BBC has licence for extortion

The BBC’s 237 promises to the public show more of a commitment to upping the licence fee than to improving its moral fibre

Any vestigial doubt that the BBC is a ridiculous organisation was dispelled by the announcement of its 237 promises to the public.

I ask you, 237. Why not 250? Or 720? Or 1,022? When you print promises like a banana republic prints money, one thing is certain: the currency is valueless. Had the BBC restricted itself to, say, half a dozen solemn and binding pledges, they might have stuck in the public’s memory and that’s the last thing the corporation wanted. As it is, all 237 “commitments” were carefully checked by lawyers to ensure they carried no legal weight. Seldom has the expression safety in numbers held more meaning.

The statistical nonsense doesn’t stop with the 237 promises. They were devised with the help of 33 consumer groups and a year-long programme of market research; the document containing the fruits of these labours cost 430,000 and will be distributed to 10 million homes where, with any luck, it will be torn into 40 million separate fragments and dispersed through the agency of 2,700 refuse disposal operatives to 932 council amenity sites.

So what is this raddled old relic that calls itself Auntie up to? Why should it be telling us that henceforth its interviewers will be courteous, its bad language moderated, its repeats restricted, its violence restrained, its language plain, its news relevant, its listeners and viewers consulted, and – get this – its lifts speaking?

For the answer, look no further than money. The BBC is pressing the Government to increase the licence fee from 89.50 to about 94.50 and, in the way of any sensible mendicant, it chooses the moment of asking to portray itself as worthy of favour. Its self-abasement is not a spectacle for those with delicate stomachs. When an organisation noted chiefly for its arrogant disregard of its critics adopts a stooping posture, tilts up his head towards its putative benefactor, rubs its hands in supplication, and utters 237 oily promises, you would need a heart of stone to refrain from kicking it in the crotch.

The BBC is an anomaly that has long outlived its usefulness. When broadcasting was in its nonage and all, save the wily politicians, were innocent of its potential and undreaming of its pervasiveness, it made some kind of sense for the State to licence the medium and to keep a watchful eye on it.

But now that broadcasting has come of age and we can all see it for what it is, a miraculously elaborate conduit along which flows 95 per cent dross and five per cent worthwhile matter, there is no need to treat it as special in any way, and certainly no need to bestow particular favour on the corporation.

After all, the BBC is now but one of several channels and, with digital television fast approaching, will become one of scores if not hundreds. There is, of course, the argument that, of all broadcasting organisations, the BBC alone can be relied upon to set and maintain standards, and that the licence fee is the necessary price for Britain’s uniquely meritorious TV and radio – “the best in the world”.

That might be a sustainable argument were it not laughable. The BBC, partly because of the forces of competition and partly through its own arrogance, has long forfeited any claim to surpassing quality. Most of its televised output is indistinguishable from that of its commercial rivals, and in many instances inferior. When the word “standards” is used in the context of broadcasting, it means those values commonly held to be middle class. They include a dislike of not just bad language but badly spoken language, of violence, sexual explicitness, and coarseness generally. These were the values articulated by Mrs Whitehouse upon whom the BBC has never ceased to pour sneering scorn.

Again and again, the corporation has shown that it subscribes to moral relativism. And when one man’s standards are as good as any other’s, who’s to say that a programme is good or bad? Moral relativism, however, is useful only when spitting in the eye of the middle classes. With an awful inevitability, the BBC was among the first of British institutions to become an eager host to political correctness, and in this no deviation from the credo is permitted. No doubt its speaking lifts will recite their messages in Hindi and Gujarati and, in deference to those of a gay persuasion, be hung in pink stain drapes.

The BBC is an overgrown, bureaucratic anachronism with a forgotten cupboardful of past glories. It is significant that the one jewel remaining in its battered and tarnished crown, the World Service, is soon to be replaced by a debased version. That said, there is no need for the BBC to be wound up. Those many millions who enjoy Noel Edmonds and Esther Rantzen and prefer their humour to be modelled on Viz should not be deprived of their pleasures. Nor, however, should the rest of us be obliged to foot the bill. There is no justification for the BBC continuing to be funded by what amounts to legal extortion. It should be set free to prove itself in the open market and, in the meantime, it knows what it can do with its promises, all 237 of them.

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