Years ago, this blog had a little button on it. Where today you see little logos for Amnesty International and No2ID, there used to be a button that said “I believe in the BBC”. It was to back this campaign, which was one of the things that got me hooked on blogging. I couldn’t believe how much of a stitch-up the Hutton Report seemed, and I wanted to stand up for what was the best broadcaster in the UK.
Some time during the intervening five years I removed the button from my blog. I had decided that I actually don’t really believe in the BBC. Of course, over time I have become more and more disillusioned with the mainstream media in general, and my opinion of the BBC has fallen south along with the rest of the mainstream media.
But I have found myself becoming particularly frustrated with the BBC’s apparent fear of its own shadow. It is pretty clear that this neurotic period of the BBC’s history began with the Hutton Report, and has been more recently exacerbated by a never-ending stream of overblown tabloid-generated nowtrage.
Of course, the lame tabloid stone-throwing is practically as old as the BBC itself. The difference is that after the Hutton Report, the BBC has appeared to actually believe that the tabloids have a point. What we needed after Hutton was a BBC that stood its ground and believed in its principles. Instead, it has become a blundering, self-loathing embarrassment; a stumbling colossus.
Nowadays, if a tabloid kicks up a bit of a fuss over, say, a bit of post-watershed swearing, the BBC doesn’t roll its eyes and ignore it like the majority of its viewers and listeners do. Instead, it trumps the tabloids, immediately making it the top story in all of its bulletins.
BBC News journalists then begin conducting fierce two-ways with BBC managers, and viewers are treated to a bizarre self-flagellation session lasting several days. The BBC sternly questions the BBC about its own outrageous conduct. After several days or even weeks have passed it quietly snaps out of it — only for another scandal to come along and the whole cycle begins again.
Take the television fakery scandals that engulfed the BBC a couple of years ago. Somehow, the fact that Blue Peter changed the name of a cat became the most shocking thing ever and threatened the very future of the BBC. I knew that because the BBC itself kept on saying so.
The fact that the commercial broadcasters had spent the previous few years building an entire genre of programming — the late night phone-in quiz programme — that was dedicated to deviously extracting cash from its viewers got swept under the carpet. Everybody was too busy watching the BBC break down in what you might call a Cookie crumble.
It was right that the BBC made changes following the scandals. But the difference in approach between the commercial broadcasters and the BBC was huge. Premium rate competitions were quick to make a return on commercial channels, with a bit more small print. But on the BBC, to this day the world “competition” is practically a swear word. Pre-recorded radio programmes are littered with apologies and warnings about the fact. The BBC’s paranoid fear of another scandal is getting in the way of its programming.
Then there is the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brandwagon, when the BBC inexplicably allowed a rather rude phone call dominate the news agenda for several days. While the economy was actually collapsing, the BBC almost willed itself on to implosion. When a bold BBC should have been responsibly reporting important news (which there was plenty of), instead the nervy BBC we’ve got occupied itself by poking its navel.
I found the BBC’s reaction quite seriously worrying. Even though the phone calls were a bit over the line, the reaction was completely out of proportion. And it has the potential to set a worrying trend, for the reasons Charlie Brooker pointed out.
The BBC is surely supposed to be there to do things that commercial broadcasters are either unable or unwilling to do. By definition, this means making challenging programming — programming that might not meet with popular approval. And in comedy in particular, that means pushing the boundaries.
The BBC’s decision to wave the white flag over the Russell Brand hoo-ha was basically a conscious decision to undermine the principles by which the BBC is supposed to exist. It follows that if the BBC believes it shouldn’t make distinctive comedy programming, why should it make distinctive programming at all?
The result is that we now have a BBC which is paralysed by a fear of criticism. It has become too self-conscious, and when the spotlight is on it nervously stumbles around. It’s not exactly the BBC we’re all supposed to be proud of.
The latest scandal to hit the BBC, over the DEC’s Gaza appeal broadcast, exhibits the BBC’s fear well. Knowing that the Israel–Palestine issue is so thorny, particularly given the right wing’s frequent criticism of the BBC’s coverage, it was caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
The first of the justifications given by Mark Thompson for choosing not to broadcast the appeal is that aid might not be delivered properly. That would be fair enough. It would be strange, though, if the BBC knew better about this than the DEC, a group comprising of thirteen charities dedicated to delivering aid properly.
The other (“more fundamental”) justification was the fear that the BBC might be seen to be impartial. It’s interesting to note that Mark Thompson never says that broadcasting the appeal actually would undermine the BBC’s impartiality. He is just concerned about the perception.
The BBC is perfectly entitled to decline to broadcast a DEC appeal. But the fact that it has allowed its fear of the public’s reaction to get in the way is worrying. It is yet another sign that the BBC is no longer prepared to be the bold public service broadcaster it’s supposed to be. And, of course, it brought a fresh round of awkward interviews between BBC journalists and BBC bosses.
It all makes for uncomfortable viewing and listening. It is clear that just now the BBC has very little belief in itself. So how should license fee payers be expected to believe in it?