Alex Massie

The BBC and other Great British Anachronisms

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I suspect Rod Liddle's analysis of the BBC and, more especially still, the mentality of its top brass is acute and persuasive:

My suspicion is that it will become increasingly difficult to justify a license fee when the balance of the BBC’s output is tilted so far in favour of populism and ratings chasing. This is the point I made to Alan; that times have changed, the market has changed and that no matter how fine a “product” Radio Five, say, or Strictly might be, they can easily be done elsewhere.

You would have thought I’d suggested rogering his grandmother; there was an immediate bristling and a refusal to engage with the issue. Just a blanket denial that the corporation chases ratings, is stretching itself too thinly, etc etc. And a weird defensiveness; the suspicion that the interlocutor might be saying this sort of stuff because he’s in the pay of Murdoch and therefore wants the BBC destroyed. It’s the same, pretty much, with every BBC exec you talk to, a hostile absolutism based upon the philosophy that because the Daily Mail hates them, they must, de facto, be doing the right thing.

license fee

The BBC's problem is that it is both too expensive and too cheap. By trying to offer a "universal service" but being limited in how it can raise its money it all but cannot help disappointing large parts of its audience and, perhaps most especially, those parts of the audience who write for newspapers and those that never ever read a newspaper. The BBC aims to be a one-stop shop in the Age of Niche. That's a tough ask.

For all the hoopla about "saving" BBC6 (a little listened to radio station, you may need to be reminded) there's no real reason - apart from encouraging everyone to buy digital radios they don't need - for the station to exist. The same, apart from the digital radios bit, is true of any show hosted by Dale Winton.

All these things take money from what people actually want it to be spent on: better programmes. And better, of course, does not mean "more popular". Or not necessarily. But when people ask: why isn't the BBC like HBO they might remember that a) the BBC actually has taken part in quite a number* of co-productions with HBO and b) HBO costs about £120** a year. There's no comparison in terms of value. But if you want the BBC to produce more quality drama, you might need to change the BBC to a subscription service...

I don't know how you solve the BBC problem. It's a Great British Anachronism and hugely-flawed but better than what there might be in other circumstances and, on the whole, pretty cheap. Privatising it makes plenty of sense for any number of intellectual or ideological reasons; whether that would actually produce a better (though more equitable perhaps) service is a different matter. I'm not sure it would.

And so the BBC will probably muddle on, leaving almost everyone disgruntled with or infuriated by it but, in the end, doing just enough to survive more or less intact for a few more years while everyone wonders what to do about it.

UPDATE: Bagehot also has some good thoughts.

*From memory: Rome and Band of Brothers and maybe others.

**That doesn't include PPV boxing. That's £30 a pop extra.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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