There has not been much good news out of Greece since the eurozone powers decided to crush the country, but it is heartening that the state broadcasting company, ERT, has been closed down. All such broadcasting systems, including the BBC, are attempts to impose certain political and cultural norms upon the population, and force them to pay for them. ‘This is how fascism works,’ protested one ERT ex-employee, as the riot police evicted her colleagues — who were trying to keep the service running — ‘slyly and in darkness’. She has got it back to front. Fascism (or communism) can prevail only if a state broadcasting system exists. Now that the conservative-dominated Greek government has stopped it and won its parliamentary vote of confidence, I hope that British Conservative politicians will learn the lesson. At present, the more adventurous among them are privately urging that the licence fee be removed from the monopoly control of the BBC and turned into a pot for public service broadcasting for which all could apply. This is an interesting idea, but not political enough. The Tories still fear that the BBC will try to trash them at the next election if they attack the licence fee. It will, but it is time to exploit the widespread dislike of the fee, especially among poorer voters. More than 10 per cent of all court cases in this country are TV licence non-payments. It is an unbelievable waste of court time and public money and, as I saw when I was convicted for this offence, a Dickensian scene of human misery. Single mothers who cannot scrape together the £145.50 demanded are dragged before the magistrate to pay the six-figure salaries of BBC bosses and stars. A cut would be very popular. Go into the next election promising to (say) halve the licence fee. This would immediately please millions and force the BBC to curtail its operations. Once its power starts to decline, it will never recover.
In terms of party-political share, the BBC grudgingly follows the rules, but in more cultural areas, its bias is so extreme as to be funny. Last week, the Monday afternoon play on Radio 4 was called Queens of the Coal Age. The actress Maxine Peake, a former member of the Communist party, wrote the play, and starred in it as battling Anne Scargill, the then wife of Arthur. Mrs Scargill was one of four women who, in 1993, sat-in down a pit in Lancashire in order to prevent its closure. They failed of course, but that only, according to the play, made them feel strong (‘We are women. We are strong,’ they sang). It was 45 minutes of unqualified agitprop. All the women were lovably working-class, heart-warmingly bawdy, and used exciting northern words like ‘butty’ and ‘champion!’ ‘What that woman did to us!’ they yelled, and we all knew who ‘That Woman’ was. Whatever your politics, you could not find one shred of artistic merit in the whole thing. I wonder if the BBC has ever run a play which has investigated the thought that the coal industry collapsed because Arthur Scargill called the 1984 strike without a ballot, thereby guaranteeing hatred, division and weakness within his own people.
Charles Letts died, aged 95, last week. He was legendary in Singapore, where he did business for three quarters of a century. Probably a British spy, and certainly a very brave prisoner of war held by the Japanese, Letts was a thoroughly British man who virtually never lived in this country, a figure of Empire. His obituaries did not add that he was once a director of The Spectator. This was because he was an old friend of Algy Cluff, who owned the paper in the early 1980s. There was no good reason for his directorship, since Charles knew nothing of the British media, but Algy disliked the doctrine that board directors should be adversarial. He thought that if they were friends, they would trust one another. As editor, I loved having Charles Letts on the board. He never tried to interfere, but he would give me lunch and draw me into a world familiar to Somerset Maugham or to Kipling, a world of which he was almost the last representative.
Although naturally disappointed that it turned out not to be a biopic of the Princess Royal’s ex-husband, we much enjoyed Paul Greengrass’s thrilling new film Captain Phillips. Needless to say, though, the facts of this ‘true’ story are contested by some former members of the crew, who accuse Captain Phillips of disregarding their safety etc. Equally needless to say, this contest is taking legal form and has already gone on for years. Crew members are suing the Maersk Line; $50 million are at stake. The law courts are the real frontier town of American life today, as tough as any gold rush community and a lot more complicated. Mr Greengrass could make a brilliant film about the law suit.
The Board of Film Classification decrees that Captain Phillips is 12A because it ‘contains moderate violence and threat’. I like that phrase, which seems an apt description of Ed Balls. I shall refer to him as ‘12A’ from now on.
Following this column’s mention of how Nelson surveys his fleet from his column, a reader, Mrs Margaret Howatson, writes to say that when she visited Trafalgar Square with school friends on Trafalgar Day in 1948 Nelson’s last signal to the fleet was spelt out in flags on a specially erected mast. Here is the solution for the problem of the fourth plinth: a permanent mast, with an annual cycle of Nelsonian signals.
A friend thinking of going on holiday to Cameroon recently looked up the country on its official tourism website. In the section marked ‘History’, it discloses that, in the 1990s, ‘the country experienced the multi-party system with unfortunate consequences’. Potential visitors are reassured that this problem has now been sorted out. President Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement is now the only legal political party and ‘Cameroon is a beautiful country where people live in security and tourists are warmly welcomed’.