Ed West

What’s the point of the BBC if we no longer share common cultural values?

What's the point of the BBC if we no longer share common cultural values?
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Is privatising BBC3 as bad as Isis's destruction of Nineveh? That was the wonderfully trolling headline on a Stewart Lee piece in the Guardian over the weekend. He was making the point that even though BBC3 was not to his tastes it should be preserved because the Beeb is ‘the greatest cultural achievement of any 20th-century democracy’ and such diversity was part of its remit:

In the wake of the licence freeze, the BBC plans to move the youth channel BBC3 online and halve its budget. As a middle-aged, middle-class man, I hate pretty much everything on BBC3. Snog Marry Avoid is just one of many BBC3 show titles that resist parody. The channel has the creepy vibe of a sleazy art teacher trying to coax sixth-form girls into the pub. But BBC3 isn’t aimed at me. And it shouldn’t be.

He then concludes his case for diversity by arguing:

We need a BBC Trust that comprises communicators who have pursued ideas for their own sake, not necessarily for gain. Grayson Perry, Lenny Henry, Mary Beard, Brian Cox, Caitlin Moran, Jarvis Cocker, Meera Syal, Victoria Wood, Rowan Williams and Tinky Winky. And yes, this is my proposed shortlist for the next Doctor Who, that curious, questing, idealistic creature who embodies everything we so want to believe should also define the BBC.

Maybe he could add Marcus Brigstocke to add some political balance?

I’m not sure if he's having a laugh here at our expense. But assuming I haven’t got to that age where I’m such a monomaniac and bore that I miss irony, it pinpoints a serious problem the BBC faces: it was built for a country that saw itself as a family, in which everyone more or less shared the same cultural values. This can no longer be justified in a far more diverse age.

I’m not talking about ethnic-cultural diversity, although that is an added factor; rather that the BBC was established by Lord Reith in an age when British culture had a clearer identity. There was also an understandable set of cultural values and attitudes shared by the population: attitudes to everyday moral questions, to our view of the past and our understanding of ourselves as a country. The BBC is now overwhelmingly run by members of a counter-culture which overthrew that old order between the 1960s and 1980s, and who now assume they are ‘the’ culture (while also not admitting to their actual power, because being powerless is prized as a virtue).

This past week I’ve been watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and while the BBC makes some brilliant documentaries today there is no comparison. What really stands out is both the individual and cultural confidence; Clark is in full control and at no point - the bane of modern documentary-making - are we told we’re going ‘on a journey’. (I don't want to go on a journey with an expert; I want him to have gone on it already and tell me about it.)

But there is a cultural confidence and an understanding that the audience will understand what is meant by civilisation; Clark talks about ‘we’, in reference to the audience as inheritors of European civilisation, assumptions about what the audience knows and believes that simply would not be possible in 2015. Much of this has to do with religion, and in particular the Catholic faith, without which western civilisation would be a pretty thin affair. Clark comes across as sceptical but respectful of Catholicism, but there is an assumption that ‘we’ are part of western Christendom.

That couldn’t be done now; it’s almost like we’ve lost the cultural technology to make something like Civilisation, just as we no longer know how to make Greek Fire or Damascus Steel. The erosion of common British (or European) culture means there is little justification any more for the BBC, except to make programmes that might not be commercial. There is no need for a broadcaster to represent ‘we’, because there is no ‘we’; Lee’s list would be fantastic for a TV channel that catered to a certain section of the population, and I’m sure it would make good television, but as a governing body it would completely alienate large swathes of Britain because there is no set of common values.

The liberal-Left faces the same problem that all regicides and revolutionaries do; once you have overturned the rules and assumptions of the previous culture, what’s to stop someone else doing the same to you? More pertinently for the BBC, if there is no ‘we’ anymore, common cultural institutions are harder to justify.

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

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