Strange though it may seem, one almost feels a spark of sympathy, sorrow even, for BBC chairman Gavyn Davies.
Forget that he is a windfall multi-millionaire, who owns several homes and is a member of countless golf clubs – not normally features exciting pity. Dwell instead on that meek and bewildered countenance, those big, round, rimless glasses behind which blink bemused eyes, that soft mouth, that failed beard. What we see is not so much a highly educated (Oxford and Cambridge) economist and New Labour crony, as a baby seal waiting to be clubbed. And clubbed he was.
His offence was to stand before the Westminster Media Forum, whatever that might be, and announce that people who accuse the BBC of “dumbing down” are mainly “middle-class, middle-aged, white, well-educated southerners, who already get more out of the licence fee than they put into it, and are trying to hijack even more of the BBC’s services for themselves.”
“An Asian teenager on the streets of Leicester,” he added, had as much right to be “heard and served” by the BBC as a member of the House of Lords.
Within hours, contumely poured upon his greying head. How dare he attack the class of which he is such a prominent adornment? How could he be so patronising as to suggest that Asian teenagers had neither the wit nor learning to appreciate anything other than televised rubbish?
When next we saw Gavyn he was hastily backtracking, frightened eyes transfixed in the hostile glare of his critics. No, no, he flustered, his comments had been “seriously misrepresented”. The middle classes are the heartland of the BBC, he added, “It would never enter my head to criticise them.”
Well, something very like it had entered his head on that dull March day when he addressed the media watchers of Westminster. Perhaps he was not so much misunderstood as misheard. Perhaps he had not spoken of an Asian teenager in Leicester, but a Chinese food futures trader, “a Beijing greengage investor”. And when he was thought to have uttered white middle classes, he was in fact referring to a correspondence course for those who are mean with their hospitality – “wine trickle classes”. As for the inflammatory comment about trying to hijack the BBC, what he said was “buy back the BBC” an enlightened scheme to encourage those who want quality television to wrest control from the trendy lefties.
The truth, of course, is that he said and meant every word. What was surprising, and plainly astonished him, was the fury his comments provoked. After all, he had merely reiterated what has long been BBC orthodoxy, namely that white, middle-class people are “over-served” by the corporation. The same sentiments have appeared in the press many times before, always attributed to BBC spokesmen, without arousing much comment. One can only conclude that with Davies it is the way he tells them, all that sneering stuff about being white and middle-aged, and, most offensive of all, well-educated. Like Albert, the boy in the Stanley Holloway monologue, he took his stick with the ‘orses ‘ead ‘andle and shoved it in the lion’s ear. And, like Albert, he was swallowed ‘ole.
No amount of retreating can disguise that the BBC decided some time ago that, in order to justify a licence fee that yields a colossal annual income of &£2.5bn, it had to attract and retain the maximum possible audience. The simplest and most obvious way was to produce trashy television, which it has done. Sex, violence, lavatorial humour, served up with a pre-emptive warning of “strong language from the outset”, are staple ingredients of BBC, as are game shows and an infestation of grinning celebrities.
The dilemma for the BBC is that tabloid television runs contrary to its duty to provide public service broadcasting, by which is meant quality programming of a kind that commercial channels are much less likely to make.
And yes, it is a fact that quality programmes are what the middle classes want, and increasingly cannot find, on BBC television. I confess to being southern, white, middle-class, middle-aged and – up to a point – well-educated, but, far from getting more out of the licence fee than I put into it, I find little that I want to watch on BBC1 or BBC2.
The middle classes have vices – snobbery, prudery, a certain stolidity – that enrage the intelligentsia of New Labour and the BBC; but they are far outweighed by virtues such as humanity, liberalism, industry, self-reliance and a desire for self-improvement, an eagerness for knowledge and understanding of the world and of what it means to be human. The BBC used to share and foster those virtues. But now, corrupted by political correctness, arrogance, and a hatred of those whingeing middle classes, it has lost its way.
The justification for the poll tax that is the licence fee is to be found, not in delivering mass audiences, nor in setting out to appeal to the stupid, lazy and ignorant, but in delivering the kind of distinctive programmes that people with inquiring, lively minds will enjoy watching. If such viewers are drawn mainly from the middle-classes, so be it. I believe, however, that broadcasting of real quality appeals to a far wider and more diverse audience than is dreamt of the philosophy of Greg “Crap” Dyke.