Dyke's BBC has rarely been so powerful, but friend and foe alike say it has lost its public service purpose. The governors must actby David Lipsey / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Panorama,” says Richard Lindley in his history of the programme, “must do more than kick the door down or collar a villain. It has to explain not just what’s going on but why; and then look at what to do about it.” I wonder what Lindley would have made of its recent programme on corruption in horseracing.
This was so gripping that it was easy to overlook the fact that the allegations it paraded were stale and largely supported by the testimony of the shady and disaffected. Indeed, had it not been for a tape of the head of Jockey Club security holding forth over a liquid lunch with his predecessor, Panorama would not have had a film. And would the old Panorama not have had qualms about secretly filming a man who was accused of nothing worse than being a bit of a twit?
There was no explanation or remedy. Apart from making a few million people think twice before they next backed a nag, the programme was a Chinese meal, tasty but hardly satisfying. Since that does not distinguish it from much of what is found on television, it may not be a bar to winning a clutch of prizes. It may not even put off the audience. But has it performed a public service? Or, at least, has it performed the sort of public service that should be the raison d’etre of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme?
This is not another lament for the golden age of the BBC. Watching old programmes you can see that today’s filming, transformed by new technology and the taming of the broadcasting unions, is slicker and more engaging. The pace is faster. The stars are starrier. In some fields, sport conspicuously, the new broadcasting leaves the old broadcasting standing.
But there are some areas where there clearly has been a decline. Few politicians ever watch the BBC’s political programming except when they are on it. This is as well, because if they did, the high level of support that the corporation enjoys in parliament might fall rather sharply. The decline is not entirely the broadcasters’ fault, since politicians have now mastered the art of saying nothing at great length. The spectacle of show-off interviewers bashing their heads against political brick walls is wholly tedious.
But the prospects for the future of political programming are not good. The BBC’s recent review of political programming concentrated on revising the output to appeal to “youth.” This is a doomed task, since youth has better things to do than politics. In the process, however, it has got rid of the BBC’s most intelligent offering, On the Record. The most you can say about the results of the review is that it could have been even worse.
Moreover, this is happening at a time when the BBC is in one of its “up” phases. Greg Dyke is reckoned a success as director-general-and it is widely said that this is because he is not John Birt. But his success owes a lot to the fact that he is not John Birt in a different sense to that usually implied.
He is not John Birt in that he has not inherited an organisation fat with flab, kept on short commons by a hostile government and generally behaving as if it was entitled to remain immune from the social and economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s. He is not John Birt in that he runs the BBC at a time when ITV has been weakened by the advertising slump, and where the legal obstacles to a merger of Carlton and Granada and to foreign investment mean it has to fight with one hand tied behind its back. He is not John Birt in that he is director-general under a government instinctively supportive of publicly-owned public service broadcasting. (The government has not only given the BBC generous extra funding. The corporation has recently persuaded ministers to abandon their original reservations about its new BBC3 and looks likely to pull off the even more significant feat of ensuring that it is not fully subject to the new telecommunications regulator, Ofcom.)
It is easy to be popular when you can announce a new channel here, a new digital initiative there. It is easy to be popular when the sheer proliferation of BBC initiatives means that there is something for everyone coming soon.
Partly for this reason, John Birt’s account of his life and times, The Harder Path (Little, Brown), can be forgiven its occasional lapse into boosterism. His faults have been magnified long after they have ceased to be relevant and his much more significant achievements have been pocketed by his fortunate successor.
Today, the BBC retains its old iconic significance as perhaps the outstanding cultural institution in the world, while also proving to be just about the only bit of Britain’s public sector which works. That is hugely to Birt’s credit.
This prompts a further reflection. Is now the moment to sell Dykes? Has his ascent reached its apogee?
Even as currently handicapped, ITV is fighting back in the ratings. The communications bill will lead to hotter competition still-unless David Puttnam, chair of the parliamentary committee which looked at the draft bill, succeeds in his ambition to block US investment. Independent producers are angry at Dyke’s remark that the BBC is not in business to make them rich and one recent poll has suggested that viewers are fed up with the licence fee: not surprising since it is a poll tax which rises year-by-year in real terms.
Dyke’s many strengths do not include advocacy. Where Birt would prepare meticulously, Dyke busks it. Two independent producers told me that a Dyke presentation they recently attended was the worst they can recall by a public figure. But this perhaps reflects a more serious flaw, one which is more usually thought to characterise Birt. There seems something lacking in Dyke’s emotional intelligence. He appears so confident in his capacities that he doesn’t grapple with his critics.
His instincts are to colonise, to compete and to destroy, and they have taken him far. But they mean that he has not grasped the emerging threat to the BBC. It is simply this: if the BBC is just doing the same thing as other broadcasters, what is the case for it? Why should it get public funding, regulatory privileges, legislative protection?
This argument is sometimes expressed in terms of “dumbing-down.” That is an unhelpful way of putting it; it leads to supporters listing all the good programmes the BBC has put out (thank God for Blue Planet) and the critics the bad ones. It is better phrased in terms of distinctiveness. If the BBC is not different, then what is it for? This question is being posed by both friends and enemies of the corporation (the Daily Mail and Sunday Times prominent among the latter).
As a strong supporter both of public service broadcasting and of the BBC, my answer may strike many as insufficiently radical: Dyke must stay, but the BBC needs to communicate a greater sense that he is being reined in.
The governors’ independence has been reinforced by reforms introduced by Gavyn Davies, the chairman. They need to use their independence to restore balance in the BBC. Dyke needs to be persuaded to raise parts of his game. His BBC needs to change the impression that it is only interested in ratings. It needs to learn not to be afraid of sometimes being dull-but-worthy.
The Dyke/Davies duarchy has a historic opportunity ahead: nothing less than the reinvention of public service broadcasting for the multi-channel world of the 21st century. The task is immense but, largely thanks to Birt’s legacy, it is just about possible.