely inferior way. And I see no reason why the state should not, for strategic reasons, have a broadcaster. It is also enormously popular with the public, something its critics forget. It certainly needs reform; and I am sure Mr Whittingdale will see that that does not mean evisceration.