Magazine article The Spectator

The BBC Cannot - and Should Not - Be Expected to Compete in the Marketplace

Magazine article The Spectator

The BBC Cannot - and Should Not - Be Expected to Compete in the Marketplace

Article excerpt

This is not a column attacking Greg Dyke, director-general of the BBC. My colleague Peregrine Worsthorne did that job admirably last year when Mr Dyke delivered an undeniably disappointing Spectator lecture. After Mr Dyke's MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh last week, my thoughts do not dwell so much on the banality of the director-general's language as the impossibility of his job. I honestly wonder whether anyone can save the BBC now.

There was a rather more seismic MacTaggart lecture, given 11 years ago at the Edinburgh Television Festival, which set the scene for Mr Dyke's efforts last week. The speaker was Rupert Murdoch. Though he was about to face severe financial difficulties, having just launched his satellite television channel Sky, Mr Murdoch was in a very perky mood. His purpose was to pour scorn on public service television - i.e. the BBC - and the people who ran it. 'Much of what is claimed to be quality television,' asserted the proprietor of the Sun and the News of the World, 'is no more than the parading of the prejudices and interests of the like-minded people who currently control it.' The BBC's programmes were 'often obsessed with class and with a tendency to hark back to the past'. Mr Murdoch could not imagine the BBC pursuing a British Watergate 'with the vi our of the US networks'.

Most of Mr Murdoch's criticisms of the BBC were preposterously unfair, and driven by his own commercial interests. It did not occur to him that the BBC had served as a truly national (I mean British) institution, fulfilling Lord Reith's original prospectus of informing, educating and entertaining, with greater distinction than any other broadcaster in the world. Murdoch was the representative of a new age which had no time for public service broadcasting and whose only values were those of the market. No one could have forecast then the phenomenal commercial success of what became Murdoch-controlled BSkyB which, with some help from ITV and Channel 4, has stolen from the BBC most of its best sporting coverage. Not many people realised that the writing was on the wall for the BBC.

Eleven years later Mr Dyke strides to the same podium in Edinburgh. What he said is an answer to Mr Murdoch and other detractors of public service broadcasting. The BBC must adapt or die. The new director-general's recipe is to produce more money, most of which will be squeezed out of the excessive bureaucracy imposed by his predecessor, John Birt. (What an implied rebuke to Lord Birt this is!) The lion's share of the new cash will go to BBC 1, whose programmes will become 'more engaging, more exciting and more gripping'. This is another way of saying more populist, though Mr Dyke did not quite lay his cards on the table. The Nine o'clock News is to be moved to ten o'clock. In itself this is unimportant, since it hardly matters whether the main news bulletin is shown at nine or ten. The point is that the decks are being cleared for 'exciting and gripping' dramas to compete with commercial and digital television. That means more trash.

The import of Mr Dyke's lecture - that BBC 1 is to be further dumbed down - was partly concealed by his other announcements. BBC 2 is to continue on its present path, though there may be fine-tuning in due course. (It was more than usually difficult to follow this part of Mr Dyke's lecture. …

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