BBC-bashing: fashionable, but at our peril

One of my least favourite newspapers has to be London’s Evening Standard, also known as the Evening Boris, because of it’s slavish devotion to our ‘Mayor’.

It used to be the sister paper of the Daily Mail until it was sold to an oligarch. The only thing that can be said in its favour is that it is free – I encourage students to read it for this very reason.

At the moment The Evening Standard hates the BBC almost as much as it loves Boris. Which is a lot. This was the sort of thing it was running today.

Obviously it is entirely proper that bosses at the BBC are being carpeted for not doing the right thing over Savile – whether its not challenging his vile behaviour back in the 70s or scrapping the Newsnight investigation into his activities.

This was detailed in Monday’s Panorama, which revealed that BBC staff had their suspicions about Savile nearly 40 years ago, when he worked on a show called Savile’s Travels.

Yesterday, DJ Paul Gambaccini took the story to a new low when he went on record about rumours of necrophilia – which have swirled around Savile for a generation.

Obviously it all looks very bad for the BBC.

Shelving last year’s Newsnight investigation obviously smacks of a cover-up, but as someone who worked for many years in TV, it kind of made sense to me. Broadcasting the programme would have meant canning the raft of tributes to good old Jimmy that had been woven into the schedule for Christmas 2011.

Programmes like this one. Watching it now – as I did the other night – is cringeworthy. Chris Evans’s perky voiceover seems laden with heavy irony; I also find it embarrassing as it reminds me of programmes I made a few years back. Programmes uncritically gushing over old bits of pop culture – broken up with the odd arch or catty comment about bad hair or silly trousers. Televisual wallpaper for drunken thirtysomethings trapped at home by parenthood or lack of cash.

In other words, showing the investigation into Savile would not only have made the BBC look bad but also caused problems and cost a lot of money because they would have had to totally revamp their Christmas schedule at the eleventh hour.

Ultimately a bad call but I doubt whether other media outlets would have behaved differently. Look at the cover-up over phone hacking at News International, for example. And it was not just the BBC that seemed to be blind to Savile’s faults. He fooled the NHS, the Government, the Police, the Royal family and the Catholic Church. His tentacles wrapped themselves around the entire Establishment.

But the focus is entirely on the BBC. Why?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not blindly uncritical of the BBC. I’ve worked there a couple of times and the culture of waste was epic. Back in the 90s, it really was party time. An independent production company made junior members of staff take the tube and beg, borrow or blag what ever they could.

The BBC had budgets. For props, for entertaining, for cars – get hold of the right charge code and you were laughing. It all seemed a bit silly.

I worked there again in the early 2000s and it seemed a bit less lavish, though no one really seemed to work as hard as they did in the independent sector.

Senior members of staff were often very grand and clocked off early on a Friday afternoon to beat the rush on the M4 to the country retreat. Their children all had exotic names and attended very exclusive schools. An elitist culture that clashed with internal dictats on equality and diversity.

However, despite all this, I still hold back from bashing the BBC. It’s not perfect but I believe that the model of public service broadcasting is basically a sound one. I like the fact that there is a major news outlet that isn’t controlled by Murdoch or Associated Newspapers. Or Branson. Or some other chancer.

I like the fact that programmes like Women’s Hour exist, even though their content serves to incense right wingers and gives them the excuse to scream bias at every opportunity.

I like the fact that older people are valued. Like John Humphreys or Anne Robinson. I like the fact that Cbeebies has a presenter with a disability – Cerrie Burnell. I like the fact that the BBC makes comedy that is dark, sick and twisted. Like Nighty Night, or programmes about people making cakes. The BBC may not be perfect, but like the NHS (or even our unique weather) it makes Britain special.

Would this be the case if it was sold off to Murdoch or Branson or another one of Dave’s shady chums? Yes, some of its output is a bit naff, but on the whole the BBC is a GOOD THING.

As we draw towards the end of 2012, it’s fashionable to bash the BBC, but I say we do so at our peril. What we might get instead could be a hell of a lot worse.

  1. It’s been an interesting year, the truth about Hillsborough, then we had Saville, then we had the police and the miners strike and false written statements, now Tom Watson says that a past Prime Minister may have been involved with Pedophiles and a group, we can I suspect guess who Tom is talking about.

    Bloody hell takes your mind off cuts and U turns.

  2. The BBC deserves a lot of criticism over Savile, but it’s notably that the tabloids are much more interested in bashing the BBC than asking how Savile got the keys to Broadmoor (for example.)

    Basically they want to distract from the fact that they don’t go after really famous/powerful people in Britain, despite their claims to be crusading.

  3. The BBC needs to stand up to this witch hunt.

    Anyone in a position of power who might have been responsible for any failings is likely to have retired.

    They had no duty to air the Newsnight report – if people think a crime has been committed they should go to the police. BBC documentaries are not part of the judicial process.

    Frankly, I don’t think BBC News should air any of the criticism of the Corporation and they should never have made the Panorama episode. Just boycott the whole affair.

    And most of all, never say sorry. It’s a sign of weakness.

  4. “Programmes like this one. Watching it now – as I did the other night – is cringeworthy. Chris Evans’s perky voiceover seems laden with heavy irony; I also find it embarrassing as it reminds me of programmes I made a few years back. Programmes uncritically gushing over old bits of pop culture – broken up with the odd arch or catty comment about bad hair or silly trousers.”

    Isn’t that part of the problem: a culture which not only does not encourage the development of critical judgement but wallows in a total lack of it. That is a perfect backdrop for chancers, charlatans and worse.

    “Ultimately a bad call ….”

    Let me see now, this chap might have been a criminal and we might be making him into a hero which he wasn’t but changing the planned celebration of his life would be costly. Hmmm.

    Is that really a difficult call?

    “But the focus is entirely on the BBC. Why?”

    I agree that this is a major problem. The media vultures are always circling hoping for limbs of the BBC to be hacked off.

    The BBC should be defended as the main representative of public service broadcasting. But we should do so with a clear understanding. The fact of commercial vultures circling aided by right-wing politicians should not reduce us to silence over the BBCs many faults.

    Just this week we have had on BBC TV’s “intellectual” arm BBC4 two disgracefully ideological programmes (and that is only the ones I have watched). First there was the absurdly biased “Secret History” of the Grammar schools. Then there was the outrageously uninformed Horizon “guide” to intelligence (i.e. human potential). Both were repeats. I don’t know if there were protests about the Horizon programme but there were many about the grammar schools programmes. Members of the Socialist Education Association made detailed complaints. The BBC procrastinated in responding and ultimately its response was to repeat the programmes without a hint that there was any serious question about their fairness or veracity.

    So, I agree that we should be carefull to make it clear that our criticisms of the BBC are in the context of a defence of high-quality public sector broadcasting. But let’s not give up on the criticisms. When the BBC produces or commissions programmes which show no sense of fairness on issues which are an essential part of the belief that an alternative form of society is possible then we must challenge them.