Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Happy centenary BBC

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC celebrated its 100th anniversary.  Its mission now, as it was in 1921, is to inform, educate, and entertain.  In its first hundred years, the BBC has achieved some stunning output, from The Goon Show and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue to Eastenders, from Doctor Who to Blue Planet.  Its output is respected and admired throughout the world, and, through the World Service, has spread British “soft power” far and wide.  And, I fear, it’s no longer the powerhouse it once was.

While I think the BBC continues to educate and entertain, for several years now I’ve started to distrust its news output.  The UK news has been England-focussed forever, but I really started to notice it in the run-up to the 2014 IndyRef in Scotland.  We’d had a courteous and in-depth conversation over the course of a good two years, and then in the weeks leading up to the vote itself, the London media woke up to the fact that something was happening north of the Watford Gap.  The BBC sent its big hitters up, people who, until that point, had taken no interest and didn’t really bother to get up to speed on the situation.  Despite having a whole division based in Scotland, it wasn’t the BBC Scotland journalists who were asked to comment, but the names from London.

Since then, I’ve observed how the BBC treats the nations and regions, and it’s not great.  While the national and regional arms of the organisation are good at what they do, the “national” news output fails to leverage that insight, and provides reports that, from here, seem biased in the extreme.  It’s a joke amongst my circle now that whatever the news story, the BBC will try to blame Nicola Sturgeon.  That’s a bit unfair, but the sentiment stands.

Something they could do to encourage the various nations of the UK (*cough* England *cough*) to be aware of what’s happening elsewhere is by having something like the Radio 4 programmes Yesterday in Parliament or The Week in Westminster, but dedicated to the other Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK.  This would help make people aware of what’s happening elsewhere in the country and also raise the same awareness within the BBC itself so that when something does bubble up to the national news, it’s maybe not covered in such a superficial manner.

The BBC has always been in danger of capture by the government of the day, when the ten yearly renewal of the Charter comes around, and it feels like the Tories have leveraged that threat very well in order to neuter criticism of the government over the last decade, when they’ve done so much that’s deserved criticism.  While the World Service isn’t what it once was (the government cutting funding to something that is so respected worldwide seems an extraordinary decision based on short-term thinking), its news output is still what I find myself turning to, more often than not, instead of national news for something more balanced and less parochial.

But to inform is just one pillar of the BBC, albeit a hugely important one.  The BBC is still a massive force in the other two pillars (despite the Tories’ best attempts).  For me, Radio 4 and Doctor Who are, alone, enough to justify the licence fee and I’ve had many hours of entertainment from them over the years.  The breadth of that entertainment, from soaps like Eastenders, to sitcoms like the wonderful Ghosts and Only Fools and Horses, to family entertainment shows like Strictly and The Generation Game.  While I’m disappointed that they didn’t really build on it, would any other channel really have put money into Goodness Gracious Me?  Like so many in this country, I grew up with the BBC.  While my parents didn’t go so far as to stop me watching “the commercial channel”, there was a clear implication that the BBC provided the higher-class channels.  I can still remember the number to call for Live & Kicking on a Saturday morning (0181 811 8181, since you ask).

On top of that, you’ve got immense, well-researched documentaries like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series and its follow-ups, long running science programmes like Horizon (aside: while I cringe at attempts to discuss science on news output, actual science programming on the BBC remains excellent), consumer affairs and self-reflection shows, and much, much more.

Whilst the BBC is, by no means, perfect – as I spent several paragraphs above discussing- it’s still a great institution that we should be proud of, and we should work to protect from those who want to neuter or destroy it.  Despite everything, I’m still proud of the BBC and wish it a very happy birthday and another hundred years and more!

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