IN DEFENCE OF CLASSIC BROADCASTING
Clive James argues that broadcasting
is too important to be left to the newspapers — and their proprietors
HALF OF Britain's broadcasting system having been put into turmoil by Mrs Thatcher, the newspapers now seem bent on demoralising the other half. The tabloids, with a few posh papers grotesque- ly choosing to lend them dignity, have late- ly been attacking the BBC in such a concerted manner that you would think Fleet Street still existed in the one place, with all its feature writers drinking at the same pub. The attacks are mainly based on the hasty interpretation of ratings, which are useful tools only if you accept that they are not tea-leaves. But the proprietors, and below them the editors, want to hear a story about the BBC in disar- ray.
So on every paper a journalist poises himself over the tea-cup, and in the course of time dis- covers, for example, that although the huge audi- ence watching the BBC voices little dissatisfac- tion, this is only because the people who would voice dissatisfaction are not watching, and that longer BBC is therefore no longer popular. Then he Calls up as many BBC big-wigs as he can get hold of, asks them what they intend to do in the face of the imminent collapse of their entire organisation, and notes down any Comment which sounds defensive. When the piece is published it sounds like the same piece in the other papers. This is not surprising, since they all quote each other as evidence, but it can be alluded to as a consensus when a follow-up article is com- missioned. missioned. 'A lot of people are saying . . . says the journalist on the phone, and if you reply that the only people saying it are a lot of People like him, he has secured from You a usefully defensive comment, which scarcely needs to be misquoted. He will Probably do that anyway, but not necessari-
ly out of malice. The chances are that he couldn't get it right if he tried.
The journalist given the job of sniffing around the edges of the media is usually either some freshly hired young bright spark with terrific ambitions and no infor- mation, or else the office dunce completing a long career as the man chosen to pursue ambulances of secondary importance. If television is already at one remove from reality, then writing soft news about it must be at two removes, at least.
There is no point, however, in despising the scriveners. Their proprietors are envi- ous of television. Its partial deregulation is not enough for them, and not just because most of them would like to buy some of the fragments. They are simply envious of what they see as its power, and so give free rein to their editors, who are envious of what they see as its glamour. Since even the bet- ter tabloids largely live off a diet of televi- sion's leavings, there is humiliation to make the envy worse.
The Daily Mail got some of its own back last week when Lynda Lee-Potter, their sob-sister who knows the stars, took Terry Wogan on her knee while he complained,
as well he might have done, that just because his show was coming off was no reason to treat him as a failure. The talk show for star guests on the plug circuit can have only a limited life and the Wogan ver- sion had remained a steady ratings-puller well beyond its allotted span, but none of the tabloids was interested in admitting that the BBC had got good value out of it. They preferred to use the word 'axed'. The Mail allowed Wogan to explain that he had not been 'axed' but forgot to add that it agreed with him. Later in the week it had another scoop, when
the magician Paul Daniels turned up to file some complaints of his own. Without bene- fit of Lynda Lee-Potter, Daniels accused the BBC, in his own resounding words, of a whole string of crimes, the worst of which, as far as I could tell, was that the Television Centre security staff had failed to recognise him at the gate. There was also a lot of stuff about smut encroaching on family entertain- ment in prime-time, but it was hard to avoid the impression that his idea of prime-time family entertainment placed heavy emphasis on card tricks, doves up the sleeve, and the mysterious bisection of a girl in spangles.
The Mail had a marvellous week at the BBC's expense and would probably have enjoyed itself just as much even if Viscount Rothermere had not already signalled his deep personal sympathy for deregulation by stumping up real cash instead of silly stories. He had a stake in New Era Televi- sion and was in a consortium for one of the ITV franchise bids. The first project was a victim of the BSB debacle and the second was a non-starter, but who knows what the future will hold? Meanwhile to goad the
BBC is a rewarding sport in itself. It makes a tabloid feel like a heavyweight. If the other tabloids get in on your story then a hazy notion may aspire to the status of a talking point, and all concerned can almost convince themselves that they are dealing with facts. Jonathan Powell, Controller of BBC1, replied to the Paul Daniels piece, which gave Peter McKay in the Evening Standard the chance to lard his uniquely somnolent column with the opinion that Powell would be wise to remain silent, and the further opinion that the BBC ought to be shrunk to a tenth of its present size. All the evidence suggests that Peter McKay writes his whole column on an intravenous drip, yet he must retain, if only barely, the strength to swallow, because a story which was already chewed to purée when it reached him, he still managed to convert into a whiff of gas.
