George who?

Did the BBC really need another safe pair of hands as director general?

The BBC is at a moment of crisis. It can no longer compete for sports rights, especially for football, cricket and horse racing. It can’t compete for the top US imports, from Mad Men to The Simpsons. Its arts programming is less talked about than that of Sky Arts. Its best television current affairs programme, Newsnight, is losing ratings and credibility.

Worst of all, its much criticised coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant suggested an identity crisis. It no longer knows what it’s there for. All those presenters from factual entertainment, the compulsive matiness, the lack of research and lack of sense of occasion, enraged viewers and journalists alike. Whatever else happened, the BBC has always had a fallback position: for the great state occasions, royal weddings, funerals, coronations, no one does it better than the BBC. That is no longer true. And when this was exposed to everyone, the BBC failed to respond. Director General Mark Thompson blathered about rain and went into defensive mode saying it was alright really. It wasn’t the fault of the rain and it wasn’t alright.

Enter George Entwistle, who will succeed Thompson as the BBC’s Director General in September. Entwistle is what the BBC considers a safe pair of hands. He has spent his entire broadcasting career, since arriving in 1989 as a Broadcast Journalist Trainee, at the BBC. Like all modern Director Generals apart from Birt and Dyke he’s a BBC insider through and through. And like Thompson, he has spent most of his programme making career in Current Affairs – an assistant producer on Panorama, a producer on On the Record, eight years at Newsnight, with a two minor excursions beyond current affairs, first a couple of years at Tomorrow’s World and then one season as the launch-editor of the middlebrow Culture Show which defined Mark Thompson’s early years as surely as The Late Show epitomised the more exciting BBC of Michael Jackson and Alan Yentob in the 1990s. It’s the programme-making record that Director Generals are made of. Nothing too exciting but nothing that will frighten the horses.

At the BBC it has always been the channel controllers who are the exciting figures, the ones who made the talked about programmes – David Attenborough and Jonathan Powell, Yentob and Jackson, Michael Grade and Roly Keating. All of them made their mark in music and arts, drama or light entertainment. Director Generals are the grown ups, usually from Current Affairs, men (always) who can be trusted in a crisis. No women, no Jews, no arts or drama, no one from outside the BBC. 

The question is whether a safe pair of hands is what the BBC needs in a crisis. Entwistle will doubtless build on Thompson’s successes. There will be more exciting technology. The archive will go online. There will be more developments like the red button, Freeview, iPlayer and HD TV. There will be more super-smart programmes like Doctor Who, Sherlock and superb dramas like the current Shakespeare history plays and The Shadow Line. The Today programme, The World at One, the News Channel and the Ten O’Clock News will continue to provide an excellent news service on radio and TV.

The problem, however, is whether Entwistle can deal with the problems he has inherited, and as Controller of Knowledge (2008-11) and Director of BBC Vision (2011-12) has contributed to. First, what can he do about sports rights? Nothing. The licence fee is frozen till 2016 and then has to be renegotiated, during a continuing economic crisis with further austerity measures called for. Cuts at the BBC will continue so he won’t be able to throw money at problems, let alone sports rights. But at least he can start to address some of the growing problems in BBC sports coverage, in particular the cosy, overpaid and very high-profile Hansen, Shearer and Lawrenson team.

Second, can he do anything about audience share? No. The multi-channel world of cable and internet has done for the BBC’s hegemony. In the 1990s the BBC worked wonders by developing factual entertainment programmes – cookery, gardening, DIY, antiques – which bought them a share of daytime. Under Thompson they have fought all comers for Saturday night entertainment ratings. But overall the big battle has been lost.

Elsewhere, though, much can be done. Seriousness and culture can return centre-stage. The blurring between BBC2 and BBC4 (what are either for?) can be sorted out. BBC3 can be returned to its once clear remit. Disastrous failures like the Diamond Jubilee Pageant can be avoided by being handed back to News and, more important, by restating what the BBC is for. Above all, it’s time to make the BBC more exciting, time to frighten the horses a bit. Thompson wouldn’t. Entwistle should.

The BBC is at a moment of crisis. Photograph: Getty Images
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.