Debate about the future of the BBC generates more raw emotion than any other institution in Britain, apart from the NHS. The national broadcaster first took to the airwaves 100 years ago, at 6pm on 14 November 1922, the day before a general election, with a short news bulletin and weather forecast. Ever since then its identity and that of the nation have been deeply entangled, making calm, rational discussion of the BBC very difficult.
As with parents reading the Koran or the Bible to young children, so the BBC arrived early in many of our lives. I can’t recall much about being a toddler but I do remember Watch with Mother. Even now, as a man in his sixties called Andrew, I dislike being called “Andy” because I recoiled from Andy Pandy bobbing wetly around in his weird hat and striped pyjamas. These things go deep. I still scan the latest news about Doctor Who, though I’d never watch it now, so strong are my memories of cowering in terror behind the sofa when the Daleks first arrived. Crossing the road in our village to visit my best friend, I can still remember the shock when the door was opened to reveal a Dalek. It was a birthday present for him but it nearly finished me off.
The BBC has retained its grip on our imaginations through most of our lives. Whether via Match of the Day, Newsnight or Radio 1, it made itself indispensable to teenagers, young adults and working-age people at a time when cultural change barrelled on at warp speed. At some level, for my generation, the BBC has been us – and we it. Even the rage of BBC-haters feels like that of the curdled disappointment of a child at a wilful parent.
As with parent-child relationships, this is also a story about power. From its early origins as the British Broadcasting Company of 1922, it has been hedged fiercely about by law and the state. Even in the early 1920s there were government restrictions on wavelengths, on the times of broadcasts, on what could be used as news bulletins (to protect newspapers from competition) – and a complete ban on advertising to avoid the horror of brash Americanised culture. Ministers were watching. The first annual ten-shilling licence fee (the equivalent of around £25 today), introduced in November 1923 and paid to the Post Office by all owners of wireless sets, was meant to be a new revenue stream for the government – it was originally intended that only half of the money went to the BBC.
Alongside state regulation came, right from the beginning, moral purpose. The BBC was made by young men who had fought in the First World War and who possessed a burning sense of mission. They felt, no doubt, “never again”, but they were also asking, urgently: what was it all for? And their response was to raise the culture, improve the people.
The historian David Hendy, in his history of the BBC, points out that John Reith, the first director-general, had been marinated in the Glasgow of high Victorian paternalism – new art galleries, education institutes and reading rooms – as well as in muscular Christianity. The BBC was not, and has never been, simply about giving the people what the people want. Its modern managers might feel embarrassed by this, but it has always wanted to make people a little bit better. Once, that meant feeding them classical music and stories by respected authors. Now, it means promoting liberal, environmental and multicultural values. That parental voice has never been a neutral one.
Because the history of the BBC is British history, the question of values has always been slippery and highly contentious. The reign of Hugh Carleton Greene, director-general from 1960 to 1969, is the most obvious example. He unleashed a liberal culture war on a country deeply generationally divided, famously proclaiming he was going to use the BBC to change the way the rest of the country thought: “We want them to see stuff they don’t like. We don’t really care if they complain.” The BBC should radically question establishment attitudes and beliefs and keep in touch with, as Greene put it, “the young and the rebellious”. This meant making programmes like the almost too-hot-to-handle That Was the Week That Was, Z Cars, Cathy Come Home (one of the regular Wednesday plays), Top of the Pops, Monty Python and, indeed, the nightmare-inducing Doctor Who.
I can still remember the change in atmosphere in my mildly conservative Scottish rural home as the new programmes came blasting in. Huddling down in front of the telly was no longer an entirely comfortable family experience. And when Mary Whitehouse launched her provincial Christian crusade against Greene’s BBC, he responded by having a painting made of her with five nude breasts and using it as a dartboard.
