Perennially under threat, the BBC is too much part of the British psyche to be let go
David Hendy’s new book, The BBC: A People’s History, contains countless vignettes which serve as pocket examples of the ways the BBC has suffered at the hands of successive governments. Here is one of my favourites. One evening during the Second World War, the red emergency phone rang unexpectedly, and the senior controlling officer picked it up. On the other end was Winston Churchill. “I take strong objection,” said the prime minister, “to an item I have just heard in the Nine o’clock News.” But that was not possible, the controller politely replied, as it was still only 8.50pm.
A good example of how Conservatives hate the BBC so much they seem to lose their minds happened in January. When Nadine Dorries tweeted that the licence fee was to be frozen and then possibly abolished in a few years’ time, she evoked a terrifying spectacle: “The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors are over.” As it happens, I too think the idea of a prison sentence for non-payment of the licence fee is a bit much. But we should remember that of the 100,000-odd people convicted of non-payment last year, precisely none are in jail.
Another prominent Conservative sympathiser, Julia Hartley-Brewer, added her own steak cube to Operation Red Meat, the initiative designed to distract the public from Boris Johnson’s current tribulations. She posted a screengrab showing the 25 various services the BBC provides, with those she never uses crossed out, leaving seven: the iPlayer, BBCs One and Two, BBC News, BBC Parliament, and Radios Four and Five. “Value for money?” she asked, rhetorically. Good question? Not really. I did the same for my own BBC usage. I don’t tune into the majority of its services either, but I don’t grumble. What’s on-off-on the iPlayer (practically everything), Radios Three, Four and Six, and Five Live Extra if the cricket’s on, fills up pretty much all the time I have spare to listen to or watch such things. There’s a simple test for whether someone is for or against the licence fee: if against, they cite the yearly cost; if for, they say “43p a day”, or “only 43p a day”. The figure that really drove it home for me was “much less than a pint of beer a week.” And yet, on the right, the licence fee is portrayed as some grim, brutal imposition over which the shadow of the gulag broods.
This ding-dong has been going on for almost the entire 100-year history of the Corporation. But it’s not just about the licence fee. It’s about hatred of the BBC tout court. Its first iteration this century was from a memo written by Dominic Cummings, not yet Johnson’s adviser but still working for the Conservatives. The BBC, he wrote, is the Right’s “mortal enemy”. He elaborated: “There are three structural things that the Right needs to happen in terms of communications. 1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent / talk radio shows / bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”
With enemies like these, who needs friends? Last month, the handful of viewers of GB News – the station set up to be our very own Fox News – were treated to the bizarre sight of Anne Diamond (herself ex-BBC) and her co-presenter interviewing a professional Churchill impersonator as if he were the real thing on the anniversary of the former prime minister’s funeral. I won’t say that this is a vision of what all broadcasting would be like were the BBC to be abolished, but it gives an idea. Hendy’s book mentions that Andrew Neil, an early figurehead of GB News until he realised it was a laughing stock, professes himself a fan of American TV. Really? Have you ever seen American TV? I remember being astonished the first time I switched on. The schedule went: adverts. Opening credits of TV show I wanted to watch. Then adverts. Then, after about five minutes of the show, more adverts. Repeat ad nauseam, or until you switch off in disgust. As for the only ad-free channel, NPR, an enormous amount of its output is devoted to grovelling for funds from its audience.
That there are many on the Right who have no problem with this is almost a mystery. I entertained the theory that when Tories went to university to study, mostly, PPE, or Law, they found themselves patronised by the Arty Types, with their mystifying disinclination to vote Conservative, their broad frame of cultural reference, their cliquey allusions and their mockery of the young Tories’ musical, literary and artistic taste. Their attitude to the BBC, which is absolutely crawling with Arty Types, is their revenge; and why, of two recent Culture Secretaries, one, Javid, knew absolutely nothing about culture except Star Trek: the Next Generation (a show of which I’m fond), and the other, the hapless Dorries (who ate an ostrich anus on I’m a Celebrity when she should have been serving her constituents), writes novels with titles like The Angels of Lovely Lane. You could hear the collective groan of all the Arty Types across the land when she was appointed: I joined in the chorus. But that was the point.
Let’s go back to the War, and Hendy’s book – which is, by the way, extraordinarily good. He quotes from the diaries of a young nurse, Muriel Greenway, who turned off her radio on 14 September 1939. “They say they have 10,000 records, and as far as I can see, 9,900 are high-toned music or the sloppiest jazz.” Then her radio broke, and she couldn’t listen to it for three weeks. “I feel as though a friend has gone from the house.” she wrote, and promised never to grumble about the BBC again. Guess what happened when her radio was fixed. “Within days,” writes Hendy, “her diary resumed its usual litany of complaints about inane entertainment and the lack of well-done drama.”
So, it was ever thus, and will ever be thus, should the Corporation survive. My hunch is that it will: it’s too bound up with British society, too much part of its collective nerve system, perhaps the most important keystone in the damaged edifice of the unified national mind. There’s another telling anecdote about the Director-General of the time, Alasdair Milne, who was enduring one those dismal interrogations by MPs that D-Gs regularly have to endure, this one by the Peacock Committee, a 1985 British Inquisition that formed part of Margaret Thatcher’s vicious campaign against the Corporation. How much of the BBC’s output, he was asked, could be truly considered a public service?
“All of it,” he replied.
Nick Lezard was a book reviewer for the Guardian for 25 years and writes the New Statesman’s “Down and Out” column