Watching televised excerpts of the director general of the BBC giving his MacTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh, I was puzzled to hear him refer to “Mick Shonra” channels. What could these be if not channels aimed specifically at a former resident of Matabeleland of Irish descent, a policy which, though fashionable in its precise targeting of a minority, seemed to be going to an extreme?
It was, of course, a misunderstanding, a combination of my cloth ears and ‘Greg’ Dyke’s demotic way of speaking. He was referring to channels that cover the entire spectrum of televised broadcasting from, as Dorothy Parker might have said, A to B. Mixed genre channels. Having cleared that up, little else he said made much sense.
He is apparently unhappy with the Mick Shonra channels, BBC1 and BBC2, on the ground that they are “no longer enough to satisfy viewers”. Instead, he proposes four new channels. In future, BBC1 will have more “unmissable factual programmes , drama and comedy”, BBC2 will focus on “intelligent specialist factual broadcasting, lifestyle programmes, thoughtful analysis, and cutting-edge comedy and drama”, BBC3 will target younger viewers with “home-grown comedy, drama and music”, and BBC4 will be an “unashamedly intellectual mixture of Radio 3 and Radio 4”.
With the exception of BBC4, none of this holds out much of interest to that most neglected of all minorities, the intelligent, educated, liberal members of the bourgeoisie, who own a television and may occasionally wish to watch it.
Dyke gives the game away when he says that “BBC1 needs to be more modern, more in touch, more contemporary”, which, translated, means more proletarian, more coarse, more stupid. Those on the wilder shores of commercial television, ie Channel 5, succinctly sum up the requirements of the in-touch modern viewer as the Three Fs – football, films, and, well, you can guess the third (no, for all the popularity of cookery programmes, it is not filet de boeuf en croÃÂ»te, or even faggots). Dyke, who almost certainly thinks the word “elitist” is far more offensive than the F-word that informs much of BBC’s current output, is intent upon concentrating on “ratings-driven” shows. In this, he is caught in a trap of the BBC’s own making.
At some point in its evolution, the corporation developed a guilt complex about extorting money from every household in the land in order to make programmes that appealed to middle-class tastes and, by implication, aimed to improve the minds, or at any rate broaden the horizons, of the masses. This was, of course, the BBC’s Reithian legacy and defined the term “public service broadcasting”. The new approach, which argued that since everyone paid the licence, the BBC should cater for everyone, ushered in the age of moron-vision. The actress Maureen Lipman is right when she says, “Television at the moment: what is it? Gardening with breasts, cooking with lunatics and flies on the walls” (One suspects she thinks all could be put right if she were once again given some airtime.)
As Dyke’s critics were quick to point out, it is hard to justify the use of licence payers’ money to launch new channels in direct competition with commercial services. Independent television is a creature of the marketplace and has a finely honed understanding of the requirements of moron-vision. It is not the function of the BBC to replicate that service.
Indeed, were the corporation to pursue a Dykeian populist course, there would be no justification at all for the licence fee, especially when viewers have access to scores of channels, each offering a permutation of Fs.
Publicly funded broadcasting should offer something which the market is unable to do, and that must mean the unashamedly intelligent programming which Dyke sees as forming only an unquantified part of his remit.
But why, shriek the anti-elitists, should the entire nation pay for the production of TV programmes for a minority? It’s a circular argument, but the answer is that in the absence of such funding there would be no public service broadcasting and precious little television of any quality at all. In any case, it’s a firmly established principle of British governance that taxes are levied in abundance and spent in a myriad of foolish and wasteful ways. To put public money into creating an oasis of intelligent television amid a desert of vulgar rubbish would be a rare good use of funds forcibly extracted.
With the BBC, it is quality that matters. Everything else is a sideshow, including the moving of the Nine O’Clock News to 10pm. In comparison to the press, and to a lesser extent radio, television is such an ineffectual means of conveying news that it doesn’t much matter when it’sbroadcast. However, the later the programme goes out, the less the awful prospect of seeing, worse still hearing, the elegiac correspondent Orla Guerin who feels the pain of others so agonisingly and at such length she has become a one-woman ad for morphine.