Life, itself a mystery, is full of daily enigmas: why does one sock always go missing? How is it that the remote control always ends up under a cushion? What makes the Hoover lead tie itself in knots? But now, at last, we have an answer to a once intractable puzzle that has vexed some of the greatest minds of modern times – Greg Dyke, John Birt, Melvyn Bragg, to name but three – viz, what is public service broadcasting?
Years ago, when the BBC was in nappies, her days as an auntie still far ahead of her, the question was not worth asking. Everyone knew the answer: public service broadcasting was many things – entertaining, informative, challenging, amusing, educational, intelligent – but the common thread running through it was quality. True, it didn’t always attain the highest standards, but it was not through want of trying.
Who today, however, could describe the output of the BBC television in those terms? Lorraine Hegessey, that’s who. She is controller of BBC1 and, instead of treating that title as a guilty secret, she popped up in the newspapers last week to exult in the corporation’s achievement in overtaking ITV in the ratings for the first time in almost 50 years. “What a way to celebrate the New Year,” she trilled. “It is fantastic to see that public service broadcasting can be so strong in a competitive multichannel world.”
So now we know. The conundrum is solved, the riddle explained. Public service broadcasting is EastEnders, the Weakest Link, Dog Eat Dog, Celebrity Ready Steady Cook, Celebrity Sleepover. Never mind the quality, feel the ratings.
Lord Reith’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but, alas, his soul long since ceased to march on. Instead of a grand vision of TV as a force to stimulate interests, broaden horizons, and bring people together in a shared experience of the best in drama, documentaries, entertainment, news and current affairs, we have the Hegessey definition of public service broadcasting – which, if it means anything, means broadcasting funded by and watched by the mass of the public.
How did it all go so wrong? There is no single answer; the decline of the BBC is down to a number of causes. They include political correctness, which is the enemy of creativity in two ways – first, it induces a namby-pamby prudishness, and second, it espouses a moral relativism which militates against the very notion of quality, in other words, that some things are better than others; an obsession with youth, and never mind that the over-50s are the most rapidly growing part of the population; a hatred of the middle classes, often felt most deeply by highly-educated programme makers who are themselves from the middle class; the Birtian legacy of a stultifying bureaucracy; and the belief that to survive in the “multi-channel world” the BBC must get deep down and dirty in the ratings war.
Taken together, these influences make for what has been called the “democratisation” of television. And a good thing too, say its apologists: thank heaven we no longer have to listen to the plummy accents of Home Counties presenters or endure the purse-lipped prissiness of Middle England. So much healthier and more natural to bring the honest earthiness and plain speaking of the public bar and building site into viewers’ homes.
Besides, we now have the richest and most bored proletariat in our nation’s history, which explains why ITV, driven by its commercial imperative, is compelled to dumb down as fast as it can, and why the BBC must follow, or be left behind.
To those who argue that that is a non sequitur, that there is no reason for the BBC to cater for the coarse, violent, sex-obsessed and foul-mouthed preferences of the fcuk generation, there is the brusque riposte that since everyone pays for the licence fee, everyone must be catered for. And in any case, times have moved on; people are much more relaxed now about effing and blinding, writhing bodies, incest and insertion.
Which brings us back to the definition of public service broadcasting. It seems to me there is a parallel here with the notion of the “public interest”, which is of such concern to lawyers and journalists. It has now become a commonplace that there is a difference between what interests the public and what is of public interest.
Similarly, there is a distinction between public service broadcasting, as understood by the pioneers of the BBC, and serving the public, as understood by Greg Dyke and Lorraine Hegessey. No one has ever doubted that the market for rubbish is almost limitless, but satisfying that market is not the same as performing a public service. If it were, then ITV wou
ld have an equal claim to being a public service broadcaster and there would be no reason for the licence fee or the BBC.
Rather than celebrate the New Year by clapping her hands and dancing a jig of joy, Miss Hegessey should be hanging her head in shame at the betrayal of a once noble cause. The fact that the BBC has finally overtaken ITV in the ratings war is a cause for recrimination and regret, not triumphalism.