Close. It. Down.

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., 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. 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.

BBC graphic modified by MD (2014): click for a larger image.

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:



(Click the panel for a larger image.)

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. 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. 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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7 thoughts on “Close. It. Down.

  1. So the future, after the BBC’s been scrapped and Channel 4 privatised, looks like what? Fox News and the rest of the Murdoch empire? And…? Be careful what you wish for!


  2. I hear that a lot, Hugh — but I’m afraid I no longer jump back in line when someone conjures up the spectre of Murdoch. There’s already a revolving door between Murdoch’s empire and important posts in the BBC — just as the BBC’s scandalously uncritical coverage of ‘the newspapers’ provides hours of totally free advertising and legitimation every day for a whole stream of Murdoch products.
    And what is the big difference supposed to be? Is the Murdoch press more anti-Corbyn than the BBC? No, it isn’t. Is the BBC’s news less pro-Tory, less pro-Israel, less anti-Arab, less anti-NHS than Murdoch’s? No, it isn’t. Is the BBC less devoted to serving the US foreign policy agenda than Murdoch? No, it isn’t. Does the BBC hold its Establishment interviewees to a higher level of factuality, honesty and consistency than Sky? No, it doesn’t. Does BBC Four provide a more culturally rounded and artistically vigorous service than Sky Arts? No, it doesn’t.
    The threat we always hear — that without the BBC, Murdoch will be everywhere, and that we’ll even lose the slop tray that is today’s Channel 4 — is much beloved of those who won’t look modern media reality in the face. But that argument offers nothing beyond the logic of *the protection racket*. “Look at that nasty man over there. Would be terrible if he got his grubbers on your nice telly, wouldn’t it? Tell you what: for £145.50 I can make sure he doesn’t frighten you any more. Now just hand the money over, and you can go back to watching benefit claimants and illegal foreigners? How’s that for an idea?”


  3. The most dangerous facet of what I have nicknamed the British Brainwashing Corporation is that it furnishes an *illusion* of impartiality for which so many otherwise intelligent people have fallen. In other countries, intelligent people have a more realistic understanding of the serious bias in the mainstream media. In Germany, for example, broadcasters are legally required to be pro-NATO (the law is a hangover from former West Germany, and has never been repealed).

    Like any large institution, even one rotten to the core, there may be a small number of people and projects that are good (although, as the article above shows, most of the examples cited are actually not that “good” after all), but in the larger context they are so limited that they are not a justification for keeping the edifice. The analogy I use when people try the “but there was this wonderful programme the other day” argument on me (my mother pointed out that they played a non-zero quantity of Boulez on R3 yesterday; I pointed out that, given Boulez’s significance and his past role with the BBC, it is scandalous that R3 had not significantly altered/cleared the schedules to commemorate him) is that there is probably at least one atom of gold somewhere under my home, but that does not justify my getting a spade and starting to dig.

    Sadly, most musicians are too scared to criticise the BBC because it is a major employer of orchestral players, and there is a perception that a post-BBC broadcasting landscape would not provide as many employment opportunities (I do not know quite enough about the specific professional landscape of orchestral players area to be able to comment on the veracity of such a perception, but I do find such excuses for “not rocking the boat” rather unimaginative and overused — it was concerns for the future of the BBCSSO that led many musicians to vote “No” in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014). This, I suspect, is the reason why the ISM, my professional association, seems to have bought in wholesale to the BBC’s “music” régime (although, in fairness, at least the ISM has limited its support of the BBC specifically to its “music” programmes, and has stopped short of endorsing the BBC as a whole), even becoming officially affiliated to the depressingly myopic and patronising “Ten Pieces” scheme (of which I strongly disapprove on the grounds that it unimaginatively presents a single interpretation of a rather over-predictable and very limited selection of pieces as a metonymy for classical music as a whole).

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  4. Having lived in Spain for most of the last 15 years I can’t really comment on BBC TV output. But I can comment on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service since tuning in a couple of times through the internet over the last few weeks. Either both stations have declined immeasurably, or I was completely brainwashed by listening to both regularly from the 1950s to the late 1990s. Recent attempts at trying to listen to either for any length of time, without arguing with my laptop out of sheer frustration, have proved virtually impossible. Personal opinion is one thing, but wall-to-wall establishment propaganda is another thing entirely.

    Whereas I could garner some very useful bits of information during the 1960s and 70s, as well as listening to some excellent comedy and drama, I find that is no longer possible today. The vast majority of content is ill-informed, opinionated and annoying when it isn’t simply boring. To my mind, things began to go downhill around the mid-1980s, when the country was in full Thatcher mode. In some ways, it seemed as though the service began to regard her as Auntie Beeb personified. And then the endless brown-nosing trivia on Lady Di being headlined endlessly, in what was supposed to be the news …well, … maybe that’s what drove me into voluntary exile.

    When I look back at the comedy programmes BBC radio and television broadcast – such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus – I thought so innovative and rebellious while an art student in the late 1960s, they make me squirm with their embarrassing schoolboy humour. By the time the 1980s and 90s brought The Youngs Ones and Blackadder to the screen I seemed to be the only one who didn’t find them funny in the least.

    The public school toilet humour had become both contrived and forced. That impression was not helped by meeting both Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese, a couple of more miserable buggers you couldn’t wish to run into. But, by then the elite had taken over completely, and working class comedians like Morecambe and Wise were no longer wanted by posh intellectuals like Alan Yentob, who I knew quite well – another miserable bugger.

    Without wanting to write an article on the subject here – I have my own site for that – the BBC has always aimed the majority of its output at an imaginary middle class audience of decent church-going, Tories who live in suburbia and work in offices. But it has also catered for another imaginary mass audience. Comprising a mixture of ill-educated working class oiks and pimply teenagers, who are destined for supermarket check-outs or welfare handouts, they are Labour and UKIP voters. Easily mesmerised by a diet of inane chatter from radio DJs, along with demeaning ‘reality’ TV, quiz shows and soaps on BBC 1, they are a handy source of cash for overpaid graduates of Oxbridge with families who know someone at the Beeb.

    Having said all that, I wouldn’t wish Spanish TV on anyone, and that might be the only alternative for the UK. Of course, as you so rightly say, there is one other alternative, and that’s not to watch at all.


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