Thursday, February 05, 2009

today : it's about time I defended the BBC

Y'know what? I am a huge supporter of the BBC. I think it's one of the great institutions of the world and one of the truly best things about Britain. A publicly financed but fiercely independent broadcaster with its own unique ethos and an unrivalled reputation and reach across the world.

Nothing could be more satisfying for the Beeb to know that Iran has declared its Persian Service as illegal. They must be doing something right.

Okay, the BBC, like every institution, gets it hideously wrong sometimes. Like Davina McCall's celebrity chat-show, or continuing to buy and show Heroes, or last weeks coverage of Obama's inauguration (which was pretty shoddy and ill-produced). I even once complained to them over an item on a show that -jokingly- portrayed people with club feet as dribbling hunchbacks. But on the whole the BBC is my own major source of news and information.

But it appears that the BBC has lost some confidence. Last years Ross/Brand 'scandal' was one of those occasional mis-steps that broadcasters make. No worse, really, than Jools Hollands infamous tea-time trailer for The Tube that lost him his job. When I saw and heard what had happened, I thought it pretty unfunny and rather lacking in taste, but I was pretty shocked by the response.

If one thing is for sure, it is that The Daily Mail will create waves of mock outrage and then ride them as far as possible. That is their schtick. Asylum seekers eating swans, MPs having sex with people who are not necessarily their wives (or even the same gender as their wives), asylum seekers claiming benefits and having operations on the NHS, people using swear words in public etc etc. The success of the DM is to appeal to the grump in people and pander to the middle class unease that fings ain't what they were in the old days - despite the 'old days' being a mythical construction that never really existed (apparently some kind of cross between a Jane Austen Novel and the interwar years of Evelyn Waugh novels). .

In this spirit, The Daily Mail hates the modern BBC, which should exist only to report the activities of the royal family and show things like Upstairs Downstairs, Ask The Family and All Creatures Great and Small. Radio 2 should be Sing Something Simple and Friday Night is Music Night. All this trendy politically correct stuff is just not on. People called Chakrabati reporting the news, comedians who wouldn't be seen dead in a frilled shirt and bow tie and people with Northern accents expecting to be taken seriously whilst walking the wrong way up the Underground escalators. They also hate the principle that the Beeb is funded by a special tax because they are part of the Thatcherite rump who still hate taxes of any kind.

All of which meant that when they saw the chance to stir up some anti-BBC sentiment they went for it. What surprised me was the fact that the Beeb took the bait. They bowed and grovelled and ate unhealthy amounts of humble pie. Why didn't they just tell the Daily Mail to piss off? If there's a competition between the two as long lasting and credible institutions then the BBC wins. It's a global entity that reaches probably billions of people. The Daily Mail sells a few million a day. Who stands on the stronger ground - both in the public mind and in reality?

It was probably right for the Beeb to respond in some way, but the continuing public self-flagellation just fed the beast, and weakened the BBC hierarchy.

At least they had the guts to stand up for themselves in the matter of the Gaza appeal. Again, I personally was horrified by the way the people of Gaza were treated. Whether the Israelis should eb held to account for their apparent overbombing and whether they set out to simply punish Palestinians is a whole other discussion. But the BBC was right to stand up against the protesters who were desperately quick to attach both the Beeb (and Sky News) to their bonkers Zionist Conspiracy theories (again, it's a whole other discussion but it is MUCH easier for people to rush to a conspiracy theory than to actual try to understand the complex machinations of international politics. Some otherwise clever and rational people that I know seem unable to parse Middle Eastern issues without suspending their intelligence).

Perhaps the two responses tell us rather a lot about the BBC, namely that it sees itself mainly as a global news organisation and not a provider of light entertainment, Sunday night serials and nature programmes to the people of the UK.

The problem with the BBC is that people want it to be a democratic organisation. They think that because they pay for it, it should do what they want on demand. But herein lies the strength of the institution. It isn't really answerable to anyone, but to the principles of it's charter. The BBC is at its strongest when it's sticking two fingers up at the naysayers.

It's difficult for some people to get the idea that they should pay for something that exists to disagree with them. People are used to getting what they want to hear for their money: not what they don't want to hear.

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