This itch to change the nation – to improve it according to the principles of self-selected, unelected panjandrums – included more traditional elevating Reithian fare, from staid historical dramas on the Tudors or Forsytes to documentaries such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and the science programme Horizon. On radio (badly served by most of the centenary BBC histories) Reithian uplift meant the seriousness of the Radio 3 classical approach. On Radio 4, the specially commissioned dramas, Reith lectures and shows such as Start the Week and In Our Time were the later 20th-century equivalent of the Victorian public libraries and galleries John Reith himself once stalked.
But when it comes to the promotion of values, it’s no surprise that the central, un-avoidable figure is David Attenborough. Only four years younger than the corporation itself, as controller of BBC Two from 1964 to 1969 he launched Civilisation and colour television long before his stellar career as the world’s most influential environmental broadcaster.
Television is most potent when it blends entertaining storytelling with an urgent agenda. What you might call the Attenborough arc begins with going out to discover rare species, continues by gently anthropomorphising the hunt for food and the protection of the young – penguins, lizards, apes, whales – and then crunches down into an increasingly blunt series of warnings about species extinction and global warming. He might have started as Johnny Morris but he is concluding as Greta Thunberg with better camerawork.
Attenborough has done so much for the BBC that he may well have single-handedly saved it. Close to the royal family, and so beloved around the country that no right-wing, climate-sceptic politician dares to take him on, Attenborough has been changing attitudes about the natural world in a way that both Reith and the Sixties revolutionaries would, I think, have approved – with hard science, deep research, no deference to political establishments, and a general air of kindliness.
Would that some form of Attenborough arc could have been applied to other controversial areas. On race, the BBC works very hard today to elevate and promote presenters and reporters of colour – and in Mishal Husain, Amol Rajan and Clive Myrie, for instance, it has found journalists who would beat any competition, anywhere. But, from The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-78) on, it has found its own history on race increasingly problematic – as David Dimbleby brilliantly demonstrated recently in his documentary Days That Shook the BBC, in which he allowed himself to be put in the dock by Mike Phillips, a black broadcaster who, in the Seventies, had found the BBC “insensitive” and “cruel”.
More generally, the problem of trying to influence Britain through the medium of entertainment continues to puzzle executives. Strictly Come Dancing, launched in 2004 under BBC One’s then controller Lorraine Heggessey – one of a hugely talented generation of female executives – is as near as the corporation gets to pure escapist entertainment these days. Strictly works very hard at inclusion – gay dancers, disabled dancers, deaf dancers – but it is becoming embarrassing to observe how often dancers of colour, approved warmly by the studio judges, then shamefully get voted off by the public.
Several generations of Conservative politicians have believed that the BBC is engaged in a campaign of liberal propaganda, undermining traditional values and fighting the world-view of the Tory party. And because of its dependence on the government for the licence fee, the BBC has always had to flinch when attacked. There were few if any direct threats from cabinet ministers – but the unspoken sense of vulnerability wormed its way through the corporation.
The reality is that any organisation is influenced by its own composition and its own interests. The BBC is a publicly funded body based mainly in central London and Salford, and staffed mostly by university educated and younger people. So, even if you had seen only 30 seconds of its coverage, you would expect it to be liberal on race, sexuality and religion. You would expect it to be tied to the political establishment, resentfully. And all of that is true.
The ferocious battles between the BBC and ministers – over coverage of the IRA, or the Falklands War, or scandals in the Tony Blair years, or Brexit – are an inevitable outcome of its structure. For what it’s worth, as a former BBC political editor, I have never come across a media organisation more punctilious about avoiding party-political bias, or more nervously obsessed about single words and phrases. At times the BBC seemed neurotic to the point of paralysis about “balance”. I was never leaned on to be soft on the government by anybody. Almost everything alleged against BBC journalists by conspiracists of the right or left is hooey. Almost every mistake – as in most organisations – is down to individual blunder, from tiredness or irritation.
Anyway, the BBC is full of Conservatives, as well as socialists and liberals. That’s not really the point: we are talking about Britain here. The more complex and many-sided society becomes, the harder and more constricting it becomes to strive for “balance”.
