Miserable small-mindedness

Last month at Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, the BBC's director of television, Mark Thompson, sugge

My first response to Mark Thompson's Banff speech is to ask a question: which is the real Mark Thompson? Is it the former, well-regarded controller of BBC2 who sat in my office at the Barbican about two years ago and confided to me that BBC arts programming was in a mess and that the BBC governors - of whom more anon - had commissioned him to suggest ways of putting it right? Or is it the newly elevated BBC director of television who delivers a speech about the future of television in the Rockies and dismisses "elite culture" as "just one more niche"?

The danger is that both are the real Mark Thompson, that he says whatever pleases his listeners: myself in the first instance, and more importantly now, his master, Greg Dyke, the BBC's new director general. A word of advice for Mark, a good former colleague on Newsnight: if you do aspire to be the next director general but one, you should start thinking, and speaking, for yourself.

What was deeply worrying about the Dyke/Thompson manifesto at Banff - expect an updated version in Dyke's much-trailed lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival next month - was not just the content, but also the tone with which it was surrounded. The sneers about rarefied cultural elites patronising the masses, who are regarded as swine rejecting the museum riches of a "dead classical canon", reflect not only total ignorance about many of Thompson's predecessors, colleagues and programme-makers, but also a complete failure of understanding about how Britain's present cultural scene was created.

Just for the record, the riches of our arts scene are as they are because, for the past 50 years, the BBC, the Arts Council, government, local authorities and countless creative artists and performers have offered as wide an audience as they could reach the best they could imagine. That activity was open, generous, inclusive and expanding. By contrast, the Dyke/Thompson dismissal of all this activity as just another marketing "niche" is miserably small-minded.

And Dyke/Thompson are wrong about the arts involving a diminishing minority. The most recent Arts Council research points to very wide support for and use of the arts among the public as a whole. Because the BBC's own research is so fragmented, and concentrates on individual programmes and genres (Did anyone ever turn on a programme because it was "my favourite genre"?), it misses the broader picture and the truth about the wider arts scene. For the BBC to dismiss the entire European tradition of thought, creativity and imagination as part of a dead museum culture that exists only in a small marketing niche is a landmark of its kind.

The consequence of this numbers-led analysis by the BBC will be to bury "culture" - clearly a dirty word in BBC strategy circles - in the distant regions of the unwatched BBC digital channels. At a stroke, its viewing figures will be decimated. However much we use our new electronic programme guides and intelligent video recorders in the future (and roll on both, I say: they will suit a lot of my viewing habits), to ghettoise arts programming in these channels is to undermine its core audience base still further.

The problem arises because the BBC planners and leaders are driven by two kinds of determinism: techno-determinism and numbers determinism. The first kind - techno-determinism - falls into the straight line projection fallacy, one to which BBC planners and policy-makers are particularly prone. Because technology makes something available, they assume that it will be adopted to the full by everyone. Their projections involve no "sensitivity analysis" about the implications of a less than optimal take-up. Numbers determinism leads into another dead end. If a programme delivers fewer than the desired number of viewers available, it gets shunted off to a time when still smaller numbers are available. The programme is then judged a failure and conveniently given the chop. Such a process steadily undermined that flagship of BBC music programming, Young Musician of the Year. Thompson waxes apologetic about the late-night slot it was allotted earlier this year. He then commits a wonderful Freudian slip. "We won't do it again!" Just a small query? What won't you do again? The programme or the scheduling? But the greatest of the howlers in Dyke/Thompson's prescription is the conclusion they draw from the way BBC Radio is organised. Yes, it has long been organised into streams of broadcasting output - genres, you might say. Well, say our new broadcasting masters, the Rodney and Del Boy of public service broadcasting, what's the problem? You so-called cultural policemen approve of such a "suite of channels" on radio; how can you argue against it on television?

The answer is tragically simple: on radio, it is the networks with the highest public service remit and the lowest total audiences that get the lion's share of the radio budget. Dyke/Thompson propose the exact opposite for television. That's the problem. There is a moral issue here, although it is not one that you can readily quantify. Are you ready to put on programmes - not just of the dreaded "high culture" - because you think they are worth it? Or will you transmit programmes in good viewing slots only if they can be guaranteed to maximise the audience? Unless you are prepared to do the former from time to time, unless you are happy to take on for yourself the responsibility of defining "worth", you will be failing the moral test that lies at the heart of the public service remit. Are you motivated at all by judgements of value or only by judgements of numbers? Expelling from the mass schedules most of the output that defines public service broadcasting is a funny way to defend the principle of public service.

No one is denying, certainly not me, that the changing television scene needs a response of some kind. The danger of the Dyke/Thompson approach is that it assumes without question that a certain future will occur, that human behaviour will change universally and uniformly. And it does not address the funding contradiction at the heart of the new BBC formula: if arts programming is transferred to marginal, low-cost channels, what sort of arts programmes will be made with such attenuated budgets?

Certain important words are missing from your lecture, Mark, and I suspect from Dyke's whole world-view. They are leadership, vision and risk. Where is the leadership in a system that is driven by market research about past experience? Where is the vision in an approach that marginalises everything that cannot be measured? Where is the risk in playing safe with what you offer viewers? All your predecessors took risks and many paid off, making BBC television what it is today. Are you ready to risk playing in that league?

A final word about the BBC governors. They are reported to have endorsed the Dyke/Thompson strategy. Yet, within days of the Banff speech, their annual report magisterially criticised the shortcomings of existing BBC television programming. Those shortcomings derived from the (now derided) programming strategies driven forward by John Birt. But the governors enthusiastically endorsed these, too, in Birt's time.

With leadership like that, no wonder the BBC is in danger of losing a sense of direction that understands, cherishes and develops the very idea of the public service. Without such a sense, what is the point of having the BBC at all? The peril of the Dyke/Thompson strategy is that it well nigh guarantees that this question will be asked.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness