I sometimes wonder if I’m the last person left in Britain who loves the BBC and thinks it represents brilliant value for money. Yes, there is much with which to be infuriated - like most Leavers, for example, I find watching Gary Lineker present Match of the Day about as enjoyable as I imagine Remainers would watching Nigel Farage do the same job. And yes, the Today programme segment earlier this week on the latest developments in telephone hold music was idiotic. But does the BBC really deserve, once again, to be threatened with licence fee reform?
The argument against the BBC licence fee is that it is effectively a tax. It isn’t – you can opt-out – but even if it were it would be a good thing.
Our taxes are rightly spent on services many of which as individuals we will never use. But the BBC is a service almost all of us use, every day, and which genuinely is the envy of the world.
Yes, it seems now to be staffed, near exclusively, by gushing liberals and centrist Blairite refugees. But this is hardly surprising – nor such a bad thing. Gushing liberals are drawn more toward media careers than, say, science boffins, and it was ever thus. On the whole, they make better programmes than boffins, certainly when it comes to light entertainment. And the Blairite refugees are simply the overhanging reality of Beeb appointments made between the years of 1997 and 2007 when the prevailing national culture was defined by the New Labour credo.
No doubt when the pendulum finally swings back the other way and Labour returns to power, the public will find itself as at odds as it is now with decisions made by Beeb bosses appointed during the Cameron/Johnson/Cummings years. In that respect, BBC managers are like Supreme Court judges, relics from a bygone era with the power to act as counterbalances. One suspects in 2035, Question Time panels stuffed with nation state evangelists might seem as sinister and weird as does Shami Chakrabarti’s near-ubiquity on the programme today. Probably, it all balances out in the end.
It’s a point so obvious it barely needs stating, but what makes the BBC near ineffably precious as a cultural institution is its blessed freedom from chasing ratings. For thirty years, we have heard much moaning about the dumbing down of our culture. But who in good conscience thinks our culture is likely to get cleverer when the very thing that most forcibly shapes it is required to compete in the race to the bottom for eyeballs and ears? If you think Mrs Brown’s Boys and Top Gear are don’t-know-where-to-look bad now, just wait until there are subscription packages to be sold. And once the BBC is made to bow to the great god of commerce, then what next? People take to the streets to protest at the idea of our other great national miracle of civilisation, the NHS, being opened to even the smallest fraction to market forces. Why not then the same fear of upward pressure naturally being exerted on the cost of a BBC subscription? The service is meant to be for everyone – that’s the whole point of it. No one should be priced out.
Every night, before they go to bed, my young children sit on our sofa with their warm milk and watch as a bedtime story is read to them by a celebrity on the CBeebies channel. It’s a lovely, thoughtful piece of programming. As I look on, unfailingly I am struck by how heart-warming it is that, thanks to the BBC, every child in the land living in a home with a television has access to this simplest of a young life’s pleasures – a story at the end of the day.
But, simultaneously, I am also struck by how at odds the programme is with the myriad lurid crash, bang, wallop cartoons - interspersed frequently with dementing adverts for expensive toys - being broadcast at the same time on the commercial channels offered by Sky. This disparity in output seems to me to encapsulate perfectly the radically different priorities of a genuine public service broadcaster to that of a business whose sole concern is getting people to cough up for its service every month. Of course, Sky could broadcast a similar programme to CBeebies Bedtime Story, but compared to bulk-bought cartoons, it would be expensive to create or to purchase, and so it doesn’t.
The BBC’s output is a product and it is right that those of us who consume it should pay for it. It is also right that no one should enjoy every piece of its programming. Almost certainly, too much of what is currently broadcast as entertainment by the BBC is overly politicised or produced seemingly with no higher concern than signifying the obeisance of the makers to liberal shibboleths of mindless progressivism. But that’s a fad, and thankfully, it will soon pass, no doubt to be replaced in part by something else just as infuriating.
But for every boorish Nish Kumar on the BBC there is a Phoebe Waller-Bridge or a Russell T Davies. For every asinine Radio 4 Thought for the Day, there is a Jonathan Agnew or an Alan Green sumptuously bringing to life a sporting event for whoever wants to listen, or a Mishal Husain holding some terribly powerful despot to account. In the rush to wallop Auntie at every available opportunity, this seems to be overlooked.
We should be very careful indeed with how we handle BBC, because as a public service that is as brilliant as it is broad, it is irreplaceable. If we’re stupid enough to wreck it, we will miss it terribly and it will be impossible to mend. That might not be fashionable to say these days, but it’s the truth.