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Is BBC 2 becoming so chippy that it will lose the plot — and therefore its point?

Is BBC 2 becoming so chippy that it will lose the plot — and therefore its point?

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

Jane Root, the controller of BBC 2, has decided to axe the award-

winning current affairs programme Correspondent. Thirty years ago there were a number of such programmes on the BBC, and the disappearance of one of them would scarcely have been noticed. But in Greg Dyke’s increasingly dumbed-down BBC, Correspondent is probably unique, and so its passing is of some significance. In consigning it to his-tory Ms Root reveals a great deal about herself. According to her, the programme’s title conjures up visions of ‘an Eton-

educated guy in a white linen suit’. It will be replaced by an international current affairs series called This World which, we can be certain, will be entirely free of Old Etonians and linen suits.

So far as I can see, Correspondent has in point of fact never been introduced by anyone who went to Eton. The reference to linen suits is presumably a dig at Martin Bell, who attended the Leys School in Cambridge. Other journalists who have served as correspondents include John Simpson (St Paul’s), Jeremy Bowen (Cardiff High School), Rageh Omar (Cheltenham), Kate Adie (Sunderland Church High) and Mark Tully (Marlborough). No Etonians to be seen, and a pretty broad mix of educational backgrounds. We may take it, I think, that ‘an Eton-educated guy in a white linen suit’ is shorthand for someone who is

middle-aged and speaks with a vaguely middle-class accent and appears to be well educated and interested in serious issues. These are qualities which Jane Root would apparently like to exclude from BBC 2.


Not very long ago they defined BBC 2. The channel does, of course, still have some pockets of seriousness which I am sure Ms Root could reel off, but it has undoubtedly dumbed down during her watch, which began almost exactly five years ago. Shortly after her appointment she declared that arts television was dead — a view which she has recently publicly rescinded, though arts have not made much of a comeback on BBC 2. She herself was the champion of ‘lifestyle television’. After criticism from the governors of the Corporation that BBC 2 was relying too heavily on leisure programmes such as makeover, gardening and food shows (all of which admittedly can be perfectly enjoyable), Ms Root has recently made a slight effort to redress the balance. But there hasn’t been very much to show for it. Instead of establishing a proper books

programme, she chose to give us The Big Read, a search for the country’s favourite novel, usually introduced by people who are first and foremost television personalities rather than genuine literary types.

What is the point of BBC 2 if it does not cater for people who want a reasonably serious alternative to the already enormously dumbed-down BBC 1? Newsnight, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, appears increasingly to be aimed at not especially bright four-year-olds. If Jane Root had better ratings to boast about, she could at least accuse people like me of being elitist and out of touch with people’s tastes. But BBC 2 has recently lost a greater share of its audience in the ABC1 socio-economic categories than any other terrestrial television channel. According to recently leaked figures, the station saw its share of ABC1 viewers fall by 7.4 per cent compared with the same period in 2002. This is not entirely Jane Root’s doing. It seems that some viewers are defecting to more upmarket digital channels such as BBC 4, which was one of Greg Dyke’s less bright ideas. Perhaps it is a deliberate

policy to drive viewers who want more serious programming to such channels so that BBC 2 can continue to be dumbed down. But if BBC 2 ends up only as a slightly less populist alternative to BBC 1, it will have lost its point. And if it loses its point, what public treasures will the BBC be able to offer to justify the continuation of its privileged existence when its future comes to be reviewed?

Nearly two weeks ago the Mail on Sunday carried a photograph of the Labour MP Chris Bryant in his Y-fronts. In an accompanying story the paper described how Mr Bryant, who is openly gay, had posted this picture of himself on the Internet, and also sent several explicit and obscene emails to a man whom he had never met. One of the milder ones read as follows. ‘Oi mate — so you want to come and f*** around?’ Rather amusingly, perhaps, Mr Bryant is a former Church of England vicar. He is now a loyal Blairite who sometimes complains about press intrusion.

Many people may think the random sending of obscene emails by an MP en-tirely normal and even praiseworthy. This would appear to be the general view among the so-called serious press. The quality papers scarcely mentioned the story after it appeared. There have been three glancing references in the Daily Telegraph (two of them by my colleague Frank Johnson); a three-line report in the Independent after Mr Bryant apologised in the House of Commons; nothing, so far as I can see, in the Guardian; and a brief note in the Times in a diary by Nick Robinson. Nor did the quality papers show any interest in the Mail on Sunday’s follow-up last weekend. The paper claimed that Mr Bryant celebrated New Labour’s 1997 election victory by ‘performing a lewd act in a London club while singing the party’s campaign tune “Things Can Only Get Better” ’.

Why have our grander newspapers almost entirely ignored this story? It cannot be that they think that tales involving unusual sex should not adorn their pages. Such pieces abound. Is it because they believe that an MP’s sexual tastes are entirely his/her own affair? Possibly. Are they frightened of being represented as anti-gay by homosexual pressure groups? Again, possibly. Do they wish to protect Mr Bryant because he is a conspicuous Blairite? Perhaps, in some cases.

Whatever the reason, one cannot help wondering whether these newspapers are discharging their duty to report the news. One may personally approve or disapprove of Mr Bryant’s behaviour, but in either event it is surely in the public interest to report it. His constituents down in the Rhondda might like to know. So might many in the wider electorate. The failure of quality newspapers to report this story in a neutral way amounts to an act of

censorship.

Even as I write this, a further thought occurs to me. If Mr Bryant had been a Tory MP in the Major administration, would these papers have observed their self-denying ordinance? Of course not. The misplaced scruples that held them back on this occasion would have been cast aside. A Tory Chris Bryant would have been wheeled out as an example of all that is sleazy and unwholesome. The behaviour of the New Labour version, however, is not even reported.


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