Magazine article The Spectator

What I Hear about New Labour, Dumbing Down and the Birt BBC

Magazine article The Spectator

What I Hear about New Labour, Dumbing Down and the Birt BBC

Article excerpt

Judging by recent developments on Radios Three and Four, the BBC has definitely got the message that wising up in the present climate is more likely to ensure the future of the licence fee than dumbing down. In consequence there has been a truly marvellous diminution of easy-access, i.e. low-brow, programmes, and I have even started to listen again to the plays, a few of which -- thanks to pressure brought to bear by the Telegraphs' two incomparable radio critics Gillian Reynolds and David Sexton - are now allowed to run for over an hour, as they always used to in the good old days before modern education did its dirty work. Any Questions?, on which the standard of debate has for years fallen well below pub level, is also beginning to perk up.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, it had Roy Jenkins, the present Chancellor of Oxford University, and John Redwood, an erstwhile fellow of All Souls, actually daring to show how clever they are. Even more unusual, the statutory woman, Glenys Kinnock, landed the occasional punch in welcome contrast to so many of her female predecessors who succeeded only in sounding both chronically aggrieved about the wrongs of the world and, at the same time, unrealistically optimistic about the possibility of putting them right - a maddening combination guaranteed to drive any sane listener of either sex to the nearest drinks tray.

Most promising of all, however, is the BBC's sudden decision to start repeatedly trailing Radio Four's most demanding and least ratings-conscious news and current affairs programme, The World Tonight, belatedly recognising that its relative 'inaccessibility' is something to boast about rather than a shameful secret best kept quiet. Radio Three, too, is once again reaching for the stars. Its current series of Lenten commentaries by, among others, A.N. Wilson and Will Self, genuinely stretches the mind, which is what that channel was set up to do.

To describe what is happening as 'a change of heart' is going it a bit. More likely the BBC bosses, prudently lifting their eyes for a moment from the bottom line, have at last deigned to notice the writing on the New Labour-dominated House of Commons wall, which is sending out a very different message from the one they had grown accustomed to receiving during the Thatcherite years. Then the message most certainly was to keep the ratings high. But now, with Gerald Kaufman, MP, in charge, it is that heads have to be weighed - to estimate the brains inside them - as well as counted.

That the BBC has been slow to get this message is not altogether surprising since New Labour has not exactly gone out of its way to show concern for the quality of national life, at least not when such concern might interfere with market forces. In general the message has been: `no change from Thatcherism'. But precisely because that rough general message has repelled so many erstwhile Labour supporters such as John Mortimer, New Labour has decided, I hear, to make the BBC a conspicuous exception, in the hope of demonstrating to this small but influentially upbeat constituency that at least in one key respect New Labour is still on the side of the angels. Poor John Birt. Just when he was assuming that he could safely proceed at full speed down the Commercial Road in safe convoy with all the other denationalised corporations like British Airways and British Rail, up goes a diversion sign ordering only his particular corporation to reverse up Quality Street.

Whether this enforced change of course, rather than change of heart, will have as good consequences for television as it has already had for radio remains to be seen. …

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