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July 3, 2015

Timely book on the BBC

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 7:09 am

John Mair reviews This new noise: The extraordinary birth and troubled life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins, Faber/Guardian Books

The BBC is never out of the news; too often it is making it rather than reporting it. This year and next are crunch years for the corporation with licence fee renewal (or not) and royal charter renewal set in the next eighteen months. The BBC could enter 2017 a shadow of its former self cut to the bone by the ultimate government paymasters and its services thrown overboard like so much ballast to make the reduced sums add up. DG Tony Hall and Trust chair Rona Fairhead have a monumental task on their hands to square many circles of finance, regulation, reach and range. Charlotte Higgins’s book is timely as, to declare an interest, so will be my (and Professors Richard Tait and Keeble’s) edited collection, The BBC today: Future uncertain, to be published by Abramis, of Bury St Edmunds, in September.

Higgins is the chief arts writer on the Guardian and was given a ‘sabbatical’ by editor Alan Rusbridger to write a series of long reads (a very welcome Guardian innovation) for the newspaper on the BBC. He asked her to ‘get under the skin’ of the corporation. The result was thousands of words which she has pulled together for this book. It is a good read as you would expect from a seasoned feature writer. I read it in one sitting. Like Jean Seaton’s recent ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ – the official history of the BBC 1974-1987, published by Profile, of London – it is based on themes and people. Like Seaton, it is possibly over-reliant on one major source; Seaton’s was Patricia Hodgson (member of the BBC Trust, 2006-2011, and currently deputy chair of Ofcom) and Higgins’ (Lord) Tony Hall and his mentor, former DG (Lord) John Birt.

They shine through the copy. Silent are the longest and shortest serving director generals of recent times: Mark Thompson and George Entwistle .Silent too is Greg Dyke, the most flamboyant and popular DG of the last thirty years. More’s the pity that Higgins did not seek, or if she tried did not get, their take on this great national institution. The BBC is always up there with the monarchy and the NHS as cornerstones of modern British life but for how much longer?

Did Higgins get ‘down and dirty’ and ‘under the skin’ enough to talk to a sufficient range of programme makers? It is their creative genius that the BBC is all about at the end of the day. Not managers, not politicians, not technology but brilliant programme making. When I was at the BBC as a producer during the 1980s, I met some who were close to genius but too many close to being jobsworth. One value that held them all together was a belief in the quality of their work and in the institution. Many had a love/hate relationship with the corporation. They loved it when it was good to/for them, hated it when not. Creativity is very hard to manage.

Is there, too, in the book much reflection of the views of those called within the BBC ‘The Thought Police of Oxford Circus!’ namely those at the epicentre who try to manage the corporation and is there not enough of the radicals and refuseniks? For half a century, Lime Grove Studios, off the Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, provided a home for them and for current affairs. They were the intellectual gladiators of the BBC. They pushed the limits. They were the ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ in Dennis Thatcher’s words. They caused trouble and got the BBC into hot water with the powerful time after time after time. Programmes on Harold Wilson (Yesterday’s Men, in 1971), Ireland/the IRA (Tonight on INLA, 1979, inter alia), Maggie’s militant tendency (of January 1984), the sinking of the Argentinian light cruiser, the Belgrano, during the Falklands conflict in 1982, and more caused controversy. Quite rightly as this is a basic function of good journalism. The ‘Thought Police’ hated Lime Grove and when John Birt became DG in 1992 he simply smashed the building to bits (it is now social housing) and neutered current affairs by rolling it into the news machine where it still rests. Higgins does not reflect the Lime Grove free spirit much apart from passing references to the original ‘queen’ of Lime Grove, Grace Wyndham Goldie, the legendary head of talks at the BBC.

Did Higgins get ‘under the skin’ enough to tell the tales of the sheer waste of licence fee payers’ money? You can search but you will find little mention of recent BBC causes célèbres: the £100 million (the entire licence fees of the City of Glasgow) wasted on the dream of the Digital Media Initiative, the ‘filling of the boots’ of the BBC ‘officer class’ like Mark Byford, Deputy Director General/head of BBC journalism 2004-2011, with huge pay-offs, sometimes even when they continued to work for the corporation. They led to a public and parliamentary stink. Those two stains rest on the otherwise successful eight year reign of Thompson as DG.

Higgins is simply not good on the negative. She gets seduced by the great and the good and their offices. I hated the ‘I sat in his ornate office in New Broadcasting House/Portcullis House’ trope. Good for colour in a single feature but rather repetitive when used to introduce each individual voice. That said, she did meet a variety of individuals face to face and reported what they said. The best form of original journalism mixing past and present and some analysis. That came out in her original Guardian pieces as it does in the book even if there are too many officers in their office in the cast and not enough privates and lance corporals on the broadcasting front line. She was also seduced by the canon of Radio Four and the BBC arts output. The latter the refuge of the chattering classes and not the average licence payer. Did she actually go and see any programmes being made or broadcast? Shiny floor shows such as Strictly come dancing?

So what of the future? Very very stormy times lie ahead for the BBC. Higgins talks of the ‘enemies at the gate’. The enemies are now firmly inside the citadel. In parliament, there is a growing groundswell which is becoming a cacophony. The motion to decriminalise the evasion of the licence fee went from an early day motion from two ‘Tory Taliban’ backbenchers to official Coalition (and worse Labour Party ) policy in five weeks last year. It has to date cost the BBC £150 million in avoided licence fees. That was a portent of things to come for the corporation. The national press, now nakedly right wing and Tory in 90 per cent of titles, are firmly BBC bashers. Barely a day goes by without the Daily Mail finding a ‘storm over BBC’ story, whether true or false.

Whilst the public continues to consume the BBC in millions across many platforms, many have been seduced away by the Murdoch millions and their expensively bought sports rights. One startling statistic: the income of Sky TV in the UK is now double that of the BBC. How much longer the BBC can continue to collect the ‘worse than the poll tax’ of the licence fee (the words of John Whittingdale, the new secretary of state for culture) is increasingly being open to question. The bets are on this being the last licence fee.

The past offers bad examples. Mark Thompson was shown into a darkened room in 2010 by then-culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and given a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum on the level of licence fee the government demanded: in effect, a 16 per cent cut in income over the following five years. Thompson was firmly held by his metaphorical ‘short and curlies’ and forced to agree to this over a protracted period of…just six days. Usually these negotiations take two years. Thompson had little alternative but to assent only managing to hold the £500m. over-75’s free licence at bay. That is now firmly back in play. I know about the negotiations. Mark told me over a pint in our local pub.

This time round the ‘negotiations’ could be even shorter with a Conservative government and a secretary of state who, whilst knowledgeable about the BBC, has plenty of right-wing form. Tony Hall and Rona Fairhead are in for a rocky ride. The clouds on their and the corporation’s horizon look very dark indeed.

Higgins has written a good and lucid book about the corporation. One only hopes it does not prove to be an epistle to the end of an era and of the BBC.

John Mair is chair of ICE. He is a former BBC current affairs producer who has now edited fourteen ‘hackademic’ books on media matters,
the majority with Richard Lance Keeble

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