Can pay, won’t pay 

19 July 2009 tbs.pm/1081

Dear BBC: No, you can’t have my £142.50. Will I see you in court?

There are really only two ways to view Mr Moore’s outburst of civil disobedience. It is either a principled stand against what he believes to be a flagrant breach of its Charter, or rank political opportunism motivated by an inherent denial of the BBC’s right to exist as currently constituted.

Either way, with BBC expenses and licence fee top-slicing still in the news, it comes at an awkward time for the Corporation, and for those of us who cling to the old-fashioned notion of public service broadcasting, which, for all its faults, the BBC has pulled off with aplomb over the years.

At this point, I have a confession to make. In a previous blog entry, I wrote in at times a rather intemperate fashion, criticizing the Corporation – occasionally fairly – of all manner of sins, real and imagined, and closed it with the following. The BBC, I declaimed, “is not fit to receive the licence fee, does not deserve to receive the licence fee, and, if it is not careful, before long will not receive the licence fee.”

I don’t withdraw the entire article, but it was not one of my better pieces and I doubt that everything I said would stand up to scrutiny. One that probably would was the assertion that “whenever [The Now Show] talks about the Tories, or climate change, or religion, it’s as if I’m listening to Guardian Radio” (to be honest, given that Marcus Brigstoke, one of its regulars, is a CND activist, one shouldn’t be too surprised), and I still get from time to time a flavour of the soft-left, progressive-liberal world view, the “cultural liberal bias” about which Andrew Marr once spoke. The various pieces I have in my Delicious bookmarks suggest that the impression that, to some extent, the BBC reflects a broadly Guardianista world view is too widespread to be ignored.

However, the BBC also gets flack from the political left as well. It is criticized (looking through my CiF clippings in no particular order) for accepting without question the triumph of free-market economics and red-blooded capitalism; the entire neo-liberal agenda of free-markets and privatisation (one CiFer puts this argument quite well). Also, for its idea that Michael Gove and Ann Leslie on the “right” and David Aaronovitch and John Rentoul on the “left” form a balanced political debate (“in other words all the way from Blairite to Thatcherite and back again – give me strength” as another blogger put it). You could probably add to that list the likes of the rubber-burners on Top Gear, the fact that the BBC’s religious programming still make a reasonable contribution to the Corporation’s output, and so on.

But I digress. The BBC is supposed to offer something for everyone, and it still manages to do that very well. Radio 1 and Radio 2 still have loyal audiences among the young; I rarely listen to anything other than Radio 4, and the BBC’s efforts to capture the mass market with drama on television often work well.

The problem is, in offering something for everyone, the Corporation is almost bound to put noses out of joint in the process because what it serves up for one part of its audience will offend someone else. Songs of Praise, for example, may please church-goers but is likely to annoy evangelical secularists. Top Gear may please petrol-heads but is red meat to the environmental lobby. The BBC’s embrace of multiculturalism leaves many whom multiculturalism has passed by feeling left out in the cold, and, if my recollections are anything to go by, its White series was seen as racist by immigrant communities and half-hearted by the white working class.

By such means the BBC tries to please everyone and pleases nobody. Any persons but the most apolitical or apathetic are likely to see or hear something from Auntie that riles them. They take for granted what they approve of or agree with and make a big deal about what’s left. So accusations of bias accumulate.

The Corporation could try to skirt around both the devil and the deep blue sea by offering nothing more than the blandest of anodyne fayre that would offend almost nobody, but by not inspiring anybody either its very existence would rightly be questioned. On the other hand, if it is too edgy, if it employs the sort of talent that holds the masses and critics in thrall and it sails too close to the wind, it is liable to get its fingers badly burnt.

Which brings us back to Charles Moore. Jonathan Ross is not his cup of tea, it seams. Mr Ross is not to my taste, either, but he has a loyal mass audience following and the BBC is not unreasonable in trying to hang on to such people.

However, there are limits, even for Jonathan Ross. Telling an elderly gentleman, even if by the one remove of a recorded message, that someone has “fucked your granddaughter” went well beyond those limits, along with the other too well documented details of that incident. People might say, with some justification, that a head of steam would never have built up had it not been for the agitation of the Mail on Sunday – along with its daily stable-mate (almost) everyone’s favourite pantomime villain – but that paper’s efforts at rabble-rousing would never have amounted to a hill of beans had the disgust not been sincere and heartfelt enough, a point that the career Daily Mail bashers would do well to take on board.

Perhaps a better use of licence payers’ money would be for the Corporation to develop and nurture up-and-coming comedians and reward the best with their own prime-time shows. Radio 4 has an occasional series called 28 acts in 28 minutes, hosted by, of all people, John Humphrys, and it has recently started a series called Shappi Talk, the eponym being an Iranian woman who talks about growing up in multi-cultural families. Rather than chasing the top earners, by discovering some of the acts of the future the BBC can fulfil both its mass audience expectations and its public service remit without it costing the earth. The quid pro quo should be that such acts remain with the Corporation for, say, two or three years once it becomes clear that they could earn more elsewhere.

Mr Moore’s one-man campaign of civil disobedience is his own protest against Mr Ross. Whether it will gain any traction outside the pages of the Telegraph remains to be seen. I share his distaste about what has, with depressing inevitableness, become known as “Sachs-gate”, to say nothing of so much licence payers’ money being handed to one person, and a potty-mouthed, uncouth, vulgar one at that, but I’m not sure if, on balance, the odd transgression like this, no matter how egregious in isolation, tips the scales in favour of non-payment, considering the value the BBC gives to broadcasting and all the many and good things it does get right.