Poorly managed and grossly over-funded the BBC, caught in the thrall of the 1980s, is at odds with its purpose, writes Bill Jamieson
In RECENT months there has been a curious change in my television viewing habits. I find myself watching BBC Alba more often. I do not speak a word of Gaelic.
The world the channel describes is unfamiliar, but it has a haunting appeal. Many of the programmes are affecting. The landscapes are beautiful, the language soothing and the music deeply pleasing. For reasons I find hard to put in words, I feel more engaged and more at home than I do with much of the output on the institution’s mainstream channels.
I am not the only one switching over to watch programmes in a language we do not understand. On Monday Lesley Riddoch wrote here of the appeal of Scandinavian dramas such as Borgen and The Killing. She cited viewing figures of well over a million. Nearly everyone of my acquaintance has been watching these.
Why might this be? The strange and unfamiliar has its appeal. We like to be lifted out of our world. Our curiosity leads us to all manner of different places. But stronger than the magnetic pull of all of these is a growing aversion to the rancid output of mainstream BBC.
In what follows, I do not mean to denigrate the excellent work of which the BBC is capable, or to dismiss the expertise and professionalism of those within it. There are honourable exceptions to what I am about to say, but sadly, not many.
And my concern is less with individual programmes than with a more worrying failure of the BBC at the highest levels to have noticed the change that has befallen this country in recent years and to respond to a world that requires a more accurate reflection of the era we are now in. It seems unwilling or unable to accept that this world has changed from the 1980s; that the circumstances and concerns of millions of households are not what they used to be and that this new and apprehensive era requires a greater seriousness of attention and approach than the BBC seems capable of delivering.
Whether these concerns are social, economic, or here in Scotland constitutional, the attention being devoted to them is despairingly lightweight, crassly formulated and breathtakingly shallow. Our world has moved on. We need a broadcaster up to the mark. The BBC is not it.
Across BBC1 and BBC – what the institution is still wont to describe as its “flagship” channels – a near total vacuity has set in. There seems an utter absence of mission and purpose – even, I would say, definition. I could not begin to explain to someone unfamiliar with the output of these channels what differentiates them or what values they represent – other than, of course, audience viewing figures. But as that is the raison d’être of commercial channels, such a defence – and the absence of a defining public interest purpose – is surely all the more question – begging for the future of the BBC.
You do not have to look far to see what has gone wrong. Swathe upon swathe of episodes of EastEnders; an endless diet of celebrity interview shows; formulaic hospital dramas (free of concern over patient neglect and abuse); acres of lookalike stand-up comedy shows; bland sitcoms; an obsession with food programmes (either cooking it or hectoring us not to eat it); house make-over features; sneering, corrosively cynical satire, and wall-to-wall Stephen Fry (I am amazed only he has not yet been given a channel of his own).
All this is “managed” by stunningly over-staffed and over-remunerated Bourbon bureaucracy which seems to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. And presiding over all of this, nominally at least on our behalf, is Lord Patten, the grandest Bourbon figurine of them all, stuffed, it seems, with the entire output of all those cookery and cake-baking programmes and for whom the words “condescending” and “complacent” could surely have been made to bursting measure.
To all of this the BBC points to those audience viewing figures, smugly satisfied that EastEnders was the most widely watched programme over Christmas: case proved, as if this countered the charges of a broadcaster out of touch or an institution without mission. It is because of this defence that these charges stick all the more.
The BBC may feel that the advent of the internet and digital programming frees it from the need on mainstream channels to cater for those of a more serious turn of mind. There are other outlets catering for such minorities.
But the more the BBC advances such arguments, the deeper it digs its grave. This, and the glaring failure to respond to a more serious national mood requiring more than this dish of dated detritus will have one inevitable result.
It is a growing flight of what for want of a better phrase I would call the middle intelligentsia: a thinning of the ranks of those it could traditionally rely on for support where it matters for the licence fee system. And because of this, it is no longer sufficient to say that the BBC is merely falling short, or that it is “in decline”. It is heading for self-destruction.
This week, in a penetrating essay in Scottish Review on the shortcomings of BBC Radio Scotland to provide more than superficial coverage of the independence debate, the historian Tom Devine blamed lack of resources. I am not sure that I altogether agree with this.
The BBC is not starved of resource. It enjoys an annual income of £3.5 billion. From the £450,000 pay-off for the hapless former Director General George Entwistle to the £1 million plus salaries of top presenters; from the costs of its crushing bureaucracy to the millions lavished on crass light-entertainment shows, I would say that the problem with the BBC is not that it has insufficient money.
On the contrary. It has altogether too much. This largesse has fed empire building, over-stretch, over-staffing, over payment and a grand swaggering vanity that has blindly led it into glaring errors of judgement.
All this now puts in jeopardy the good work that many put in at the BBC and which has resulted inter alia, in cuts in the most inappropriate places such as BBC Scotland – just at a time when it needs to step up its political, business and current affairs coverage. £3 million a year for Jeremy Clarkson renders the case for cutbacks here nonsensical.
It is hard to believe that a separate BBC Scotland could be any worse and indeed, given the big issues we face here, the argument is growing more powerful. In all of this I do not need to shoot the BBC out of the air.
Looking at so much of its crass and mediocre output, its failure to match the changing mood of a nation, its fear of the serious, it’s lite-mind irrelevance and its abandonment of public purpose in mainstream broadcasting, it has most competently set itself on its own suicide mission.