Magazine article The Spectator

In Continuing to Cut the Crap, Greg Dyke Is Placing Trash TV above Public Service Broadcasting

Magazine article The Spectator

In Continuing to Cut the Crap, Greg Dyke Is Placing Trash TV above Public Service Broadcasting

Article excerpt

MEDIA STUDIES

The odds are that Greg `cut the crap' Dyke may be the last director-general of the BBC in its guise as a public service broadcaster. It becomes clearer all the time that he is driven simply by ratings, and wishes to hive off more 'elitist' programmes to minority digital channels which practically no one watches. That is the lesson of the BBC's reported decision no longer to cover party conferences on mainstream television, as well as the launch last Saturday of the new arts channel BBC 4.

People rightly say that party conferences are no longer what they were. They fondly remember bloodcurdling clashes between the Bennites and Labour right-wingers in the early 1980s, and Conservative conferences besieged by Trotskyist agitators screaming `Tory scum'. Those were the days. It is certainly true that New Labour has turned modern party conferences into bland, carefully stage-managed affairs, which is what the Tories have been trying to do since time immemorial, though not always successfully. But things do sometimes happen that are not planned by the party hierarchies. Interesting and revealing speeches are still made. If conferences took place during prime-time television, Mr Dyke might have a point. But they compete only with children's programmes and daytime trash television.

Unless there is a change of heart, the BBC will show the party conferences on its digital parliamentary channel, which is watched only by obsessives and members of the media class. Only about half the population has access to digital television, including BBC 4. Perhaps we should not make too much of the fact that BBC 4 drew only 11,000 viewers on Saturday, since its programmes were also being shown for one night only on BBC 2, where they attracted an audience of between 600,000 and 900,000. But my guess is that BBC 4 will be watched by very few people. Excellent though its output may be (and some of the programmes I have seen so far were very good) it is likely to be the preserve of a tiny minority. The majority, meanwhile, will be offered more trash television and even fewer arts programmes.

This process of 'dumping' upmarket programmes on to digital television, criticised last Sunday by Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, contradicts everything the BBC once stood for. There was a time when the Corporation opened the eyes of ordinary people to possibilities that no one else had bothered to tell them about. The BBC had, and even now has to some extent, an educational role in the widest and most unhectoring sense. That is being jeopardised by the ratings-driven Greg Dyke with his passion for minority digital channels.

For some inexplicable reason my invitation to my old friend Peter Stothard's leaving party got lost in the post. Nonetheless, vivid accounts reach me of this memorable occasion. Robert Thomson, Mr Stothard's successor, is described as being surrounded by hordes of journalists desperate to touch the hem of his cloak. He was evidently dazed by all this adulation, having been appointed editor of the Times and flown the Atlantic (economy class, according to one report, owing to a cock-up) in a very few days.

It seems to me that most people, including myself, have so far missed the point about Mr Thomson. This is that he is culturally and journalistically an outsider. People think that because he is an Australian he is somehow an Englishman who has gone wrong, but an Englishman all the same. That is not how most Australians of Mr Thomson's generation would see themselves. …

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