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.

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The BBC is in a financial bind. Since the election in 2010, the licence fee has been frozen (effectively cut) and both Welsh network Sianel 4 Cymru and the World Service has been brought under its funding responsibilities. Less money, stretched so far, means serious consequences. We almost lost 6Music, and they’ve only gone and axed Something For The Weekend.

Critics of the Beeb always trot out the line “What about showing adverts or go subscription?”, the former of which is now to become a reality. If all goes to plan, the BBC is to broadcast adverts on BBC World Service programmes for the first time.

Auntie’s neutrality means last night’s coverage of this news was as measured as it could be. The phrase “thin end of the wedge” was used only in quotation. There’s probably plenty within the Corporation who think exactly that. Adverts on the BBC? Well, there’s a path now taken and there’s the destination and doesn’t it look NICE? All warm and fluffy and neon lit with advertising types raising their glasses and beckoning us all inside.

The World Service is the most iconic of all the networks prefixed with the letters ‘BBC’. Its legacy is stunning – getting news to places where it was otherwise filtered through genuinely bias sources, if indeed the news ever got to people at all. Famously, Mikhail Gorbachev heard of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union through the Russian language World Service broadcasts.

The BBC is required to source £3m funding from commercial activities by 2014. Adverts can only be the start – and pessimists are meeting with realists to paint what that must mean for the television channels we take pretty much for granted today. Unlike its other radio networks, the World Service is not merely news and opinion; for millions of people, it’s the voice of reason, neutrality and wisdom they are denied at home. It is often the only credible news source they can access all day. Adverts may be necessary because of the new funding rules – but the consequences can only be damaging. The inclusion of commercial messages between BBC programming was always the ‘scare story’ used to shore up support for the licence fee; the scare story is now coming true.

If you’re angry about the inclusion of adverts on the World Service (which isn’t funded by the licence fee, or at least not yet), step away from the Daily Mail website. Its commentators have rubbed themselves to an awkward, disappointing orgasm over this story – “The arrogance of the Bunch of Boring Creeps….” groans one. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tired of paying for left wing biased programming I neither watch or agree with.” faps another. “It’s about time these Socialist parasites funded their own programming.” tugs away one more.  Good old Daily Mail – for whom ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ should be a secondary by-line. Wait until it /has/ gone, DM faithful, you’ll be left with Channel 4 and product placement during the Archers (now broadcast on Virgin Nostalgia).

The “thin end of the wedge” will weaken, compromise and ultimately kill off most of what makes the BBC World Service so important and crucial as a provider of news. Successful adverts will promote the Government to force the Beeb to add commercials onto national television; and with it goes the licence fee and ultimately everything commercial companies would not dare risk paying for. Goodbye to BBC Four, 6Music, the archives of plays and interviews and live music. The World Service was a beacon – it should not be allowed to transform into a billboard.