Auntie needs help

Jimmy Savile hid “in plain sight”, using his character as the perfect smoke-screen, taking his relationship with the BBC to its most extreme conclusion. The BBC as an institution was frightened of him, to the conclusion of being in awe, and from the initial controversy about his alleged behaviour the connected stories have questioned the very foundations of the corporation itself.

The resignation of George Entwistle has allowed the right-wing critics of the Beeb to run riot in today’s newspaper comment sections and connected blogs. Here’s the justification in swift follow-up to the real-terms cut in the licence fee to call for the BBC to be broken up, split apart and sold off. The Daily Telegraph calls the BBC “bungling”, and runs thought pieces by Norman Tebbit and Dan Hodges sharpening swords, carving knives. Influential blog ConservativeHome sets out the arguments for the natural conclusion to Entwistle’s resignation – sell off, break up, close down. The Guardian calls for the Beeb to be given “a bit of a slap”. Those on the left fire up their criticism of the BBC’s bias towards the Government’s austerity agenda, those on the right lay on thick their attacks against the perceived bias for Labour and Labour-leaning personalities.

When the Coalition froze the licence fee for six years – a real terms cut – the BBC had to start a fire-sale. Local radio has been slashed to the very bones, taking with it even Danny Baker whose BBC London show was scrapped for “financial reasons”. Popular shows on BBC Four were taken to the sword, repeats increased, high profile stars were jettisoned. Critics on both wings celebrated, and most loudly came cheers from the Right.

But the context of the BBC’s current malaise is framed not by Savile or alleged abuse of children in North Welsh children’s homes. The print media has taken tonnes of criticism through the Leveson Inquiry, every tabloid whipped into submission, the News of the World shut-down. Is it any wonder that the press are enjoying the slow, certain collapse of the BBC and its supporters? This is the best chance the print media has had to enact its revenge after months of Leveson related battering. The blessed Beeb allowed Savile to fiddle with young people in an entertainment establishment hush-up, don’t you know, and allowed for favourites in the industry to knock investigations into the long grass. AUNTIE IS A DEPRAVED TART!

I’ve been a cheer-leader for the BBC for my entire life, and I remain such today. I support the licence fee, and always have done. The crisis has been allowed to move away from generalities to specifics because the BBC and its supporters are too timid. The press shout loudest and the BBC whimpers. We’ve been here before – the demise of Greg Dyke’s role as DG against the false prospectus on which the country was taken into war in Iraq – and again the critics took the opportunity to call for a wider slashing of the corporation into bits. Sell off the radio stations, carve up the news organisation, shut down digital stations – then, as now, the best parts of the very best institution open for an auction at the earliest opportunity.

It didn’t happen then. It could happen now.

Of course massive editorial failings at the heart of “Newsnight” are to blame for some of the current malaise. They should be investigated. However Jimmy Savile managed to get away with his crimes, he did so with greater complacency than just within the grounds of the BBC. How much did the press know, and how many ‘friends’ of entertainment’s biggest names managed to manoeuvre claims against family favourites away from the front pages? These should be investigated too; it’s not just a BBC problem if a culture of silence hung over generations of investigative journalists whose contemporaries now calling the BBC to be torn to shreds.

The changing face of broadcasting in this country is a wider issue which should not be dragged into a debate about alleged child abuse and journalistic failings across more places than just the Newsnight offices. How people access television has changed forever – through iPlayer, through downloads, through streaming – and it’s up to all channels to adapt to these changes. The BBC has been at the forefront of adapting to new broadcasting realities, and all from a licence fee which is the best value television subscription package in the world. There has always been a small subset of people who resent the strength, depth and breadth of the BBC, and today they’re at the most confident. I’d be willing to put money on them being the most upset if they ever get their way.

Flying the flag

His infamous video now part of the Interwebz fabric, David Starkey’s “whites have become black” Newsnight melt-down (during which he sounded like a mad advert for OMO) garnered enough hubris and comment to fill Broadcasting House with carpets of Daily Mail and Telegraphs. At the core of his concerns, amongst rather extreme and obvious prejudice, was a subject more commonly expressed amongst the wider population than the commentariat realise; don’t just think the weather and house prices keep the English chatting all day long. If there’s one thing we like talking about, it’s how we talk.

Why does the English language produce such extreme reactions, instantly flinging up the shields and swords as quickly as tabloid newspaper journalists scarper towards a fishmonger with Lb. Oz signs on his stall?

In very broad-brush terms, the English language retains its strength and influence by virtue of its powerful ability to soak-up influences and alter its appearance. Very few major languages can change and alter so quickly – or to such divisive reaction amongst its native speakers. The rapid rise of communication models exacerbates the pace of change; mostly for good, keeping English as the language of sport and music, politics and business. Moreover, the language of culture, and as such the living record of how communities, their people, and ultimately their country, is developing.

That the language amongst young people in London is changing should be only a shock to journalists needing to extend columns by 200-words or more before the next print run. As traditional Cockney has moved across and out of the capital, so new ways to talk have moved in. “Hinglish”, “Jafaican”, “Caribbenglish”. Broad, solt-ov-di-urth East End accents now exist laced either with the coarse consequences of age, women and song, or the semi-conscious adoption of immigrant slang. And lo, it has been thus for generations.

We think nothing of “klutz” or “Kitsch” being naturalised English words, so why the immediate post-riot condemnation of ostensibly Black British slang, by Starkey and others? Is one assimilation less difficult to criticise than the other?

Analysing the use of certain phrases from black culture – from “safe” and “blud” to “break it down” – brings to mind one of my long standing points of reference in matters political or socio-linguistic. “Context is all”. The showing off amongst friends by younger people borrowing street slang is no more concerning than the 13 year old me flicking to page 53 of the English-French Dictionary in Mrs Cunliffe’s classes for a quick glance at the swears. As British immigrants grew older, made their homes and families here, it makes just as much sense for their language and dialects to be adopted as it would any outsider in a new town. Ever spotted accents altering your own speech in a new town? Or your almost unconscious adoption of new words or phrases after speaking to a mutual friend?

Starkey tapped into a much repeated concern amongst traditional, older generation Englishmen; that somehow, all of a sudden, what was ”our England” exists only in dreams and flashbacks as a consequence of allowing the language to adopt the traits of those who chose to learn it, share it, make it comfortable on the tongues and in their hearts. Somehow, England the place, the myth, the language, must retain its isolated state off the coast of civilisation until the right kind of revolution improves the lot of us all. It’s a stance I have never understood, and can never accept. There is a massive difference between accepting the new forms of modern English as the result of our nation’s strengths and attitudes on the one hand, and criticise the inappropriate use of the language in a disrespective manner on the other. I would rather moan at the teenage “like, you know, whatever” speech influenced by Paris Hilton, far more dangerous an influence than third-generation British Asians swapping three languages or more in beat poetry or rap.

As with any bloke getting into older years, some language use amongst people these days passes me by completely. I’m utterly lost at the speed with which the language of my teenage years has been lost to the archives, if they have indeed been recorded at all. Each generation will advance further away from the language of their parents, and their grandparents before them; there is no “English” to be protected, only the tangible exchange of sounds and words between the ages. The 2011 English riots have their causes and consequences in politics, poverty, aspiration and adversity; from which music and speech will flourish and through which the language of these islands will strengthen and grow.

Yes, the looters and murderers and thugs are prize-draw idiots who deserve criticism for their actions. Don’t try to connect too many dots – this was largely apolitical reactions to political malaise. The language of the youths who perpetrated the most violent, destructive crimes is not important. What they have to say is the manner to judge them. In trying to make politics out of patois, Starkey has shown he really is living in the past.