Saturday, 8 October 2011

The BBC, "quality" and the Tory lowest common denominator

After a month's purdah, principally a consequence of excessive spleen and a wish to watch the full gory detail of the conference season unfold before letting loose opinions, not much seems to have changed.  The economy appears to be heading towards a brick wall with the inability of Osborne and Alexander to grasp that we are in a paradigm most closely analogous to that of 1931 rather than 1981 - and even the Bank of England printing money won't save the situation.  More on the need for a contemporary Keynes at some stage.

Months of anticipation and leaks meant that the BBC's announcement of cuts, job losses and reduction in its output was probably not given the attention that it should have been.  It may be a belated punishment for its role in undermining the naked Murdoch empire, or it may just be the knee-jerk reaction of Tory bigots who fail to see the importance of a relatively impartial broadcaster not beholden to advertising or answering directly to the political authorities.  The sight of Lord Patten, seemingly unchanged from the "acceptable face of bigotry" persona that he used to support the adulterous Major to such good effect, supporting the obscenely-overpaid Director-General in announcing massive retrenchment in public service broadcasting is surreal, but not unexpected.

The BBC's description of its approach as "Delivering Quality First" is risible on many scales and many levels.  For a start, experience bears out that "quality" is a nebulous and subjective concept, and can be stretched to cover almost any multitude of sins - at its best it means delivering a reasonable output, at its worst it allows people whose practical and intellectual capabilities to judge others' efforts through a prism of process-driven hokum.  Management-speak is always a good sign that the foundations of the proposition are completely sham and bogus, and this does not cause any readjustment of that perception.

To propitiate the devil, and preserve the existing management, the BBC has taken on board additional responsibilities - including the World Service, the Welsh Channel Four and providing subventions to extend broadband provision in the countryside.  These are further calls on its resources that are, in many respects, worthy public services.  The World Service, in particular, has always been funded directly on the perfectly-logical presumption that since it is not targeted at UK residents it should be not be paid for by them, except as part of a general levy to promote British interests and values.  At least inside the main BBC it will be safe from bean-counters at the Foreign Office.

Public service should be about providing output for the wider community beyond that which the market provides, or at a cost that is reasonable to the end-user.  The perversion of the media market by Sky has had huge consequences not just for the BBC but for commercial broadcasters, who find themselves outgunned and outbid for rights to programmes by an organisation that has combined rapacious greed with targeting the gullible to part with huge monthly sums.  The BBC should have the confidence to protect these outputs rather than concentrate its resources on promoting the generally-dreadful BBC1, which apes commercial television for the most part (figleaves at marginal times don't count).

The problem remains that the Tories would then have a field day, claiming that the BBC is elitist and ignores the cretinous masses who consume pap from other media organs.  Reading the "Times" and the "Mail" is instructive as they seem to regard anything that the BBC does as being tantamount to despoiling virgins, especially if it might be considered to be putting forward any view other than the bile-filled maunderings of petty-bourgeois Philistines.  So left-liberals find themselves defending the BBC by default, rather than enthusiastically.

To me, the BBC still does a great deal that is totally worthwhile.  Radio 4 irritates because it seems to believe that the country is bordered by the M25, and the "Today" programme is too self-congratulatory and no longer as rigorous as it once was, but it is still essential.  6 Music is generally very good  - treating its audience with respect and  not being remitted to respond to commercial requirements.  "Test Match Special" would be missed!  BBC4 seems to secure most of my limited TV viewing these days - and that is under threat.  Doubtless the Tory right will dribble out objections to sub-titled programmes, but they challenge the cosy Anglo-American consensus that the neo-con agenda wishes to promote.

Of other services that I might want to use, Radio 3 has finally disappeared from much of the radar.  Constant re-jigging to become a slightly up-market variation of the Classic FM aural wallpaper, at least in the mornings, has excited a great deal of comment.  Hopefully it will also encourage people to switch off, as the only message that the hapless Controller seems to appreciate is audience figures.  For six hours every day there is a ghastly, patronising melange of nothingness - competing head-on in the market should encourage the commercial sector to cry foul and the audience to get something back.  However, the schizophrenia of ratings and public service will not be resolved. 

I am, fortunately, too young to be in the BBC's target audience for local radio.  There is much sound and fury about the proposed cuts - but most of the current output is uninspiring.  John Birt has a lot to answer for, as the attempt to mimic national journalism with limited resources results in inanity and wall-to-wall coverage of puffs and press releases.  Thirty years ago, the BBC local network was more limited in hours of broadcasting but still managed to cover much more than just local news - and it is probably indicative of the current paucity of vision that what is proposed to be stripped out is the last vestige of local culture and identity.

Now to fill in the consultation document that will rubber-stamp a further diminution in the belief that good broadcasting is the mark of civilisation.

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