The end of the BBC
1 Jan 2003 0 comments. tbs.pm/1872
The perception of the BBC as run by and for “liberal lefties” (or, if you’re a particularly rude right-winger, “Marxist pinkos”) is a strong and abiding one in certain segments of British life. Rod Liddle was recently forced to resign as editor of Radio 4’s Today programme after he had criticised the Countryside Alliance march in London, a demonstration dominated by Tory supporters. He had said that one might forget why one had voted Labour in 1997 until one saw the foxhunting lobby in full force.
It is true that the BBC does not paint an antiquarian picture of British life – while it is concerned above all with providing something for everybody in the UK, most of its output unequivocally reflects modern culture and society, on whatever level and for whatever audience. But this is not remotely the same as “left-wing”, and indeed, if one looks through the BBC’s wider history one can see that it has often been a generally traditional, small “c” conservative broadcaster, whose many examples of innovation have often been opposed to its abiding official culture.
If the BBC were still the traditional conservative broadcaster that many of us grew up with, it might have managed to stay on the side of the Daily Mail and its ilk, but it would have largely lost the support of many other significant sectors of the population. The changes it has made in recent years have cost it a lot of cultural capital among the political, social and cultural conservative right, but it had to make the changes. Otherwise it would have been completely out of touch with its audiences and the general cultural tide in the country, and would have been heading towards privatisation.
Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Radio 4 was broadcasting programmes like “The Countryside In …” series, “Down Your Way” and certain others defining and evoking ‘Englishness’ in terms that you would never get now. I have no problem with that worldview in its own time and context, but the world has changed (even the Countryside Alliance don’t think in those terms – their rhetoric is couched in a more aggressive, hard-line, quasi-Thatcherite style).
The greatness of the BBC’s archives is, of course, down in large respect to the light they shed on 80 years of social and cultural history. But the point that the right-wingers always miss is that, when it still made sense (and arguably *after* it had ceased to make sense) the BBC still presented the archaic view of England and Britain beloved of papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. It did not simply give itself over entirely to the liberal-left position.
If it now reflects a more “modern, inclusive” Britishness and a less “traditional, exclusive” identity than at any time in its history, it is because of wider changes. The Blair government has had an effect, but so has the opening of British radio and television to wider, more international, and often overtly commercial and consumerist influences in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act and successor legislation.
The BBC reflects arguably more often than it leads. In this case, it might not actually have made its recent changes had the pre-1990 broadcasting environment remained largely unaltered, but it has responded excellently on all fronts to the changing world around it.
If you were to put together a list of charges that might have been raised against the BBC in former times, you would find that they would have frequently offended the very same “liberal-lefties” who the right now accuse of having “taken over” the Corporation. You could start off with the effective censorship of all jazz from the airwaves under Reith, and his absurdly puritan policy on Sunday broadcasting. You would certainly have to recall the stuffy inward-looking culture it reflected in the late 50s, totally unrepresentative of the consumer boom of the day reflected by ITV and Radio Luxembourg.
After the welcome liberalism of the Hugh Greene era, you would have to sadly note the sacking of Kenny Everett from Radio 1 in 1970 over a harmless joke, as Charles Curran asserted hard-line moralism as a reaction against the new cultural tide of the 1960s. You might move on to Radio 1’s former policy of banning records on absurdly flimsy premises, recalling in particular the ban on XTC’s “Respectable Street” in 1981 for a reference to Sony, which is hurtled through at such a high speed that a casual radio listener could not have heard it, certainly not on medium wave. I certainly wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t read the lyrics before hearing the song.
Such an account of the BBC’s more socially and culturally conservative side, throughout history, would culminate in the banning of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” (1984) and George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” (1987) for what now seem like harmless sexual references when compared to certain songs on the current Radio 1 playlist. It is true that, after that, the list of reasons for liberal-left people to disapprove of the BBC, while right-wing reactionaries would support it, largely peters out.
But, whatever the more right-wing newspapers and politicians might tell you, the changes are not really the BBC’s work. It isn’t the BBC itself these people hate, it’s modern British culture, and they’re just taking it out on the most obvious moving target they can think of. One might call it the “whatever happened to Housewives’ Choice, oh and isn’t that Steve Wright frightfully vulgar?” mentality.
Ventures like 1Xtra – the BBC’s new digital radio station devoted to what is often called “urban” music (a term this writer dislikes intensely) infuriate the reactionary right. There is a direct and understandable reason for this – they represent the official sign of approval from the establishment towards the cultural developments they hate.
The reactionary right know that the existence of a black / “urban” music station funded from the licence fee is a sign of how far this music has worked its way into British culture. What they want more than anything else is to push it “back where it comes from” (the cultural equivalent of repatriation of immigrants).
When the Radio 1 hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood was on Capital Radio, I don’t recall him being anything like the hate-figure for the right that he is now. In a sense, it is a sign of how important the BBC still is – if the BBC broadcasts something, it shows that this thing is accepted within British culture, and so that inspires those who want this thing sent out of the country to new heights of apoplexy.
There is one other important element here. The fact that 1Xtra listeners and Radio 3 listeners fund each other’s programmes is one of the last remaining signs of 1945-79 collectivism. Ever since the 1986 Peacock Report, which advocated the privatisation of Radios 1 and 2, it has been obvious that ideologues of the right would love to see the licence fee abolished or, at the very least, reduced considerably.
When they are feeling more positive towards the BBC, they do at least advocate a subscription system where people would pay only for the channels they watch or listen to, but of course this would remove the collectivist element, and by extension it would also remove part of the point of the BBC’s existence.
The greatest irony of all, however, is that the changes the BBC has made which the Murdoch press denounce as “dumbing down” – turning BBC-1 into more of an entertainment channel and less of an all-round “formal national broadcaster”, putting a lot of licence fee money into a 24-hour news channel, giving more live coverage of the Queen Mother’s death and fewer recorded tributes, the list goes on – have mostly been in response to the dramatic effect that Sky has had on British television.
I think it should be common knowledge that Sky is also a Murdoch company. The modern British political right has an uncanny ability to contradict themselves at every turn. Their view of the BBC is an outstanding example of this tendency.