One of postings on my Facebook pages in the last couple of days that particularly caught my attention was preceded by the title: “Love it or lose it: Save the BBC!” and starting off: “the shoddy backroom deal the Government have agreed with BBC management, saddling the BBC with delivering the government’s over-75s welfare policies to the tune of over £650m, will bring the greatest independent global broadcaster to its knees. Entire services will have to be cut, programmes dumped, free speech undermined and thousands of jobs lost. This is not a done deal – if you love the BBC, don’t let it be killed off!” It got me thinking that while the BBC is meant and tries to be politically neutral (just as it does in many other things, e.g. religion and ideas) it is rarely far away from political interest and controversy, and there is indeed a debate to be had regarding its future direction. It is a subject that I don’t know a great deal about and where I realise listening to the arguments is the thing to do, but even so I feel strongly enough about the BBC to throw some of my own thoughts into the ring concerning this great national institution that has been an important part of my life since birth.
Also during the week there was a discussion on the subject on the BBC’s Moral Maze programme, preceded by the blurb: “No one has come up with a better or pithier definition of public service broadcasting than John, later Lord Reith. The purpose of the BBC is to “inform, educate and entertain.” For Reith, the son of a minister, the creation of the BBC was a public service; an unambiguous moral good and ever since Reithian has become an adjective that symbolises a kind of broadcasting that promoted virtue to the nation and one that should not be sullied by commerce. To “inform, educate and entertain” are still part of the BBC’s mission today, but for how much longer? And how should we define what public service broadcasting is in a global, digital world? This week the government will publish a green paper setting out the details of a fundamental review of the BBC, examining its future size, funding and purpose. The BBC is funded by what is effectively a universal tax so making sure everyone gets something out of it has always been an issue. Advocates of public service broadcasting often talk about defending cultural quality, making programmes that no one else would about issues that would otherwise be ignored. But some of the best, most talked about programmes in recent times have been on internet, subscription only services. And there are plenty of other organisations such a museums, galleries and charities offering their own public service content free of charge. As the lines between the internet and broadcasting blur what role should the state have in regulating what we chose to watch and how we pay for it? This is not simply a debate about the future of the BBC, but about the moral and ethical tensions between what benefits the individual and what benefits society as a whole”.
I should say that I am in the main a fan of the BBC, whose tentacles stretch in many directions. Even as I am writing this I am listening to my local BBC radio station (BBC Essex) when it happens that a friend of mine is being interviewed on its Sunday programme about Street Pastors. Its biggest influence imo is on the international stage as a source of accurate, unbiased news reporting and a lifeline to many living under oppression where being able to access such information is invaluable. These days I don’t watch much television and like many catch up with programmes on the Internet but, when I have, the BBC was my station of choice. Going back to my childhood when BBC and ITV were the two available stations, the BBC was the one I preferred, not just because it didn’t have annoying adverts but somehow its content and tone tended to resonate more than that offered by ITV, especially in the areas of news and sport. I still have soft spots for programmes like “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Doctor Who” and “Songs of Praise”. As for radio, it is this that I listen to most. I can’t say that Radios 1 and 2 particularly interest me, and I get to listen to Radio 3 only occasionally (for I prefer classical musical), but I am a great Radio 4 listener. I still listen to the Today program and PM when in the car or around the house. As for “the Archers” and “Test Match Special”, I am an avid follower, and I try to catch well established programs like “Desert Island Discs” and “In Our Time”, if not live then by the Internet catch up facilities, made available in recent years.
As for exonerating the BBC as being the fount of all virtue, knowledge and wisdom, I can’t do that even though, going back to its origins, that was always the intention and with people like Lord Rieth at the helm to a good extent that happened. It is nigh impossible to represent every interest as this nerdy geek with strong traditional Christian views knows all too well. In my young days, I recall the acrimonious exchanges between its then Director General, Hugh Green, and clean up TV campaigner, Mary Whitehouse. While it might have somewhat cleaned up its act, I remain skeptical. It doesn’t cover everything of course, but then we are these days in the privileged position to go elsewhere – for some it is music, for me it is faith. There may well be a liberal bias, even though in fairness the BBC is likely more neutral when it comes to taking an ideological stance than most, evidenced by the number of overseas folk who love the BBC for its fair, balanced, comprehensive coverage. While politicians of all shades complain they are not always given a far crack of the whip I feel on the whole the BBC do a good job balancing different interests although I sense it has succumbed to the doctrine of political correctness that has permeated society.
Times are indeed changing and there is a lot of competition out there, unimaginable when I was growing up. Of course the BBC will have to change but the question is how and that is where the debate needs to be. As for me, and despite its faults and my yearning for the ideals of its early past, I will remain a big fan. Nowhere better is this illustrated that today when I heard the sort of program on the radio I don’t get to listen to elsewhere. For example, I have been following Radio 4’s Reflections when senior retired politicians are interviewed concerning their life and career and the events of their times. Twice in two weeks I pulled up in my car outside my house with the program still running. So riveted was I that I did not get out of the car until the program was finished. It occurred to me that it is because of programs like these I happily pay my license fee.
As for me, I will happily support any campaign to save the BBC, for it is worth saving, albeit with the some of the reforms advocated above, including going back to its roots, with more of a focus on public service broadcasting rather than trying to do everything. As the great Bob Dylan used to sing: “times they are a changing“.