Like a dog that returns to a well-gnawed bone minutes after leaving it, I find myself revisiting the subject of the BBC only a week after I last sank my teeth into it.
I do so with reluctance and only because new light has been shed on the question of what is meant by the term “public service broadcasting”. When the BBC announced joyfully that it had overtaken ITV in the ratings war for the first time in almost 50 years, one observer blamed this dubious achievement on “marketing men”. They were, he said, obsessed with youth.
To me that seemed rather unkind. Knowing marketing people to be enlightened, intelligent souls who bear with great fortitude the calumny heaped upon them, I was loathe to repeat this libel. Now I am not sure. Last week the BBC declared, for the first time as far as I know, that the Reithian mission to “inform, entertain and educate” was out of date. While we were in bed or looking the other way, it had been supplemented with a “duty to connect”.
And who was the author of this new guiding principle? Why, none other than the BBC’s director of marketing, Andrew Duncan. Duncan proposes to double the BBC’s advertising budget and spend &£20m on attracting “downmarket, younger, ethnic and northern audiences”.
“For many people, the BBC is an arrogant, aloof institution,” declares Duncan. “Institutions in general are out of favour and one of the reasons is that they have a reputation for talking down to people.” Oh, and another thing – the BBC is skewed towards serving “older, upmarket” audiences.
Well, you could have fooled me. While the last criticism (if indeed it can be counted as something deserving of censure) might apply to Radio 4, it is certainly not true of BBC television.
There are two issues here: public service broadcasting, which the BBC seems to find both irksome and an embarrassment; and the obsession with youth.
To deal with the second first, the media and marketing have for years been besotted by youth. There are two possible explanations for this: the first is that young people, unburdened by responsibilities and mortgages, have readily disposable incomes; the second is that youth, being associated with attributes such as vitality, energy, idealism, and optimism – summed up in the wistful, earnest, and often plain maudlin saw that young people “are our future” – is a “fun” market to be in.
The counter-argument, seldom heard, is that old people not only outnumber the young but also tend to have few undischarged responsibilities and large disposable incomes. Moreover, youth may be optimistic and so on, but it is also inclined to be solipsistic, ignorant, ill-informed, easily satisfied and equipped with the attention span of a cabbage white.
Add Mr Duncan’s mission to connect with downmarket audiences and you attract additional qualities such as vulgarity, ignorance, and a taste for sex and violence. Liberally season with action, noise, colour and swearing and you have a diet drearily familiar to the older, upmarket and skewed audience (they’re the ones with the sickbags). Mr Duncan’s &£20m would be better employed earning interest on deposit.
Before joining the BBC, Duncan was a marketing chief at Unilever and so one can understand his desire to “listen to his audience” and find out what the market wants. But selling sausages and washing powder, though an honourable calling, is far removed from the work of promoting a publicly funded corporation whose charter enshrines the principle of public service broadcasting. Earnestly though Mr Duncan might wish to push aside Reithian ideals, with their connotations of worthy paternalism, it is not the function of the BBC simply to respond to the market. If that were so there would be no justification for the licence fee or the BBC itself. Independent television, satellite and cable could do the job perfectly well.
In the days when youth was not worshipped but tolerated, young people adapted to institutions. It was called growing up. Now, when institutions turn that on its head and strive to adapt themselves to the young, they sow the seeds of their own destruction. To take just one example, in the space of a few years that glorious and previously unchanging institution, the English pub, all but dashed itself to pieces on the altar of youth.
Never mind, fiddle-de-dee, institutions are out, youth is in, downmarket is in, connecting is in. They are in because, of all modern sins, elitism is the least venial. Reith’s tenets smack of de haut en bas and must go. But I ask you, which is worse? An attempt to broaden the horizons and elevate the tastes of the audience, or the kind of cynicism that allows intelligent, educated people to produce rubbish for the consumption of the masses, knowing it to be rubbish?
Incidentally, it is reported that to change a light bulb at the post-Birtian BBC can cost &£19 and take up to 40 days. Mr Duncan could roll up his sleeves, do the job quicker and cheaper, be better employed in the process, and still get change out of &£20m.