THOSE of us who love and value the BBC know there is a very nasty fight looming – and we all have to get involved if we do not want the total dismantling of the world’s greatest public service broadcaster. That is not an exaggeration. It is simply a fact.
Nor is this a matter of being blind to the BBC’s faults – certainly its top-heavy bureaucracy needs to be completely restructured, and there are serious questions about the quality, quantity and cost of much of the mass-appeal light entertainment.
But let‘s look at just one example of the BBC’s “light entertainment” output that its critics suggest should be left to the commercial sector. Let’s take the Great British Bake Off, shortly returning to our screens.
Don’t forget, this did not start out as the most popular programme on British television.
Who knew that an elderly cookery writer, a not particularly well-known baking expert and two female stand-up comedians would take the British love of cakes and baking and create a show that is now an international brand.
It started on BBC2. Not BBC1. It started out as a bit of niche fun for the sort of people who watch BBC2 and still have Sunday tea. What commercial company, with its eye on the potential advertising, would have taken that idea and run with it?
Commercial companies, drawing their revenues from advertising, don’t take many risks. They copy and they make things bigger and glitzier but they are not often adventurous with original ideas. Bake-off was truly original – and we have to thank the BBC for that.
Turn on Radio 4 any time, any day of the week, and you will discover fascinating documentaries, extraordinary interviews, challenging and entertaining drama, from just a few minutes to a full length play, music from beatbox to Beethoven, rap to Ravel, and everything in between, history, wildlife conservation, serious science, funny science, rising stars of the comedy circuit, proper consumer investigations, searching ethical and political debate … and the list goes on.
And on the other channels you will find eclectic programming around the broad theme of the station – much more than classical music on Radio 3, expert sports reporting and comment on Radio 5, great folk, world and Americana music and the country’s best film critic on Radio 2 …
The vitriolic nature of some of the attacks now being directed at the corporation gives massive cause for concern to all lovers of free speech and believers in the vital importance of public service broadcasting.
When the Iraq war was declared, we were in the USA, staying with a friend near Washington DC. With our friend, we listened to George Bush on national public radio and watched the news on the major news channels, NBC, ABC and CNN. We felt we got a fair picture of what was happening.
Later on that trip we were in Charleston staying at an eccentric B&B where the television only got Fox News. That was an eye-opener. We were used to the sound-bite style of reporting on most American news programmes (you have to watch on Sunday mornings for serious political discussion or the Daily Show for really intelligent analysis!) but we were used to it being reasonably balanced. NBC, ABC and CNN may be subject to advertisers’ influence and are generally patriotic but they don’t overtly wave a political flag at viewers. Fox News was something else – jingoistic to the point of farcical, it was “shock’n’awe” left, right and centre, with film of bombing Baghdad presented like a 20th Century Fox blockbuster summer movie.
Who can be surprised that the owners of Fox News (the Murdoch family) are so prominent in the attacks on the BBC?
When my children and our friends who live in other countries want to find out what is happening in their own countries they log on to the BBC on their computers. When I lived in the Middle East I listened to the BBC World Service. Friends in South Africa depend on the BBC for accurate and balanced news reporting.
The BBC is not perfect and it should not be afraid of investigations, questions or change. Nor should its listeners and viewers. Not everybody listens to or watches the BBC. Not everybody is interested in the news at all. Many people find their entertainment and news via websites. But many of us look to the BBC on television, radio or online for news and coverage of major events, wherever we are, because we trust that it will be more accurate and more balanced than most of its competititors. And it won’t be interrupted with advertisements all the time. We are very disappointed if it doesn’t live up to our expectations – and BBC viewers and listeners are not afraid to shout their feelings at the management.
I would no more turn on Fox News for a fair overview of the situation in Iraq or Iran or South Africa or Mexico than I would pick up the Sun for an informed review of the Royal Shakespeare Company or an impartial analysis of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They are both important parts of the international entertainment media, but they are not objective and reliable sources of international or national news.
The internet has totally revolutionised how we access all forms of information and entertainment. But that does not mean we should allow the destruction of the world’s greatest broadcaster. That will be a greater act of cultural vandalism than anything that the fanatics of ISIS will do among the ruins of ancient pre-Islamic civilisations.
We are facing an unprecedented, all-out, indiscriminate onslaught on the BBC and we have to join the fight because this is no time for apathy or thinking about it later. If the BBC is destroyed by politicians who hate it, international media barons who resent its influence and founding ethos, or free marketeers who think everything should sink or swim on its commercial success, the world will be the poorer.