Why coronavirus might save the BBC

It seems the distant past now, but just a few weeks ago there was very real talk of the end of the BBC. Then the virus hit.

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Everything is so illusory right now, and one should only ever use phrases such as “silver linings” advisedly, but it’s worth pointing out the extent to which in periods of crisis we remember to love our institutions. Democracy itself is never more cherished than after a war. But how can I put this less baldly? And do forgive the indelicacy: Covid-19 might save the BBC. 

It seems the distant past now, but just a few weeks ago there was very real talk of the end of the BBC – and a horribly seething governmental glee at the prospect. Repeatedly refusing to go on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the PM made sinister noises. How the corporation – this unwieldy oil tanker, this outmoded quintessence of “mainstream media” (a phrase that really means “dishonest media”) – would be taken down a peg or two! 

Morale at the various studios and offices was on the floor. And yet… in these past days, we hear of a raft of new, sustaining programmes: guides to shuttered exhibitions and galleries, performances from musicians, book festivals, children’s news briefings, church services, health advice and quarantine diaries.

When Tony Hall went on the new, daily Coronavirus Newscast, broadcast 18 March, to discuss the many and varied plans, not least for previously doomed BBC local radio stations, he stressed, “We are the place we come to for the information. Where we go to find out what is going on in an extraordinary crisis.” In other words: here is the mainstream. We must strain against any idea of its disappearing. Because without consensus, conspiracy theorists gnaw, those deeply addictive “truth tellers” spilling a million divergent and untrustworthy points of view. 

To whom does Boris Johnson now gratefully and instinctively turn first for questions after his daily briefing? Political editor of BBC News Laura Kuenssberg. It’s as though it was ever thus! We have a tribal memory of the Second World War, and the wireless and the BBC, getting us through. And so, it seems, it remains. In short: I don’t think anybody is going to come through this saying, “Thank God for the internet…” 

Coronavirus Newscast
BBC Sounds

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 25 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor

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