Tuesday, September 02, 2003

“Oh Lordy - Not Another Over-Simplified Political Post!”

The BBC is a national treasure. A national treasure that some, however, would like to see killed off, hobbled, or locked quietly in a back room where nobody can hear the screams as it has its heart ripped out.

For example, Conservative MP and culture spokeman John Whittingdale would like to see the Beeb’s awesome website more-or-less closed down along with a whole swathe of its digital services, because, as a free-market Conservative, it's doing a job that commercial organisations ought to be doing. Someone tell him the internet money-making bubble burst years ago... From the other side of the house, sour-faced culture secretary Tessa Jowell has been making unpleasant noises regarding the BBC’s forthcoming charter renewal over the Corporation’s failure to kow-tow to the government line during and after the Iraqi War. As the old saying goes, if the BBC is upsetting politicians from all sides, it must be doing something right.

As far as I’m concerned, the honourable gentleman, as a free-market Conservative is talking a big pile of bollocks to keep his chum Mr Murdoch happy. It was one of Rupert Murdoch’s henchmen, Tony Ball, of that top quality broadcaster Sky Television who suggested that the BBC should be forced to sell off its most successful shows and formats. To Sky Television, for example. And when the laughing finally died down, with the majority of the audience suspecting they’d stumbled into an Edinburgh Festival fringe production by mistake, BBC Director General Greg Dyke got up and announced that the Corporation would be making the BBC’s creative archive available to download. For free. Now that’s Public Service Broadcasting, Mr Ball. May I respectfully suggest that you go go away, sit and swivel?

“But if you don’t pay the licence fee you go to prison!” wail opponents of the BBC. “Not fair! Why do we pay for digital services when we don’t/won’t receive them?”. The same argument was heard over thirty years ago from black&white 525 line viewers when 625-line colour transmissions started. And many people who object to the licence fee are more than happy to pay thirty-eight quid a month to watch Sky, who have the cheek to force viewers watch sixteen minutes of advertisements an hour, more than any other network in the country. You don’t go to prison for watching TV, you get fined for not buying the receiver licence that is obligatory by law. Watching TV is a luxury - if you can afford a screen, you can afford to pay for the programmes being made. After all, every time you buy a product advertised on ITV, you are paying for further episodes of Heartbeat and keeping Davina MacColl on our screens. You bastards.

The BBC makes mistakes. It makes bad programmes *cough* Eldorado *cough*. They keep giving work to Dale Winton. Sometimes its news stories aren’t as fair and unbiased as the government would want them to be. But bloody hell, public service broadcasting is about making mistakes, taking risks and courting unpopularity. It’s not for some here today, and dare I say, gone tomorrow government minister, or even less so, some transient opposition spokesman to threaten freedom of speech with the lowest common denominator of the so-called free market. While the BBC gives a balanced meal, the alternative on offer is a pot noodle.

Politicians hate the kind of public broadcasting written into the BBC’s charter, and for one very big reason: control. While in many other countries, the “state broadcaster” is very much in the pocket of the government of the day, the BBC remains outside government control. Out of reach, asking difficult questions, not towing the party line. Commerical broadcasters in the UK are different. Unable to broadcast anything that may lose advertisers, all it takes is a few quiet words with a few well-connected men of industry, and Trevor McDonut’s incisive documentary “Tony Blair: Son of Satan” will never see the light of day. “Death on the Rock” marked ITV’s high water mark in current affairs journalism, a programme that reportedly had Thatcher spitting nails. Nowadays, it’s “Club Reps” and very little else.

What do you get for your money? Ten quid a month gets you BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC Parliament (which fulfills the Beeb’s public service remit to the full insofar that absolutely nobody watches it), News24, two kids' channels, five national radio stations, digital radio, local radio, a monster of a website, news reporters and stringers in every corner of the globe providing the kind of coverage that other organisations can only dream of. You also get the world's most listened to international broadcaster paid for out of your taxes, so you'd hardly notice, and the Tories and NewsCorp still think the BBC is bad value for money.

Did I say bad value for money? I meant "an untouchable competitor they'd be happy to see disposed of". The BBC has survived spat with successive governments - Churchill, Thatcher, Blair - but the corporation has survived. Killing it off to enrich predatory multinationals, or simply because “free-market conservatism” doesn’t like paying for something with is actually *good* would simply be a national outrage. An advertisng-supported BBC would kill off objective reporting and programme making, and ITV, C4 and Five chiefs know damn well it would also kill them stone dead as their income would plummet. Dare I suggest there are those waiting in the wings for exactly that scenario to play out, or is my tin-foil helmet slipping? Do you really want an ITV owned entirely by a Carlton/Granada conglomerate, with the only alternative being the “Fair and Balanced” Sky? I’d rather gouge my eyeballs out with a spoon and eat them with chilli sauce. In the long run, we can just do away with programming altogether and just have channels that show nothing but adverts. You think I'm joking, right?

And frankly, I don’t think I’d be able to find a job anywhere else.

Feel free to disagree with me. Everybody else does.

(With thanks to fellow inmate Tom at plasticbag.org and Ionicus for unwittingly prodding me toward this diatribe. After a mega writing-up session, regular swearing will resume tomorrow.)

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