But I don't want to be cruel to Peter McKay. He is just a weather-vane. The truth is that the not very gifted feature writers and columnists who are always infringing on the regular TV critic's pre- serves would gladly do so from no other motivation but that television is easy to prate about. There is also the matter of the journalist's annoyance about the television person's supposed salary. The journalist imagines that his reader shares this annoy- ance, but in my experience the reader would do better to be annoyed about what the journalist is getting, and the journalist to be enraged at the proprietor. Journalists who write soft news about television work an easy day compared to the people they are disposed to pillory, and take little risk. Wogan is well paid but my own price for handling Oliver Reed or his equivalent three times a week would be £10 million for the first year, plus danger money.
My own fabulous BBC salary of £355,000 p.a. by the way, is just that — a fable. The
figure was made up out of thin air by some woman at Today who later transferred her- self to the Independent, where I hope they know which one she is and what she is capable of. I don't deny that I get the mar- ket price — it would be a foolish performer who took less, and no employer would negotiate with him again if he spilled the details — but it isn't mad money, and has to be worked for. No print journalist who has the peculiar abilities to do television is debarred from it by anything except his reluctance to engage in the long task of breaking in, creating the conditions in which he can continue to work, and taking the risk that anyone takes who sets out to make money by pleasing the public: that he might displease it. If he is unwilling to do that, he has no right to envy TV performers their take-home pay. They are, after all, taking it to a home into whose front door the journalist cherishes the right to insert his foot. The journalist's proprietor, mean- while, is exempt from speculation about his emolument, unless he is Robert Maxwell, who lumbered on without faltering until a slip of a girl fronting Panorama put a bolt into his shoulder, and he began to crash.
Maxwell was a minus billionaire, which ought logically to have made him one of the poorest men in history, but he paid himself well enough to gamble away in an hour at the tables more Money than Wogan has made out of a selfless career of saving Hollywood film stars from the conse- quences of their own egos. There is a dan- ger that Maxwell, because he borrowed money and then stole it, will make Mur- doch, who merely borrowed it, look public- spirited. And indeed Murdoch, though at one time an even more poverty-stricken minus billionaire than Maxwell ever was, is a man of principle; but I doubt if anyone British-born, even his friend Mrs Thatcher, really appreciates what his principles are.
'I couldn't get any bread!' For instance, he regards the very idea of public service broadcasting as an offence. Mrs Thatcher would have been prepared to live with the broadcasting system after what she thought of as the clear wind of market forces had been allowed to blow through it. Mr Murdoch dreams of that same wind blowing it away. He believes that Britain will be a better place when Sky attains break-even point, which will apparently happen when a big enough proportion of homes have been 'penetrated' — a polite way of saying shafted. Sky will probably make it. First of all it has developed and successfully applied its own wonderful special branch of the accountant's language, by which if the weekly loss is halved it becomes a profit, even if it is still in millions. Second, the man in charge is Sam Chisholm, one of Murdoch's true assets. If the banks ever decided that Murdoch's total burden of debt had shrunk to the extent that they might risk closing him down, Chisholm would be one of the components worth bidding for. In Australia he used to head up Channel 9 for Kerry Packer, one of Australia's few plus billionaires. Chisholm ran Packer's channel as a bright, loud supermarket which perennially out-paced Murdoch's Channel 10. Murdoch's channel never matched Packer's except in the year that Murdoch bought the Olympics. (If it turns out in the near future that you can't watch Wimbledon on the BBC, that will be the signal that Sky is making its big push for final 'penetration'). Chisholm has an appetite for efficiency so mighty that he has even been able to digest the awkwardly shaped, sharp-cornered fixed assets of BSB. He also has the advantage of being backed by Sky's great weapon, the Mur- doch press.
The Murdoch tabloids, while never ceas- ing to fill their pages with stories in which real life and television soap operas are inextricably confused, hammer away at the BBC with all the envy of their rivals plus a more virulent element: self-righteousness. Suddenly every think-piece writer and philosopher on the Sun, the News of the World and Today becomes an expert on rat- ings and a tribune of the people's rights. Disgracefully, the Sunday Times has joined in the campaign. Andrew Neil, its editor, would probably resent the implication that he is a creature of Murdoch's will. He would like to think that he has a mind of his own. But the pilot fish, though it might feel that it is leading the shark, is just rid- ing in its pressure wave. In the issue before last the Sunday Times carried a story about the BBC's ratings which Andrew 1401 would probably not have published if it had not suited his prejudices, and if his preju- dices, alas, had not suited Mr Murdoch's. It took two reporters to write the piece, with `additional reporting' by a third. Ranking mercifully low among those quoted, I was cold-called by the third, who politely lis- tened to the same line of argument which
You are reading now. I also said, in passing, that I thought there was an industry-wide lack of sit-corn writing talent, mainly because of the distorting influence of Hol- lywood. This was the bit that got into the article, but by the time it did the industry- wide deficiency had become the BBC's deficiency. I found myself attacking the BBC, in quotation marks. After years of making speeches defending Britain's classic broadcasting system from ideologues and hucksters, I had managed to enlist myself among its attackers. Let me strongly advise my fellow talking- heads against falling into the same trap. Watch out for the third man, the one doing the additional reporting. If he doesn't mis- quote what you said, the other two will scramble what he said you said, and some- how your voice will join the consensus. There are criticisms to be made of the BBC, but the critic must first wipe his nose free of wet tea-leaves. BBC1 and BBC2 badly need a combined strategy. There was a time when formats could be tried and tested on BBC2 before they were switched to BBC1 to take the heat. That strategy, or something like it, needs to be re-estab- lished, and made mandatory. The matter might almost be described as urgent, if the tabloids weren't waiting to pounce.
It could be said — Paul Johnson has said it, in this paper — that Britain's classic broadcasting system is defended by those who stand to gain from it. They do, but not necessarily in cash. Deregulated television Pays better. In America Dan Rather's price goes up as his network's audience-share goes down, because the size of the audi- ence he does pull comes to matter more. Sam Chisholm of Sky will probably never call me up, but if he does then I am sure the salary he mentions will be dazzling. What I am after, though, is the audience: the whole audience, or as much of it as I can pull into the tent. That might sound like arrogance but there is a sly modesty which is more arrogant still.
Rupert Murdoch despises the mandarins who presume to decide what the people ought to have. He thinks there is a clear distinction between that and giving the people what they want. But you don't have to be a mandarin to be confident about giv- ing the people what you think they ought to have. All you have to be is one of the peo- ple. The deregulators who want nothing but niche marketing call it democracy. If it is, it is a mean conception of it. It has been said that satellite and cable channels don't broadcast, they re-broadcast. This is far closer to the truth than anything their champions say about the classic system. The first series of the BBC serial The House of Eliott was not only not the ratings failure some of the papers called it, it was more than a ratings success. It pulled a huge family audience while ITV was show- ing a movie.
The BBC as it has always been, com- bined with ITV as we hope it will be again once it gets itself back together, constitute a productive force which is beyond mar- kets, and can only be assessed as part of a culture — perhaps even the most impor- tant part, because although we can't he sure that values are transmitted by a good book, we are somehow certain they are tra- duced by a bad programme. Of the duopoly's two components, the BBC is cur- rently the more vulnerable. Until its char- ter is renewed, it must plead to be appreciated by the least fair-minded yet most influential minority in its audience parliamentarians without time to watch it and press executives who have a vested interest in seeing it whipped. At the rate the press is going, the question will become not whether the BBC needs to be broken up, but how. This growing capacity of Britain to attack its own institutions is beginning to look suicidal.
They are, after all, the reason why some of us came here. Rupert Murdoch is here on his way to America, the centre of his world, which is commercial pure and sim- ple. But there are those among his fellow expatriates who are here for what Winston Churchill, when he saw it threatened, called the life of Britain, her message and her glory. Your broadcasting system is part of what holds you together. Pull it to pieces and you tear at your own heart. Having lived here for 30 years I can't plausibly invoke the visitor's privilege of saying that I hate to see you doing this to yourselves, so all I can do is just feebly wish that the tripe might be confined to the comic papers. Serious ones, including Murdoch's if their editors are brave enough, should cut out the nonsense.