I sometimes cast my mind forward to a not-too-distant future in which the BBC is no more, or at least drastically cut, following criticisms of the cost, ‘bias’ and it ‘not being a suitable broadcaster for our multimedia age’. I reckon there would be national mourning; paroxysms of nostalgia similar to the reactions of Ceefax ending and HMV closing (though the music retailer, to my pleasant surprise, continues to stay open). Call it misty-eyed sentimentalism if you will, but I think there’s something in this.
The reaction itself proves there’s still an affection for such things, even if there are more straightforwardly rational alternatives – the internet to Ceefax, Amazon and iTunes to HMV and arguably Neflix and Youtube et al to the BBC. But humans are not robots. In an age with so many different things competing for our attention on screens, there’s a good case for television that brings people together. People still remember where they were and who they were with for landmark televisual events like when England won the World Cup, Live Aid and Who Shot Jr/Phil Mitchell.
Of course, this would not be totally destroyed if the BBC went. But I think there’s a risk, in creating better choice for people, of losing that shared cultural conversation, even creating a more ‘atomised’ society, which many – on the left and right – complain about. Ask yourself, does your nan share your love of Breaking Bad? Probably not. But would you be able to bond over your love for it if it was on BBC? Maybe. (Game of Thrones is probably a bit unlikely, but who knows…) And I bet there’d be a lot more arguments between couples if there wasn’t the default option of ‘whatever shit’s on TV’. If you choose to watch some obscure documentary on Netflix or a documentary on quantum physics on BBC4, you stick your neck out that your partner/friends/flatmates watching will enjoy it. Put on BBC and it’s a no lose – if it’s good, you’ve got good taste; if not, it’s just that it was on anyway and you can talk over it or change channel. Anyway, as Barry Schwartz has shown, too much choice can actually lead to less happiness over the choice, as people fixate over the other possibilities and consider if the grass would be greener – like how you can forever browse Netflix looking for something better. I’m not arguing for a cultural North Korea, but surely there’s a happy medium between this and each member of the family in the living room watching different screens.
…All of which is why I get annoyed at the constant barrage at criticism constantly directed at the BBC. The most recent example was the reaction to Culture, Media and Sport select committee findings, which found the broadcaster should be “braver”, stop trying to do something for everyone and that the licence fee should be scrapped and replaced with a ‘broadcasting levy’ on all homes. This produced a frothing reaction from the right wing press, claiming any mandatory fees should be scrapped. It’s a strangely paradoxical reaction from papers that take such pride in instilling the shared customs of a ‘traditional British’ way of life. I suppose they would counter that the BBC no longer promotes ‘British’ values, but then surely it would make sense to call for specific reforms, not a complete overhaul, and make criticism more measured and constructive than this, from the Mail: “Chaotic… buck-passing… empire-building… monstrously bureaucratic… anti-competitive… recklessly wasteful of public money… refusing to admit mistakes as it lurches from crisis to crisis…” (Because, of course, The Mail is not ’empire-building’…)
But it’s not just attacked from the right. ‘BBC too right wing’ gets 2.68 million Google hits. ‘BBC too left wing’ gets 2.05 million. It’s far from an exact science – for starters, maybe this acid test is inherently skewed towards the young because it’s on the internet, and this might mean the study is skewed towards left denouncing right. Regardless, I merely wish to prove how much controversy it causes on both sides (in addition to people who obviously have nothing better to do in their lives than complain to Ofcom because someone said ‘bastard’ once before the watershed or showed a bit too much cleavage).
But ‘neutrality’ is such a hard, if not impossible, thing to achieve, as the debate itself over the BBC’s bias proves. People often complain about papers’ bias even though, as private entities not paid for by the taxpayer, there’s no particular need for papers to be impartial. (That’s even if they are determined by mere political considerations, rather than more sinister commercial ones, as Peter Oborne revealed about his former employer The Daily Telegraph in his resignation letter, in regard to the paper’s limited coverage of the tax scandal at HSBC, one of its biggest advertising clients.)
If the main criticism of the BBC were the whole principle of it – that it’s not (really) chosen, not ‘free media’ – then I’d understand, if not agree. No one wants to live in a cultural North Korea and, ridiculous as the comparison is in extent, the BBC is a state broadcaster. And I concede that the BBC does run at a distinct commercial advantage to other media outlets because of its funding means it has a far better knowledge of its short and long-term budget than many of its rivals, in turn meaning it can plan better than rivals.
However, I think this has its advantages. It’s a common criticism of journalism, and one made brilliantly by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, that cost-cutting and naked profit-chasing, which is the BBC is somewhat protected against, is corrupting the once reputable practice. And it allows the BBC to make ambitious, groundbreaking, but very expensive work like Planet Earth and Life; having cameramen, for example, wait in the middle of fucking Arctic nowhere for four weeks waiting for a mother polar bear and its cubs.
And it’s not just that by any means. Us Brits have probably become inured to the BBC, but it’s worth pointing out how much the world fucking loves it (or conversely, how shit TV can be abroad). As revealed by The Guardian in February, the international sales arm of the BBC now claims the corporation is the largest producer of television outside Hollywood, and this year it has 2,800 hours of shows to sell. Also, it’s estimated that British TV exports for 2013-14 were valued at £1.28bn.
Thing is, the structure of the BBC doesn’t seem to be the common complaint – based on the special pleading and bleating from all corners, it seems a lot people want a universal service, but one tailored just for them and their common sense views. People of all political persuasions naturally locate the elusive ‘centre-ground’ closer to them than it probably is, hence the shitstorm of the ‘BBC is too [insert chosen bete noire here – right/left/imperial/multicultural/’warmist’/climate denier etc etc].
The reason this annoys me so much is that this atmosphere can serve as a straitjacket to good journalism and broadcasting. Naturally some news and topics are more likely to lead to a particular political stance, but news, or more pretentiously truth, should be sought wherever it is, not on what people happen to think. As such I’m not claiming the Beeb is perfectly impartial (though pretty good), but how could it be?! It’s surprising to me as it is how the Beeb still produces hard-hitting news, like the HSBC tax avoidance exposé.
And it seems it was ever thus. I recently stumbled across an archive piece in the New Statesman from E.L.Forster defending the BBC in 1931 against similar complaints of bias on various sides. He wrote: “Perhaps we grumbled too often. If we did, Nemesis has descended, bringing all the powers of darkness in her train. For the easy days are over, brightness falls from the air, and the conflict has begun. The BBC, because of its success and growing importance, is being constantly attacked, in the pulpit, in Parliament, in the Press, and the attack is on new and dangerous lines. The aim is suppression. When suppression has been achieved, control may be attempted, but suppression is the immediate objective. The cry is not for fuller programmes but for feebler.”
It’s always hard to argue for the status quo in the face of various angry complaints, and easier to think the grass is greener. But I think those enjoy the BBC need to stick up for it amid the loud noises from all sides, attempting to strangle this great British institution, with politicking and death by a thousand cuts, into boring, timid submission.