Writing in the Graun, Mark Lawson argues that the BBC Licence Fee is unsustainable. Meanwhile, on the twits, Richard Williams addresses the BBC as if it were a person and says, “May you stay forever resistant to pressure from those who wish you harm.”
And my immediate thought was, if only that were the case! If the BBC really was resistant to pressure, it would be a very different institution. As it is, it’s so compromised by appeasement that it’s news output is near-useless, pitched somewhere around where you imagine Newsround ought be. And you think, if this is the news for adults, what shite are they serving up for actual kids? What is a haircut and how might it affect me?
It is headlines with that drift (actual example: What is a recession and how might it affect me?) which are both patronising and extremely right wing that are the whole problem with an institution that I can barely bring myself to support. To couch the news in those terms, both with an assumption that ‘regular people’ don’t understand economics and with the angle that news only matters if it affects you, is to show contempt for the audience and cleave to a news agenda that is driven by libertarian conservatives. Imagine a universe in which the question was, What is a recession and how might it affect people who are already struggling to make ends meet? Or What is a recession and how might it impact essential public services? Imagine that! Imagine the BBC, which is supposed to be for the people and paid for by the people, imagine it asking questions about the whole of society rather than selfish individuals.
When I think about it – what we pay for – I don’t see value for money. Its (mostly independently produced) drama and comedy output is mediocre; its news is hopeless; and its decision making around royal weddings and other big events (world cups, olympics) is ludicrous. The only bits that have real value to society are the children’s channels that offer content without ads, and its archive, which ought to be permanently available to all who paid for it, but is not.
I’ve been paying the licence fee without complaint for decades, and I’ll keep paying it (for those parents with young kids for whom it is a lifeline) as long as I have to, but it is preposterous when you think about it. Some of us are chopping and changing subscriptions between the Netflix and the Disney and the Apple etc., picking and choosing what we pay for, then letting the subscriptions lapse for a while when there’s nothing on. Once you adopt that mindset, you become quite ruthless. I was paying for Now, for the House of the Dragon thing, but it was a bit rubbish and there was nothing else worth watching, so I let it lapse. I’d have similarly let Amazon lapse if I didn’t pay for a year at a time (and if I hadn’t benefited from free deliveries). And yet we are obliged to pay for the BBC regardless of what we get out of it. In my case, a few episodes of that nice fishing programme; anything by Adam Curtis; and about 10% of the Sounds app. Sure, I’ll dip into some of the drama, but it is mostly disappointing. And in terms of the big picture, these mediocre dramas might as well be on Netflix or ITV, the homes of mediocre drama.
As to the sentiment the BBC tends to generate, the elegiac speeches about its unique status in the world, I have come to view this kind of exceptionalism with a jaundiced eye. Looked at in the cold light of the twelfth year of this government, do I think the BBC has done anything to make this country a better place in that time? A place worth living in? A country to be proud of? Absolutely not. And looked at in the cold light of history, could we honestly say that the BBC has held us together, united us, made us One Nation? I said to a friend of mine, even if half the country is tuning in to watch something on the BBC (a wedding, a funeral, a football match, a Morecambe and Wise Christmas show), at least half of that half is hate watching. And if the BBC can’t prevent class war, or Brexit, or bankers’ bonuses, or yet more cuts to services with tool marks on their bones, then I don’t see the point of it.
And even as an institution that provides creative people with a career, it fails. It fails to pay women as much as men. It fails to put 50-something women where 50-something men are perfectly comfortable. And it fails to properly represent people from different backgrounds and traditions. So, sure, point to the Likely Lads and Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective and Narnia and feel a pang: but what have they done for us lately?