As regular readers of my postings will be aware, there are two facts about me which many people in the outside world consider rather surprising in view of what they know about my cultural and professional commitments. The first of these facts is that — as I revealed the other day — I don’t watch TV. For one thing, I don’t have a functioning TV set; for another, I’m not interested in the stuff that our corporate lords and political masters think should be shown on the channels whose control gives them such control over us. Nor do I feel impoverished or inconvenienced as a ‘non-viewer’. Whenever our own society’s approximation to the Orwellian ‘telescreen’ actually shows anything that’s worth knowing about, I eventually hear of it on the grapevine — and, more often than not, someone will then send me a recording on DVD or direct me to a YouTube upload. So far as I’m able to tell from my occasional bits of checking, I don’t seem to miss much, even though I miss a lot.
The second fact that often surprises people is that I am one of those folks who is convinced that, as a matter of quite desperate urgency, the BBC needs to be shut down. Indeed, not only would I close it all down in an instant, had I the power to do so — yes, all of it: Radio 3, Radio 4, the lot — but in addition I would follow the model of Scipio Africanus in giving very serious consideration to the idea of demolishing Broadcasting House and ploughing salt into the ground.
Naturally, one is not supposed to think such things, let alone say them out loud. Within the superficially polite and deeply power-friendly circles of the ‘educated middle class’, the done thing is to view the BBC — ‘Auntie Beeb’ — with some combination of slightly exasperated respect and warmly sentimental affection: as per its own publicity, it’s meant to be seen as something rigorous, long-suffering, courageous, balanced and impartial, slightly at odds with the modern world in its fierce determination to remain a ‘Public Service Broadcaster’ — and, while capable of making very big mistakes, basically well-intentioned, fun-loving and adorable. ‘Save Our BBC!‘, cry the campaigners who think our ruling spivocracy is determined to destroy Britain’s oh-so-liberal, oh-so-leftist, oh-so-quality-conscious ‘national broadcaster’. Well, let me repeat here what I tell those people when they ask for my ‘support’ in protecting and preserving the Corporation: stop worrying, because it isnt ‘our’ BBC, it isn’t what you think it is, and it isn’t worth saving.
Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m joking about any of this: I am absolutely serious. As far as the cultural health of the nation is concerned, the modern BBC has quite shamelessly abandoned the principles of its original foundation — in a manner and to an extent that has turned this massively powerful organisation into a broadcasting Behemoth hugely destructive of the cultural awareness and empowerment of the UK population.
Whereas, as far as the political health of the nation is concerned, the BBC has, every bit as shamelessly, maintained the principles of its original foundation — to the extent that its nowadays undisguised elite-serving neoliberal bias and transparent anti-left-wing manipulation of the news agenda mean that it constitutes the single greatest force acting to limit the political awareness and empowerment of the UK population.
I don’t want to spend much time on the latter charge on this occasion, as I’m hoping to cover it in more detail at some point in the future. Until I do, however, readers who watch and listen to what the BBC churns out in the name of ‘news’ might care to keep a pen and a functioning cerebellum handy along with a print-out of the following check-list. See for yourself how easy it is to discern that the supposedly ‘liberal’ and ‘left-of-centre’ (but still scrupulously impartial!) BBC is in reality pro-Establishment, pro-capitalism, pro-neoliberalism, pro-finance, pro-bankers, pro-globalisation, pro-Tory, pro-UKIP, pro-bosses, pro-bonuses, pro-privatisations, pro-corporations, pro-TTIP, pro-GMO, pro-hydrocarbons, pro-climate denial, pro-nuclear power, pro-police, pro-surveillance, pro-military, pro-NATO, pro-war, pro-‘defence industry’, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-Trident II, pro-USA, pro-Washington, pro-Pentagon, pro-Israel, pro-Saudi, pro-royals, pro-aristocracy, pro-inequality, pro-cuts, pro-‘austerity’, pro-religion, pro-cleric, and pro-church. If, after a month or two, you haven’t managed to tick off at least 90% of what’s on that list — hardly a catalogue of stereotypical ‘left-wing’ allegiances, you will agree! — then either your pen or your brain has something wrong with it. But more on this at a later time.
What I want to do on this occasion is briefly illustrate the first of those two charges — following a message that someone sent me a few hours ago. ‘Do you know what BBC Four has just been showing?’, he asked. And, of course, I didn’t: nothing was further from my thoughts than what might be the programmes I was missing on a channel I couldn’t watch even if I wanted to. ‘Have a look at the schedule!’, he urged. So I did.
