A vote for ITV

By Glenn Aylett

These days any comment about the BBC's political direction, especially in right of centre circles, will inevitably bring up the comments Blair's Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC is full of leftish liberals, or, in one AOL chat room I visited, the BBC was referred to as a "dumping ground for queers, Marxists and pacifists."

Parts of the press, most notably Murdoch newspapers, have long been at war with the "reds" at the BBC and the Daily Mail went into fits of rage over the Corporation's coverage of the death of the Queen Mother.

Lets turn the clock back several decades. Growing up in the mostly blue collar environments of the North East and West Cumbria, ITV was often seen as the Labour network and in the words of my deceased grandfather in 1978 the "BBC is full of Tories, ITV's for the likes of working class people like me."

To him - and possibly millions of other working class viewers at the time - the BBC meant the middle class, which he equated with voting Tory, and ITV was for working class Labour voters.

Many years later at university, when I related this story to a middle class student from Enfield, he told me that his parents, whom I gathered were strongly Conservative, would not watch ITV as it was considered too working class and common.

The BBC to them represented a middle class worldview that they were comfortable with, to my late grandfather ITV and its earthier charms suited him. (Research in the seventies showed that the BBC was less popular with working class viewers than the middle class, especially in the North, and vice versa.)

Until the high Thatcher years, references to BBC lefties, except among the more rabid Right, were rare. While I would very much doubt Lew Grade or Bernard Delfont were on the left, the perception was that, while ITV was a commercial outfit, its appeal was very much to the working class, who in the pre Thatcher years were far more disposed towards Labour.

Shows such as the Wheeltappers and Shunters Club or Crossroads were as likely to appear on the BBC as adverts at the time. The BBC, even with a good range of popular programming, was seen as more highbrow, close to the establishment - that you could equate with Conservatism in the seventies - and the accents of its announcers and presenters suggested a distinct Southern middle class bias.

Indeed the two directors general of the BBC during the seventies, Sir Charles Curran and Sir Ian Trethowan, were Conservative supporters and the Corporation had a ban on employing suspected Communists until 1985.

Certain aspects of BBC output, Radio Four in this period was a prime example, were geared very much to the Conservative middle class, Down Your Way and The Archers being prime examples of this. Despite a few controversial Wednesday Plays, there was little that would suggest the BBC of the seventies and early eighties was a left-wing conspiracy. The BBC, like the Daily Mail, was seen as the essential companion in many middle class Conservative homes at the time.

The changes of perception started to occur in the mid eighties. Like so much of the public sector at the time, the BBC was seen as a candidate for privatisation. A ratings slump in 1984, a row with the Conservative government over the Panorama documentary "Maggie's Militant Tendency" and the Corporation's demand for an 18 pound rise in the licence fee saw the BBC portrayed as at best in terminal decline and fit only for privatisation or at worst being taken over by left wingers and to be destroyed. I remember defending the BBC licence fee at a debate and being asked by Conservative middle class questioners why we should fund a "bunch of reds."

While this was possibly a hardline view, the old image of the BBC as being an establishment "Conservative" broadcaster was falling away. ITV, which had never been left wing to start with, was now seen as the accepted broadcaster among the Right wing press and the establishment, even though the Corporation still had a bigger middle class viewer and listener base.

The Real Lives crisis in 1985 soured relationships with the BBC and the Tories that would ultimately lead to the departure of Alasdair Milne in 1987 and his replacement by the more conservative - this being relative as Milne was certainly not a left winger - Sir Michael Checkland.

Even with the bridge building being done with the Conservatives- the BBC was probably worried about losing the licence fee- murmurs of BBC reds under the bed or, when the Right was being more charitable, leftish liberals at TVC remained, which would intensify in the nineties.

So what of my pro Labour, ITV watching grandfather? Did he switch to the BBC in 1985 when he found out ITV was Conservative? Or could he have gone over to Channel 4 which was perceived at the time to be the most left wing channel on television and prior to the BBC bashing years was despised by the Right?

No, he preferred to stick with ITV. While the old class based viewing trends were well in decline by 1985, as was Labour support in general among the working classes, there was still an affinity formed in the fifties among older working class viewers towards ITV, which seemed stronger in the old industrial areas where Labour support was still strong.

Even if ITV was looked on more favourably by the Right than the BBC at the time, the core ITV audience was still working class and more Labour than the BBC. ITV programming, despite some excellent dramas, was still aimed at the bottom end of the market, with imports, soaps, and badly made light entertainment predominating. (Same as now, some would argue.)

One way my grandfather, and his Labour sympathies were probably more out of a habit than as a card carrying activist, could have had his suspicions raised was the BBC responded to its charges of bias by staying- and becoming more conservative in many respects.

BBC announcers in say 1986 still very largely spoke with cut glass accents, regional accents did not become prevalent until ten years later. The national anthem was still played at the end of the day's programmes and if the Queen Mother had died in the eighties the Corporation would have been far more deferential than now.

Radio One still banned records for their sexual content, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax remained banned for years, while Radio Two abandoned nearly all pop records in 1986 in favour of show tunes and standards. As Robin Carmody has pointed out, there was much about the BBC during the late eighties that would appease the Right.

The dismissal of Milne in 1987 and his replacement by Sir Michael Checkland and Marmaduke Hussey as Chairman would reinforce the BBC's image as being the establishment's broadcaster.

Interestingly left wing colleagues at the time liked neither the BBC, too close to the government, or ITV, too commercial, and favoured the Jeremy Isaacs era Channel 4, which was seen as far more radical than the two main broadcasters and found its biggest niche among the Guardian reading classes. (During a politics seminar at university I recall likening BBC1 to The Daily Express, BBC2 to The Times, ITV to The Daily Star and Channel 4 to The Guardian in terms of their appeal.)

Moving on to the 21st century and viewers, like voters, no longer act in a bloc mentality. Unlike 25 years ago when my grandfather said the BBC was Tory, there are no longer only two broadcasters to choose from, just as the old Labour/Conservative two party system has been seriously weakened and voters no longer vote tribally (at least not to the same extent.)

Few people nowadays would only watch or listen to the same broadcaster. The BBC, since the appointment of Greg Dyke, is now seen as close to the Labour government and has steadily abandoned its Southern middle class bias and style of presentation, to the dismay of its more Conservative viewers and the Daily Telegraph.

While it is sad to see some of the traditional aspects of the BBC go, and it is regrettable that the Corporation is run by allies of Tony Blair, which gives its enemies even more ammunition to fire, at least you rarely hear talk now of the BBC being stuck up and being too middle class (ie Tory, in some people's views.) I see BBC programmes being shown far more often in my local pub in Whitehaven than I would have done 20 years ago - when there's no worthwhile sport on Sky, I might add.

The big loser in the television revolution has been ITV1, the old ITV, now landed with a lousy generic identity that few like. Rather like the pre-1960 BBC, ITV1 has refused to update its programming and audience demographic to take into account the competition. (Indeed all ITV seems interested in now is creating flop satellite channels and destroying famous regional companies like HTV.)

Unfortunately for ITV bosses, their old audience has either died or has graduated to Sky or Channel 5, which seems to me like a new version of the ITV I grew up with, plenty of American action shows and gaudy light entertainment. Unable or unwilling to capture a younger or more middle class audience, and seen now as the most conservative network, ITV1 has become a victim of the changes in Britain over the last 25 years.

Like the Old Labour working class, from where ITV traditionally obtained its most loyal audience, and the Conservative Party, where it was regarded as the least politically suspect during the 18 years of Tory rule, ITV1 has become increasingly irrelevant.

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Article ©2003 Glenn Aylett

Compilation ©2003 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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