A Managerial, Not a Creative, Crisis

British television editors still live in the 1980s, where the world of Netflix and iTunes is a distant dream

Screen TV
Not coming to a television near you soon: Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s online-only series “House of Cards”

As successive director-generals have found out, running the BBC is no laughing matter. If Tony Hall is to make a success of it, he must get “the reporter and the editor in the Sahara” joke. Allow me to share it with you.

A plane crashes in the Sahara. Only a reporter and an editor survive. At first they hope that rescuers will see the smoke rising from the wreckage. But the fire dies, and no one comes. They are lost and alone under a merciless sun, and start walking.

For days, they march in horrendous heat. Their water runs out. Their skin peels. Their minds reel from sunstroke. Finally, they collapse — blistered and dehydrated — at the bottom of an enormous sand dune.

“Let’s curl up here and die,” gasps the editor.

“No!” cries the reporter. “We cannot give up. Let’s climb to the top of the dune and see if there’s any hope.”

They stagger up — two steps forward, one step back — and reach the top of the dune. On the other side they see a beautiful azure oasis, shimmering in the sun. They roll down the hill and — a miracle! — the oasis is not a mirage. The reporter plunges his hands into the cool, pure water of life. If he lives to be a hundred, he thinks, he will never again experience another moment of such sublime perfection. He is about to raise his cupped hands to his lips when he glances up and sees that the editor has opened his flies and is urinating in the water.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he bellows.

The question leaves the editor surprised and affronted.

“Why, I’m improving it,” he replies.

The creative crisis in British television is at root a managerial crisis. Hall would still be at the Royal Opera House if the editor of Newsnight had not refused to report that Jimmy Savile had been a rapacious child abuser while he worked at the BBC. Reporters know that genuine scoops are incredibly rare. Managers who suppress them commit an unforgivable sin in our eyes. Justice was done when the scandal destroyed the career of Hall’s predecessor as director-general, George Entwistle.

If it appears obvious that the BBC now needs to purge its management, however, consider the sequel, and understand why reporters don’t find the Sahara gag funny when they become editors. Entwistle did not lose his job just because of Savile. Stung by accusations of cowardice, Newsnight lost its mind. It brought in an outsider from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who said, without quite naming him, that Lord McAlpine, a Tory peer, was involved in a child abuse scandal in North Wales — an accusation that was completely false. The BBC could have done with an interfering manager intervening at that moment.

Because the lessons of the fall of Entwistle pull in different directions, Tony Hall may decide to do nothing. If he does, he will show that he does not understand why British media managers increasingly seem like lost souls. They still live in the world of the 1980s. The old respect for high-bourgeois culture went then. In television, the end of the BBC-ITV duopoly meant that educated producers could no longer say that viewers had to want what they got. In the new multi-channel age the viewers had the means to get what they wanted; and if they did not want worthy programmes then worthy programmes would have to go.

The dumbing down of television began. It was not a wholly malign affair to begin with, but looks a tired idea now. The managers of the BBC, ITV, Sky and, most egregiously, Channel 4, find it hard to produce honest programmes because they have been trained to be phonies, with a professional duty to pretend to be something they are not. They have lost sight of the obvious fact that if you are going to make a drama, soap opera, news report or documentary you must do so wholeheartedly and without embarrassment, or not make it at all. Half- measures lead to half-baked programmes.

Look at the news. BBC television wants to produce serious journalism. Indeed it has a duty to produce it. But managers stuck in the 1980s insist that the BBC and Sky rolling news services concentrate on domestic stories, human interest and crime. Many people, notably immigrants, prefer to watch news from abroad on satellite and the internet as British television no longer covers the world — a cultural shift that makes integration far harder. The McAlpine fiasco is explained in part by the BBC’s decision to so hack back on Newsnight‘s budget that its editors were reduced to bringing in a dubious freelance. The BBC wants a flagship current affairs programme, but is not prepared to pay for it. The result is that people who want serious journalism watch Channel 4 News.

You can see the same process in documentaries. The BBC produces many fine works by presenters who love their subject and want to share their love with the viewers — Howard Goodall on the history of music, Andrew Graham-Dixon on Dutch art, are recent examples. But then the old mentality takes over, and the BBC offers us Richard E. Grant on the art of the Riviera, a series that featured lots of beaches and lots of Richard E. Grant but little art. The producers were frightened their subject was too highbrow, and did not ask themselves, “If we’re frightened of art, why make a programme about it?”

I have written before about how Scandinavian and American dramas have surged ahead of their British competitors. Their success is in part the result of a change in technology that British broadcasters have yet to understand. If the arrival of many channels in the 1980s necessitated dumbing down, the internet necessitates a move upmarket. Viewers will not go on to Netflix or iTunes and pay for the bog-standard BBC detective dramas any more than they will pay to read the redtops online. They want quality.

Media managers like to present themselves as modern people. Tony Hall’s success will depend on him realising that he and many of his contemporaries are yesterday’s men and women.