If panels for instance, had to properly reflect today’s communities – Chinese, Irish, Scots, Caribbean, Iranian – and different classes, as well as people of different sexual orientations, genders, disabilities, ages and political views, they would be not panels, but crowds. Crowds may, at times have wisdom – very often they don’t – but broadcasting them would make chaotic television.
In the end, leaving behind good memories and much-admired colleagues, I came to believe that I could do better public-service broadcasting in the private sector, in my case with LBC. It’s a genuine dilemma, for which I don’t have an answer: staff self-censorship, even in turbulent political times, is essential if the BBC is to keep its funding model. Perhaps for some journalists that is easy. But if you feel strongly about whatever’s going on, it starts to seem, even as you lean into the microphone, as if the air is being slowly sucked from the room. There are plenty of alternatives, where the windows are open.
For the BBC is surrounded, as never before, by rival media. It has long had to fend off commercial competitors, from ITV to Netflix, from the pirate radio stations bobbing off Essex, to smartphones streaming film clips. So far it has been astonishingly successful. This doesn’t mean it always will be.
This is an enormous, lumbering and often dysfunctional organisation, which is almost part of its charm. Aspects of the Thatcher revolution were imported by John Birt, director-general from 1992 to 2000. The BBC created, through his “producer choice” policy, a version of an internal market, under which programme-makers and commissioners virtually had to buy and sell their wares. Now the BBC commissions more content than it makes itself, buying from more than 300 independent companies as well as BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial production arm, which in turn makes content for rival broadcasters.
All this can make the BBC a difficult organisation to work for. There has, perhaps, been a loss of camaraderie. Its management can feel remote. At the leaving party of a very senior executive, she told us: “You all love the BBC but I am here to tell you – the BBC doesn’t love you back. It has a shard of ice at its heart.”
Icy or not, the modern BBC is good value for money, with its £1.4bn investment in creative production generating more than twice that in output across the sector. Its people, by and large, work longer hours for less money than their rivals outside.
So, to the perennial question: will it survive? The perennial answer is yes. The turmoil inside the Tory party is buying the BBC time before any dramatic change to the licence fee. I say “dramatic” because the licence fee is also withering. It is worth about 30 per cent less in real terms than it was when the Conservatives came to power in 2010. Further reductions will mean a loss in valued services – and one people will notice.
But the huge US streaming companies – Disney, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ – do not look like the formidable BBC-destroyers they once seemed. Their content is becoming more purely American; their interventions in British culture, most noticeably perhaps in The Crown, steadily more controversial.
I once asked a well-known publisher, rudely, what he did all day. He replied: “I gamble. I read perhaps 100 books and out of those, I publish ten. If one of those is a hit, then we pay the bills that year. If two are hits I’m a genius. If I don’t get a hit, I’m finished.” The BBC is in a similar position. It can survive on a few hits. It always needs popular entertainment. It could manage with fewer quizzes and game shows, however cheap they may be to make.
The recent argument about cutting back local BBC radio, though, goes to the heart of what it should and should not do. The UK is awash with provocative, well-made content for younger people who never turn on a radio or TV set; the BBC is determined to make ever more, to colonise every new space. And yes, in recent years we have seen a great flowering of commercial radio. But the intimate connection between BBC local radio reporters and their home patch is irreplaceable. Uproot that and eventually the tree will topple.
Many of us will love the BBC more when it toughens up its news agenda. More facts and fewer tears, please, Auntie; more information about what actually happened, less emoting with one eye on the next awards ceremony. Alongside that, it needs to return to properly informative, genuinely exciting cutting-edge documentary storytelling. That doesn’t mean going back to how it used to be done: the BBC has always had pushy young people taking risks. It needs more of them right now.
The BBC can be as infuriating as any blood relative. But this country would be a less familiar and less confident place without it. Like Britain itself, the BBC can no longer do everything. Like Britain, it must clamber off its high horse. But it will get by, as ever, by doing a few things supremely well. Here’s to the second century.
[See also: The Queen made us a gentler and kinder country]
This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink