Reform the BBC, don't kill it
The BBC is biased, and much of its programming is coarse and crude, but, says Peter Hitchens, it would be profoundly unconservative to privatise it livvhy do I now find that I, one of the BBC's most persistent critics, feel the need to defend the organisation that I have attacked so many times in the past? Because for all its faults I would rather that Britain had a public-service broadcaster than that the airwaves were sold to the fattest cheque book.
The time has come for sensible reactionaries to rally round their old enemies at the BBC, and for the BBC to seek support among those moral and cultural conservatives it has spent too long despising. Those who think that such an alliance would be as unprincipled and doomed as the Nazi-Soviet pact are mistaken. There is a real community of interests here, if only both sides would see it. Unless the BBC makes some new friends rather quickly, it will not survive much longer in anything like its present form. If it does open itself to people and ideas it now excludes and scorns, then it will become better as well as stronger. And if the BBC goes, the things conservatives really value will suffer.
In this confusing world, 'By their enemies shall ye know them' is often a better guide to an institution's virtue than finding out who its friends are. The BBC now faces the intolerant fury of the Blair government, which regards anything short of cow-eyed devotion as raging hostility. This is surely to the Corporation's credit, whatever it may have done in the past. For years it has also been the target of Rupert Murdoch, whose interest in the subject is so obvious that it is almost enjoyable. Yet, confusingly, it is also loathed by people who would normally prefer to gulp down a large draught of hemlock than to be found in the same bunker as Anthony Blair or Mr Murdoch.
Downing Street's blustering pretence that it is deeply offended and hurt by the Today programme looks suspiciously like the pretext for some seriously anti-BBC legislation at the first available opportunity. It is strange to find Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, aiding this suspect cause. True, his paper's proprietor, Lord Black of Crossharbour, can see no good in the BBC because of a justified impatience with its hostility towards Israel and a less justified scorn for its doubts about the Iraq war. But the Telegraph's editor knows that there are many strands of conservatism that disagree with Lord Black.
Mr Moore was mocked this week by the Guardian for his new campaign against the licence fee. They pointed out that commercial radio and satellite TV were unlikely to be heard or seen very much in the cultured and elevated Moore household, and they were partly right to do so — but only partly. Much of the BBC's programming is as coarse and crude as anything on the commercial channels. Very little of the Corporation's television output these days is designed for educated people of any class, and that is mostly confined to BBC 4, a figleaf channel available only through the sort of technology that its target audience generally does not have. A depressing amount of BBC radio is no better. Can there be any justification for the programmes of Ms Sara Cox being financed by a poll-tax on the homes of the honest poor? Even the good stations, Radios Three and Four, are pervaded by a smug liberal ethos so strong that thousands of listeners frequently find themselves shouting at their radios in impotent rage. In a new and disturbing development, Radio Four seems to be quietly changing its aural typeface, as familiar voices depart and are replaced by newsreaders and announcers who speak in distracting regional accents, or mysteriously flatten their a's even though they are plainly not from the North. The change looks like a cultural cringe to the New Britain.
This, and the increasing use of slang and crude words on respectable programmes, is a sign that the BBC's attempt to combine moral and political radicalism with cultural conservatism is starting to fail. High culture and high standards of diction cannot coexist indefinitely with people who despise them and with ideas that devalue them. The BBC — as it still proclaims in the entrance of Broadcasting House — stands for whatsoever things are true, pure, lovely and of good report. It wounds itself every time it broadcasts a four-letter word. Yet it does such things because many of those who control it no longer understand what it is for. Like the Church of England and the Civil Service, it is a conservative organisation largely staffed by liberal people.
It will not reform itself until it understands its faults. And it will never recognise those failings if its critics mill around Broadcasting House with pitchforks, seeking to tear down the whole edifice.
For much of the standard conservative case against the BBC is oversimplified rubbish. The market obsessives tend to forget their own part in damaging Lord Reith's original idea. A Tory government abolished the BBC television monopoly half a century ago, knowing this would put pressure on the BBC to lower its standards. Yet for 30 years the Corporation resisted hard — so much so that the commercial companies used to say that it was the BBC that kept them honest. Then, largely thanks to Margaret Thatcher's reform of the franchise awards, ITV was freed from many of the rules that had stopped it chasing the lowest sorts of taste. There is a strong case for saying that it was this more than anything else that helped drag BBC TV down to its current dismal level.
Monitoring the BBC for partiality also seldom works, especially if it is done by party apparatchiks. BBC bias is hardly ever party-political. You will seldom apprehend it red-handed. You catch it, much as you will detect anti-Semitism, flashing by on the edge of a remark, in the tone of a question or the selection of an angle. The context is also crucial. I have been the victim of it many times, and it is interesting that while it was often quite clear to me at the moment when it happened, it seldom seemed quite so blatant when I later scanned the transcript. It often happens off-air, when the researcher rings up assuming that I will play the role of maddened fascist in a broadcast debate and hurriedly hangs up when I fail to meet expectations.
It is hostile to the Conservative party for cultural, not party-political, reasons. BBC people simply have not met and do not know any Conservatives, except for the Chris Patten types who are not really conservative at all. They think real conservatives are hilarious Alf Garnetts or sinister Hitlerites, morally flawed and so personally unacceptable. This blinds them to important issues. They took years to recognise that illegal immigration was a genuine problem, and that those who were worried about it might have decent motives — though a recent Panorama programme made a serious effort to put this right.
BBC bias is immensely subtle, almost never intentional and for the most part entirely unconscious. In its guidelines for producers, the BBC officially suggests that it is demeaning to call a woman a housewife, an opinion freighted with implications. But if you put this to BBC executives they are either unaware of it or they do not understand what the problem is. Most BBC people, challenged on the issue of impartiality, are not being dishonest when they reply that they themselves are impartial. A shining few actively strive to be so. Most are simply ignorant of the legitimate, defensible and respectable points of view outside the narrow consensus within which they move. At the Edinburgh Television Festival, a group of prominent news presenters, including the BBC's Fiona Bruce, took part in a supposedly satirical version of what they imagined a right-wing television news bulletin would be like. The film, made up of crude, blatant editorialising, merely proved that those involved were clueless about conservative views or the nature of television bias.
Such people will say in their defence that they are entitled to be biased against such evils as racial prejudice. So they are. The trouble is that they also falsely equate many valid and honourable opinions with race prejudice, and so treat those who hold these views with hauteur and disdain. The same people are almost insanely vigilant about open party allegiance among journalists and presenters, as in the ludicrous ejection of Melvyn Bragg from the chair of Start the Week when he became a Labour peer, as if everyone had imagined until then that he had no opinions. Yet they see nothing odd about the way that so many of their journalists and presenters come from, and in some cases still work for, the left-liberal part of the press. I do not think they will be woken from this strange contradictory state of mind by demands for their abolition. They must be persuaded to understand that their critics also have ethics.
Conservative critics of the licence fee should also recognise one of the gravest weaknesses of their case. The idea that privately owned broadcasters would automatically be better, or even more conservative, is conclusively disproved in the United States. There, the three giant networks are as remorselessly liberal as the BBC, if not actually more so. Commercial funding does not necessarily lead to impartiality or to conservative broadcasting any more than the licence fee automatically leads to left-liberal, Euro-federalist broadcasting. There were long periods when the BBC was a genuine national broadcaster, and millions of us still feel strong affection for it because we remember those times.
Those who would abolish the BBC also need to recognise that without a licence fee it is difficult to see who will pay for a broadcasting network, especially speech radio on which intelligent thought, good manners, culture and morality will get any sort of hearing at all. The only national commercial speech radio station is TalkSport, for which I once worked (in its days as Talk Radio) and which could never have the resources or the freedom from advertising which would let it challenge Radio Four, even if it wanted to. Subscription or charity-funded television and radio stations such as the USA's PBS channels or National Public Radio ( which is grindingly liberal) are all very well, but they are too small and weak to shape the thinking of the nation, which is what Lord Reith intended the BBC to do and what it should do again.
There is a solution. Many of the most successful British institutions from Parliament to the Common Law have been adversarial. They recognise that this is and always will be a divided and quarrelsome nation and that the truth is best discovered by allowing competing ideas to clash in formal, bloodless battle. The BBC, whose programme presenters are the unacknowledged legislators of our times, should abandon the unsustainable pretence that these men and women, almost all of whom read the Guardian as their main source of news and comment, and many of whom used to work for it, are unbiased. It should allow them all, at last, openly to admit their true feelings. And it should match every single one of them with an avowed conservative, so that no politician or man of power is ever again interviewed by a sympathiser, and currentaffairs programmes crackle with open and legitimate controversy, the kind that uncovers the truth.
The Corporation should also realise that there is, thanks to the failure of schools and universities, an increasing hunger for radio and television programmes that treat us as intelligent and seek to inform us and uplift us. It should say openly that its licence fee allows and obliges it to ignore ratings and that it will pursue quality without compromise. It should stop cringing to linguistic fashion and be proud of its role in maintaining clear, confident spoken English. It may well find that it gets the ratings anyway, but even if it does not it will have many influential character witnesses and a good case for the defence when New Labour's cultural commissars come seeking revenge for the Gilligan affair and all that has followed.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist with the Mail on Sunday.