Thursday, March 16, 2006


Ill-informed and Far From Entertaining

I started off yesterday growling at the Today programme (not shouting, but only through a sore throat meaning I can barely speak). For a change, rather than being irritated by an interviewer or a politician – or even Dim-Witted Platitude For The Day – it was a news story that really wound me up, and one about the BBC at that. In their continuing mission to tell us all how to think, the government has come up with new ‘aims’ for the BBC that go way beyond ‘to inform, educate and entertain’. Now the BBC must promote ‘citizenship’, an ideological aim that sounds far too much like it gives the government an automatic way in to say programmes with attitudes it disapproves of are against the new BBC Charter, and sustain ‘civil society’, which sounds far too much like it gives the government an automatic way in to say programmes criticising the government are undermining instead of sustaining it. At some point, I might have a go at the third new aim of ‘building digital Britain’, too, but it’s the two unprecedently political directives that ring the biggest alarm bells.

Some people might call me paranoid not to give the government the benefit of the doubt. But quite aside from the sensible Liberal maxim that you shouldn’t give an open-ended power even to people who are beyond reproach because the next lot might not be so nice, as the current government’s record is that they can’t introduce a new power without abusing it, my reserves of doubt are quite low.

The BBC is possibly the greatest British institution, and like most great British institutions I feel a mixture of instinctive loyalty and sheer exasperation for it. You’ll not be surprised that I have rather greater regard for its Doctor Who than its journalists, and I’m often driven to distraction by its ‘news agenda’ or the way Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson daily expects us to be surprised by his fair and balanced view that Mr Balloon has done something smashingly wonderful. Just last weekend, I got into a row about the way the press – not least the BBC – make everyone think all politicians are crooks who are only in it for themselves. But residual loyalty becomes considerably firmer when the BBC’s main enemies are the government and the Murdoch Empire, and the BBC is better-placed than anything else to keep both of those dangerous beasts in check. Even hardened sceptics of the BBC might feel warmer towards it on reading the self-serving vitriol against it in the Murdoch papers.

Tessa Jowell has now said entertainment should lie at the heart of the BBC – well, d’uh – but instead of being one of three aims, it’s now one of six. On hearing the new ones yesterday morning, Richard disgustedly observed it was like clipping management speak onto poetry. But I think it goes further than that. I suspect very few people would disagree with ‘to inform, educate and entertain,’ and the BBC has found its own way of using the third to get people to watch programmes that do the first two. The new ‘aims’ are qualitatively different. They aren’t aims that the BBC can find its own way of expressing, but targets that the government of the day wants delivered, in the way it bosses around everyone from local government to hospitals to those of us who don’t take ‘enough’ exercise. That is wrong in principle, and gives a government that never refrains from flinging its weight around yet another opportunity to do so in practice. With such specific new aims, who is going to judge whether they are being delivered, or whether series featuring anti-social characters the audience loves or journalists not treating ministers with proper respect work against promoting citizenship or civil society? I know who my money’s on.

I'm in favour of good citizenship and a strong civil society, but teaching one of those concepts in school is quite as far as a government should go in forcing its own conception of it onto us. There's an obvious conflict of interest when they're giving orders to the BBC, and looking at which of them has done a better job of building civil society suggests the government's got it the wrong way round. Quite apart from anything else is the crassness of yet another piece of Labour thought policing; I'd argue that the BBC plays a major part in holding together the idea of 'Britishness', and far more than the pound or the flag that certain ludicrously wealthy Australian-Americans like to champion in their newspapers. Ordering the BBC ostentatiously to uphold society seems to be not just missing the point but, well, rather un-British.

The BBC is never going to be perfect, and as a viewer I’ll happily give it a rocket from time to time. But give the government a back door key into what it’s supposed to stand for, and I fear it’ll just be to inform (on scroungers), to educate (into the correct way of thinking) and to entertain no thoughts of opposition.

I like the idea in your penultimate paragraph. The BBC would do a pretty good job of judging whether the Government were promoting citizenship and civil society. And I'd love to see Blair being bossed around by someone not called Bush or Murdoch.
I'm now just using your blog for the link to Millennium's blog, sorry ;-)
My, ah, liking of journalists is enough to make me wary of letting them boss him around, but keeping the BBC strong and independent maintains some essential dynamic tension.

And Theo, tsk! I thought you were such a nice young man ;-/
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