Public Service Broadcasting? To speak the phrase now is to sound as if you have climbed out of an ark - a mission long lost in the frantic search for ratings, the fight against the incursions of Netflix and Amazon - and the mounting of a £100 million drive for “youth”.
So much is wrong here. So it was with interest that I turned to Dorothy Byrne, low profile broadcasting panjandrum but media head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 and Fellow of the Royal Television Society, who delivered the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last week.
I looked for a fresh take. But oh, dear. She had much to say of note - once the males in the audience survived her assault on the sexist behaviour rife in broadcasting when she set out some 30 years ago. Yes, shocking. But really new? And relevant for this lecture?
She is right to say there is much about television that falls far short of what today’s audience requires and deserves. And I warmed to her opening lines: “Our country”, she declared, “is undergoing seismic changes. There is widespread disillusion and a loss of a sense of belonging as society fragments. Whatever happens about Brexit, we need big new ideas to take us forward. But I don’t see big ideas on TV now.
“Too many programmes are saying small or medium-sized things about society. Where do we go for big ideas? Books, Tedtalks, podcasts, all really popular.
“On the news, I’m hearing every day that the very fabric of our democratic system is being ripped to shreds. But where is this crisis being analysed outside of the news?”
I couldn’t agree more. And do we not have a more enlightened population for which to cater? In 1970/71, there were 621,000 students in UK higher education. By 2017–18, that figure had exploded to 2.3 million, including 570,000 postgraduates.
We have never had an apparently more educated and informed populace. But it is hard to discern over that period that television, while more intrusive, has risen to this challenge. Much of it continues to infantilise and demean. Either the higher education statistics are all drained of meaning and that a more educated and inquiring citizenship does not exist, or broadcasting is letting millions down: inane chat shows, obsession with vacuous celebrity, formulaic cops and robbers, and far too much padding out with American films and comedies.
What a target to hit. But what a disappointment unfolded in this lecture: major questions unexplored, malign trends in news glossed over and little offered by way of remedy or solution.
Dorothy Byrne may be regarded as the doyenne of investigative news, with the Channel 4 hour-long news slot at 7pm headed by Jon Snow as a showcase. But much of what passes for broadcast “news” today is less news than comment, supposition and conjecture. Questions are fired before interviewees have barely drawn breath to answer - and all this less to reveal truth than to force interviewees into blundering error and humiliation. It is a blood sport. Effective, revealing inquisition is rare. Depth has gone.
She berates Boris Johnson for turning down a Channel 4 interview. But why should this surprise? Many of its interviews have turned into hostile goading. Watching best-selling Twelve Rules for Life author and philosopher Jordan Peterson being interviewed last year by Cathy Newman (“So what you’re saying is…”) was to witness a flailing assault of spears and javelins- that collapsed to nothing.
Covering Brexit has exposed great hazards. Programmes can turn into a daily kaleidoscope of speculative imagining, shroud-waving and a self-defeating search for certainties- a daily tumult in which few certainties can be found. Unbalanced commentator opinion and attitude is no substitute.
Meanwhile, other important voices outside the progressive bien-pensant are left unheard and unexplored, and important issues glossed over or ignored. There is an obsession with certain favoured issues and points of view – but not others. How often have news programmes in the past three years explored why infrastructure projects such as HS2 run crazily above estimates and the public kept in the dark? How much attention is paid to the plight of the small and medium-sized business sector - 5.6 million in total, accounting for £2 trillion or 52 per cent of all private sector turnover - while CBI chief Carolyn Fairbairn, spokesperson for the corporate moguls, is swept into the studios quicker than a blood-strained stretcher in Casualty?
BBC Scotland is not exempt, having long abandoned its Newsnight Scotland break-out under the estimable Gordon Brewer and lumped viewers with ‘The Nine’ – a 60-minute ostensible ‘flagship’ programme cynically pitched at 9pm and timed to fail as viewers are battered senseless by promotional ads for the murderous bully boy malevolence of peak-time Peaky Blinders.
Switch on the BBC, supposed guardian of Public Service Broadcasting, and it is difficult to discern any sense of programme hierarchy or priorities at all. It is a cacophonous jumble, cheered on as diversity but about as ordered as wet clothes flaying in a tumble dryer.
There are some honourable exemptions to all this, but sadly all too few. So let me take up the good questions that in fairness Byrne raised in her shortfall critique and present some suggestions for reform, focused particularly on the BBC.
Drop the insensate race for ratings. Re-order priorities on the BBC channels. Bring some depth and analysis to national problems currently made worse by the failing ‘welfare solutions’ applied.
Set BBC 1 free to offer serious, searching and penetrating news, documentaries and analysis. Broaden the bandwidth of views and discussion. Cease the flight from big ideas. Give BBC2 full reign on the best of arts, drama, music, science, technology and environment.
Move the rest – the home make-overs, the hyperactive chefs and the baking, the tired cops and robbers, celebrity comics, sport and mindless Gary Linekar chitter-dribble to the other channels.
For what public service broadcasting needs is some semblance of priorities, of what is pressing and important, and to promote a television of aspiration.
It needs to treat its audience as adults, and treat its national obligation seriously - for this supreme reason: we face urgent problems – constitutional certainly, as at present, but profound problems, too for a country that tirelessly lays claim to be one of the wealthiest in the world but which is afflicted with deep and seemingly intractable social breakdown and despair. The national broadcaster has a duty and it is time it ceased to shirk it.