Andrew “Call me Andy” Duncan, the BBC’s director of marketing and communications, must at times feel as if he is trying to put out a bush fire. No sooner is one blaze stamped upon than another breaks out a few feet away.
Readers may recall that he recently sent a letter to Marketing Week – of the kind that PG Wodehouse would have described as “far from being gruntled” – following this column’s wide-eyed inquiries into the meaning of public service broadcasting (MW January 24).
He took particular exception to the phrase “dumbing down”, dismissing it as one of the “most over-used and least-quantified in modern journalism”. Well, it is difficult to quantify a great ape with a sore head, but you sure as hell know one when it taps you on the shoulder. You would need to be one of those rare people without a TV set to be unaware of the BBC’s inexorable slide into mediocrity. (Before we leave the subject of great apes, let us pause to think of poor David Attenborough, upon whose shoulders rests the entire burden of what is left of the public service ethos. He is the surprise witness for the defence who no longer surprises, and Mr Duncan duly calls him).
If my mild questioning of the BBC’s new found “mission to connect” caused a small bilious attack, I tremble to think of the effect on Mr Duncan’s constitution of the comments made by Evening Standard columnist Brian Sewell.
“We hoped for wonderful things long ago when BBC2 was conceived as the Radio 3 of television,” he writes. “But it has sold its soul to cooking, gardening and gimcrack redecoration. If this is what the BBC thinks suitable to foist on us, together with Never Mind the Buzzcocks, EastEnders, The Generation Game, Anne Robinson pretending to be sour and the appalling Lottery shows, not one of which is intellectually distinguishable from Cilla Black’s Blind Date or the incomprehensible Brookside, then why do we pay an annual licence fee?”
The BBC’s answer is threefold: first, that it is impertinent to put the question at all; secondly, that its focus groups confirm an appetite for vulgar rubbish (“accessible” or “popular” programming in BBC-speak); and thirdly, that because everyone pays the licence fee, everyone is entitled to get something out of it – and that includes the dim-witted and feeble-minded.
As Brian Sewell says, only two of the BBC’s activities sit comfortably with the notion of public service broadcasting – Radio 4 and the World Service: “Radio 4 is still essentially a Reithian programme appealing to the BBC’s core audience, broadly middle-class and middle-aged – and none the worse for that; it reflects the aspirations of the BBC when it was founded.”
No one knows for certain what prompted BBC Television to abandon those aspirations in favour of a ratings war with the commercial channels. It might have been the fear that, without a mass audience, the corporation could no longer justify the licence fee; it might have been misguided egalitarianism (dumbing down); it might have been a desire to spite the middle classes and the middle-aged, both of whom figure prominently in the demonology of trendy broadcasting folk.
Whatever the reason, the policy has backfired. To quote Sewell again: “In engaging in a ratings war, [the BBC] has lowered its standards to the point where its service is worse than the commercial channels, yet its panjandrums still mount high horses in its defence, armed with the complacency and arrogance of a monopoly that no longer exists, other than as a state of mind and as a licence fee of £2.37bn a year.”
I trust Mr Sewell is in receipt of a letter insisting the “BBC’s public service soul is alive and well and that Lord Reith’s mission to inform, educate and entertain are [sic] as relevant today than [sic] they ever were. By ensuring they are imbued with the extra dimension of actually connecting with audiences, we can make them even more relevant in the 21st century”.
What Lord Reith, an educated Scot, would have made of imbuing a mission with a dimension called “actually connecting” is anyone’s guess. I suspect he would have put it down to the folly of appointing a director of communications.
By now, yet another letter will, presumably, be in the hands of Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator and MP for Henley, in response to his comment that the constant injection of Government funding “bloats and enfeebles the BBC to the point where it now resembles a great fat man, so paunchy that he cannot see his own toes”.
And another missive from Mr Duncan’s overheated pen should be winging its way to Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the Commons culture and sport Select Committee, who irritatingly observes that “Lord Reith, the BBC’s first and best director-general, created public service broadcasting without ever telling anyone to ‘cut the crap'”.
Is Kaufman not aware that under the stewardship of its present director-general, the BBC is indeed – to quote Duncan – “in tune with the times and in touch with its viewers”? No one should be better placed than the chairman of a culture committee to know that we live in a coarse and vulgar age. He needs to grasp the importance of connecting.