Michael Grade’s appointment as the new chairman of the BBC has won universal praise from every quarter. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, and Julie Kirkbride, her Tory shadow, both like him. The editors of the Daily Express and the Financial Times think he is fine. Columnists and profile-writers sing his praises. Even the Daily Mail, which raged against Mr Grade as a pornographer when he was chief executive of Channel 4, declared that ‘we unhesitatingly wish him the best of luck’.
No doubt there is something wrong with me, but I cannot quite bring myself to join in this national rejoicing. I am sure that Mr Grade is a larger-than-life character and marvellous raconteur, as every profile of him tells us. He has undoubtedly been a very successful businessman. He is probably a wonderful man-manager. But these qualities will be of very limited use to him in his new role. The chairman of the BBC has no executive duties. He is, above all, the custodian of the Corporation, the person who must do whatever he can to ensure that the BBC remains true to its values. For all his virtues, Mr Grade is a lightweight.
He has already tried his hand at public-service broadcasting during his nine-year stint at Channel 4. No one would say, I think, that when he left the channel in 1997 he had raised the standard of its programmes. Some of them were distinguished — playwrights such as Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale were commissioned — but Mr Grade generally lowered the tone. He was responsible for The Word, which once showed a man having the contents of a colostomy bag emptied over his head, as well as a vomiting Santa Claus. On another occasion it featured a man known as ‘Mr Powertool’ pulling a girl on a chair across the studio, having perhaps somewhat recklessly attached it to his penis. When the Independent Television Commission censured The Word in June 1995, Mr Grade accused the watchdog of being ‘out of touch’.
I will not weary the reader with a full description of the egregious programmes which emerged during the Grade years, from Eurotrash, which depicted bizarre and graphic sexual practices, to The Red Zone, which featured transsexuals, strippers and prostitutes, to Dyke TV, which speaks for itself, to The Girlie Show which showed.... Well, let’s leave it at that. The list is long. This is the stuff of drunken stag nights. Insofar as these programmes have been mentioned since Mr Grade’s appointment as chairman of the BBC — and they haven’t been much — two defences have been entered, both of which strike me as feeble. In the first place, it is said that Mr Grade left the commissioning to his director of programmes, and therefore should not be blamed for these intermittent displays of poor taste. This is so absurd an argument that we need not bother with it. The second line of defence is simply to vilify Mr Grade’s former critics. On Radio Four’s Today programme, David Elstein, a former chief executive of Channel Five who has himself been responsible for a few late-night bodice-rippers in his time, described the Daily Mail as having made ‘scurrilous’ accusations. He could have denied that these programmes were pornographic, though in my view he would have been hard pushed to do so; or he might have asked whether a little pornography is such a bad thing after all. He did neither, and the issue was closed down by disparaging the Daily Mail, which always goes down well with many people. Elsewhere it was barely raised at all.
Mr Grade is not, of course, a pornographer in the sense that Richard Desmond, owner of the Express Group, is. Possibly he is not a pornographer in any sense. He is merely a purveyor of tacky programmes as a public-service broadcaster, as well as, no doubt, the sponsor of some very good ones. Giving the chairmanship of the BBC to such a man is a bit like offering the editorship of the Times to a former editor of the Daily Star. The Times, you may say, is not what it was; and nor is the BBC. But the BBC will only survive in anything like its present form if it is able to justify the continuation of the licence fee, and it can only do that by providing a number of programmes which are not available on commercial or satellite television and yet have general appeal.
So while we may be happy that Mr Grade emphasised his support for the licence fee, as he did during his press conference last week, the real test is his commitment to the idea of public-service broadcasting. I would say that he failed at Channel 4. I am not very hopeful that he will succeed at the BBC. In normal circumstances the chairman of the Corporation has a less important role than the director-general, who is both chief executive and editor-in-chief. But these are not normal times. After the Hutton report, and the resignations of Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, the BBC must establish a new modus operandi with the government. The new chairman must help steer the Corporation through its charter renewal, during which process the very concept of public-service broadcasting will be scrutinised. Mr Grade’s first big test is to choose a director-general who is committed to public-service broadcasting, which means reversing the dumbing-down of recent years. This person should be able to stand up to Mr Grade, who is the first chairman of the BBC ever to have had experience as a television executive, though he has never been a programme maker.
Perhaps it is hopelessly old-fashioned of me to believe that the BBC, for all its many faults, is worth preserving as a public-service broadcaster. But, in common with many other people, this is what I do feel. Unlike almost every other pundit, I look at Michael Grade and see a man who may defend the licence fee but cannot be relied on to defend the purposes of the BBC.
Readers of most newspapers have been treated to acres of coverage about David Beckham’s alleged affair with a PR girl with a ‘cut-glass accent’, though the Guardian and the Independent have for the most part declined to join the party. They were more forthcoming during the endless speculation as to whether ‘Becks’ was going to leave Manchester United for Real Madrid. Perhaps these two papers feel that in this instance there is a privacy issue. I am not sure there is. There is certainly a boredom issue. I would prefer to see Mr Beckham and all his activities confined to the sports pages. But since he and his wife ‘Posh’ assiduously present themselves to the media, both individually and jointly, as a perfect example of married bliss, and bound irrevocably together in eternal love, newspapers are surely justified in publishing information which suggests that this may not be the whole truth. Becks and Posh were at it again for the benefit of Tuesday’s newspapers, playing up to the cameras mercilessly, with Becks giving Posh a piggyback, and the two of them joshing as though they did not have a care in the world. The image must be protected at all costs. How appropriate that Becks should have chosen to have his alleged fling with a PR girl.