It was inevitable that in a battle for affection at the Bafta ceremony on Sunday 8 May, the BBC would win and the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, would lose. But in the week of the white paper on the future of the corporation, it was still striking just how big a mess the government has made of its custodianship of public-service broadcasting.
Who thought it was smart politics to brief the newspapers that the new BBC charter might prevent the scheduling of Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday evening? It was the latest in a series of hostile remarks, including threats to privatise Channel 4, apparently emanating from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – and it allowed Peter Kosminsky, the director of Wolf Hall, to tell the audience watching the Baftas that we were at risk of our broadcasting system emulating that of North Korea.
Many of the seats at the Baftas are occupied by BBC staff and people dependent on commissions from the corporation, so their standing ovation when Kosminsky said, “It’s not their BBC, it’s your BBC,” wasn’t exactly a surprise. But Whittingdale seems wilfully resistant to the love there is for the corporation among viewers and listeners in this country and around the world.
At the service of the public
There is a case to be made against the way that the BBC currently operates and Whittingdale has been groping towards it. Some of BBC1’s schedule is stale: the channel is overly reliant on formats such as MasterChef and The Apprentice, while Casualty has been running for 30 years and has exhausted all plausible accidents known to humankind. Online activity seems to be as unyielding to shears as Japanese knotweed.
The BBC doesn’t make it easy for its friends, either. An enormous amount of management time has been spent preparing BBC Studios to become a commercial subsidiary, which risks throwing away decades of in-house expertise. By contrast, the case for charter renewal has been feebly made and the BBC was hobbled by its acceptance of George Osborne’s raid on its coffers to finance licence fees for the over-75s.
Yet none of this is an argument for more government appointees, or for greater interference from the DCMS. By far the best route is for the BBC to install creative leaders with maximum editorial freedom and to enable the people of the UK to have the definitive say over what they want from public-service broadcasting. It’s a shame that the idea of mutualisation, with licence-fee payers electing directors, hasn’t been explored more. The worst outcome now would be to imagine that the government can assume the role of representing the public.
Laborious hunt for a story
The election results programming across all channels, on TV and radio, was comprehensive. Yet it was plain that some correspondents had decided beforehand that Labour’s failure would be the story of the night. There was a whiff of disappointment that it didn’t turn out to be the meltdown they had hoped for and that Westminster wouldn’t be able to experience the thrill of a coup and another leadership election.
I hold no candle for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour isn’t exactly setting the country on fire with enthusiasm, but he would be right to moan that the media have never given him an even break. Labour’s loss of its overall majority in Wales was cited as another example of the party’s decline, while the SNP’s loss of its overall majority in Scotland was framed as part of another triumph by the Nationalists. Labour defeats were ascribed to Corbyn, while the London mayoral result was a triumph for Sadiq Khan. I don’t think this is political bias – it has much more to do with the hunger for a story.
All of this reminds me of the tiresome narrative now attached to football managers. There are times when you yearn to hear more about football and less about boardroom rumours. Similarly, it will bore us mightily if every move by Corbyn or David Cameron were viewed as part of the next leadership contest. The policies that shape our lives really do matter more.
America in decline
The rival attractions of the river and pubs on a glorious May evening failed to stop more than 300 people turning up for my college’s annual lecture by a distinguished external academic. This year, it was the Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, who gave an assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency as it enters its final months. The audience was keen to hear her thoughts on Donald Trump, too. I had been fortunate to have a preview of these when we shared a bottle of wine and watched the News at Ten a couple of nights earlier. Professor Skocpol heckled amiably through a report by a correspondent in the rust belt of western Pennsylvania that ascribed Trump’s rise to economic decline.
“That happened years ago,” she said. Her take is that immigration and fears among voters about what the US has become are much stronger influences. Immigration, rather than tax, was the driving force behind the Republicans’ Tea Party rebellion, she believes. It raises the question of whether the protesters should have been re-enacting the events of Boston in 1773 – or sinking a replica of the Mayflower instead.
Out to the midday sun
The mini-heatwave prompted a colleague at Selwyn to mention that she had been applying sunscreen to her dog. It’s easy to mock but I am just as much a sucker for things that you spot online that will make your dog’s life complete. My basset hound, YoYo, has a factor-15 spray for when she is outside in summer, and even then I wonder whether I need the “Doggy Sunwipes” that are recommended on the packaging. This is before we get to the eight-in-one oatmeal calming shampoo for her bath at the end of a hot day. There is, I know, one possible conclusion: it’s the owners, not the dogs, who have been out in the sun too long.
Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive
This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump