The journalist and constitutional historian Walter Bagehot famously said of the monarchy that “We must not let daylight in upon the magic.” The same is true of other great British institutions, including the BBC, which, alas, has now allowed the last of its remaining mysteries to be destroyed by public exposure.
I refer to the hitherto secret processes through which it appoints its presenters. Many theories have been advanced over the years. Barry Humphries, for instance, noting the tendency for announcers to speak in demotic tones far removed from received pronunciation, suggests they are recruited from urine-soaked stairwells in sink council estates. Though this may be true, it has remained conjecture.
We know the BBC is not averse to nepotism, as second generations of Buerks, Sergeants, Chalmerses and Snows prove. And there is, of course, the extraordinary phenomenon of the Dimbleby dynasty, which Bagehot would instantly have recognised as monarchic, both in terms of its divine right and the deference it is owed.
But some appointments are, to an outsider, baffling. Why must every sports presenter be female? How is it that the chirpy chappiness of Alan Titchmarsh breaks out all over the schedules like leaks from a dyke? How did Anne Robinson get past the commissionaire, let alone the selection panel – if one exists?
Well now, at long last, we have been granted an insight into the criteria applied by those who choose the people we see on our screens, and I must say the revelation confirms my suspicions, albeit in a surprising way.
Last week it was announced that Zoe Salmon, 24, from Northern Ireland, is to be the latest face to join Blue Peter. She beat off hundreds of other hopefuls to become the 30th presenter in the programme’s 46-year history.
So how did she do it? She is undoubtedly both pretty and personable, a former beauty queen no less. She is also clever and has a law degree. But those assets, though creditable, were not enough.
So what separated her from other contenders? What made the selection panel sit back in their chairs, hands behind their heads, and beam satisfaction? How could they be so sure they had spotted the winner?
The answer is that Miss Salmon, alone among those queuing to be chosen, was able adroitly to conduct an interview while trampolining.
This is far more significant than it might at first appear, for not only does it let daylight in upon a mystery, it also marks the triumphant culmination of a process that has long been evolving at the BBC.
As anyone who has watched the changing face of the corporation’s news over the years will have noticed, the trend is to subordinate content to presentation. This is not to be deplored – it is a recognition that television news is a branch of entertainment.
Whereas, in the dull old days, a man in an evening suit would enunciate bulletins in the mistaken belief that his words would be noted rather than his face studied for the curious way his moustache moved when he said “Good evening”, today’s presenters are schooled in the arts of entertainment. Like a music hall cross-talk act, they swap lines, smile at each other, and essay the occasional gag. To add interest, they are invariably male-female teams. ITN’s newsreaders long since abandoned their desks and now promenade in front of a news-wall like models on a catwalk. Over at Five, Kirsty Young perches on a futuristic bench, looking rather like a banana-shaped whoopee cushion (the bench, that is, not Kirsty, who looks like a Scottish lass who has done rather well for herself).
As for the news itself, we have become used to outside broadcasts set against helpful props. So, for instance, if the story is about oil prices, the reporter will stand in front of a filling-station petrol pump.
But not until now have interviews been conducted on trampolines. It marks a significant and exciting breakthrough. It has something for everyone. It is visually exciting, and, until the novelty wears off, different. It will put interviewees to an unaccustomed test of poise and agility. My guess is that Jack Straw will not come over well, whereas Clare Short could surprise. For the lewd viewer, there will be interest in seeing body parts respond in varying degrees to time-lags and the force of gravity. And, of course, the male-female presenting duo can deliver alternate lines while bobbing up and down.
That television has become so sensitive to the tastes and wishes of the viewers is due in no small measure to the new skills brought to broadcasting by the women executives who now run the BBC. Whereas the corporation was once the province of men in suits thumbing through accounts, it now seems to be the domain of women under hairdryers flicking through the pages of Hello!.
And you may discount the crude comment of one bigot when it was revealed that somewhere on a remote Indonesian island they had found the remains of a species of woman with a brain no bigger than a grapefruit. “That’s nothing new,” I overheard, “she’s been running BBC2 for years.”
Absolute nonsense. TV has never been more refreshing or exciting, and the advent of the newsroom trampoline can only add to the pleasure of the viewing public.