Here’s what I found:
Now, to understand what was in my friend’s mind — as well as in mine, moments later — you need to know that, last time either of us could be bothered to check, ‘BBC Four’ was officially the ‘arts, music and culture’ channel that was tasked with providing ‘innovative, high quality programming that is intellectually and culturally enriching’, and whose remit required it to take ‘an expert and in-depth approach to a wide range of subjects‘. So, let’s have a closer look at how the BBC Four evening got under way, following that preludial half-hour of World News Today (‘the latest news, exploring the day’s events from a
Washington-friendly global perspective’). What did viewers next encounter on this ‘arts, music and culture’ channel? They encountered half an hour of superannuated light-entertainment pablum courtesy of an infamously insipid Ronnie Corbett sit-com originally screened in March 1981.
What kind of ‘arts, music and culture’ broadcasting is that? How does it possibly qualify as ‘innovative, high quality programming that is intellectually and culturally enriching’? Is it any of those things? No. What it actually is, is mere filler.
This, then, was the programme whose broadcast so shocked my friend — but let’s see what the loyal BBC Four viewer still had in store…
Oooh, look: 10pm. The Queen’s Castle: ‘President Chirac of France and his retinue are coming to stay at Windsor Castle’. Well, Chirac’s visit was as long ago as November 2004, and the programme itself was first broadcast in March 2005: what on earth is this decade-old piece of elite-serving fluff doing on BBC television’s ‘arts, music and culture’ channel? Once again, the answer is that it’s there simply to plug a hole: the BBC has a channel with a schedule with a space in it, and this junk is dirt-cheap and just the right length.
And look at the rest of the day’s BBC Four output: is there, say, any classical music in it? No. There’s none at all. What there is, is a whole hour of and about pop music in the form of a TV biography of Roy Orbison. Well, very nice for somebody (Roy Orbison’s copyright-holders especially); but since programmes about pop musicians can be placed pretty well anywhere on the BBC’s other three TV channels and classical music can’t, why wasn’t this little slice of BBC Four’s day spent on something for which a dedicated ‘arts, music and culture’ channel is actually a necessity? And the answer is, of course, that BBC Four wants to attract viewers more than it wants to build audiences: Roy Orbison is already well known, already has a following; lots of people will inevitably tune in to see a programme about him — which means that BBC Four can claim to be doing its job without having had to do very much at all.
What else do we see? The Story of Scottish Art and Empire of the Tsars. You may say that they both seem perfectly all right, and I’m in no position to disagree. But look: each of them is then repeated before the day’s broadcasting is over. This channel is only running for nine hours out of 24, and four hours of those nine are made by simply showing two hours of it twice — and of those two hours, one is a repeat already!
What about The Crusades? Are you happy with that? Perhaps you are. Personally, I’m not at all sure why programmes about Crusades (or indeed Tsars…) should fall under the rubric of ‘arts, music and culture’ rather than merely ‘history’ — which, once again, is something that can be, and is, shown on all of the BBC’s other three channels. But, either way, note that this programme too is a repeat. In fact, apart from World News Today (which itself will have been assembled from chunks of the BBC’s existing 24-hour news output), there’s only a single programme — one solitary hour! — in the BBC Four day that isn’t a repeat. And as for the repeat that is The World’s Most Expensive Stolen Paintings, what is that doing on this channel? It’s apparently about ‘audacious heists and the murky world of art crime’: does that make it an ‘arts’ programme? Is this what is meant by ‘intellectually and culturally enriching’? Is it something that could never really be shown except on BBC Four? No, of course it isn’t — and no-one cares. It’s just more filler: a way of plugging the gap between a repeat of something and the repeat of a repeat of something else. Populist enough to stand a chance of attracting a measurable number of viewers, it’s also cheap enough that no-one’s boss will be too put out if it doesn’t.
And this, I am sad to say, is the awful reality of today’s BBC: cut into it at virtually any point, and rubbish comes out. BBC Four is as indefensibly lousy and pointless today as it has been on every previous occasion that I have looked into it. A supposedly much-needed channel that mostly contrives not to show the very things for which it is so badly needed, BBC Four is a broadcasting farce — a bad and insulting joke at the expense of everyone who is compliant enough to pay the licence fee and daft enough to imagine that Ronnie Corbett, Jacques Chirac and (with all due respect) Roy Orbison are what a ‘culture channel’ is for.
To me, the fact that a ‘BBC Four’ exists at all is bad enough. Insofar as this channel — the replacement and successor to ‘BBC Knowledge’ — was designed as, effectively, an arts-and-culture ghetto, its creation was a cultural catastrophe: arts and culture programming needs to be spread about so that everyone will bump into it — not driven into a backwater so that people need to go and look for it. But what could possibly be the justification for maintaining an arts-and-culture ghetto in which the arts and culture in general — and classical music in particular — are then diluted out of detectable existence…?
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