How to save the BBC: a letter to Tony Hall

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By Kenneth Roy

Hello, Tony

(I’ve dropped the ‘Dear’ as a concession to modern manners. Even the open letter is not immune from changes in forms of address. I don’t know, Tony, if the new informality makes you squirm. It does me, a bit. But ‘Dear Lord Hall’ somehow doesn’t cut it any more.)

It’s 22 years since our meeting. You were the editor of BBC TV news and current affairs and I was doing a long interview with you about the vicious attacks on BBC journalism from the Murdoch press, the Express and the Mail, and the Tory government.

By Kenneth Roy

Hello, Tony

(I’ve dropped the ‘Dear’ as a concession to modern manners. Even the open letter is not immune from changes in forms of address. I don’t know, Tony, if the new informality makes you squirm. It does me, a bit. But ‘Dear Lord Hall’ somehow doesn’t cut it any more.)

It’s 22 years since our meeting. You were the editor of BBC TV news and current affairs and I was doing a long interview with you about the vicious attacks on BBC journalism from the Murdoch press, the Express and the Mail, and the Tory government. You must have been doing something right. It’s remarkable how little has changed, although I see that your hair has gone white and that you have decided in a moment of madness to return as DG. Poor you.

You were generous in that interview about Michael Buerk, who was presenting the Nine O’Clock News at the time. A rather chilly chappie, I once found, and you’d better watch him and Sissons, both of whom will miss no opportunity to expose the Guardian-reading tendency of your staff. Sissons has already criticised your first appointments and you’re not even back in the building yet. The unhelpful sniping of those old sourpusses will be among your many burdens, yet I grudgingly have to admit that their names remind us of better times.

May I recall what you said about BBC journalism during our conversation all those years ago? You talked about the BBC as a beacon of quality, a place free from commercial pressures. You were rightly sceptical about 24-hour news and its trivialising properties. You defended the greater length and depth of items on the BBC’s flagship, the Nine O’Clock News. You were uncompromising about all this. I’m not often impressed. I was impressed.

In your absence, it’s all gone pear-shaped. The pears are shaped by people called celebrity chefs, in one dreary cookery programme after another, and the Nine O’Clock News, your pride and joy, sank without trace long ago.

You will remember the great vision of The Hour – a 60-minute peak-time news and current affairs programme on BBC1, in which the events of the day would be – I know you don’t like the word ‘analysed’ so let’s avoid it in favour of ‘intelligently examined’. The idea had many prominent supporters, including Robin Day, but somehow it never materialised.

Tony, if you mean business about restoring the reputation of the BBC, you will revisit the possibilities of The Hour at 9pm, even if it means junking all the cookery programmes and most of what passes for ‘reality’ television. Newsnight is tired and fatally tainted by the Savile scandal, so it will have to go, but the skills of the people who work for it will be redeployed on The Hour. You know it makes sense, though only if you continue to believe that factual broadcasting of integrity and reliability must be at the heart of the BBC.

It was wonderful to read your recent comment about encouraging the arts on television. Melvyn Bragg has probably done more than any other single individual to popularise the arts in this country. Sadly he’s getting on a bit. You have to find a new Melvyn Bragg, someone with his light touch and serious mind, and create a showcase for him – or, more likely, her. It needs to be nightly, maybe in the BBC2 berth which will be vacated by the disappearance of Newsnight.

I’m afraid this is just the start, Tony. I have so much more for you to do. Are you up for it at the grand old age of 61, when your journalists start referring to people as ‘brave pensioners’?  I hope you will be a brave pensioner yourself and do something pronto about the dire condition of BBC drama. You will have observed how many serials are set in the past – almost all of them. The actors love dressing up and it’s solid work for the costume department, but the taste for period drama is becoming a fetish. The audience needs to be shaken out of its lethargy.

One of your priorities should be to discover the new writers with interesting things to say about our current state. I know it’s not pleasant to confront the way we live now. It’s fairly terrifying, huh? Even the patrons of the Royal Opera House, where you have been billeted since leaving the BBC, must be getting anxious. But it’s not right that the BBC should be ducking out of its responsibility to hold a mirror to our society. You did it once. ‘Cathy Come Home’ changed lives – for the better. But that reforming zeal is long dissipated. It’s nicer to dwell in the past.

Listen to me. The Danes – there are only five million of them – have shown that it is still possible to produce classy contemporary drama. I expect you followed ‘Borgen’ as avidly as the rest of us, and marvelled at how a series on that riveting subject, coalition politics in Copenhagen, became unmissable viewing. The Danes are gloating, wondering why it is being left to them to pioneer challenging new drama. Whatever happened to the BBC? they ask. Whatever indeed.

Tony, I haven’t even mentioned another country of five million people. I have no wish to give you further unnecessary grief. But you should be aware that the only serious current affairs coming out of BBC Scotland is an apologetic opt-out from Newsnight at a time when most sensible people are in bed. Pretty demeaning, do you not agree? Before the demand for an independent Scottish Broadcasting Corporation is irresistible, you have a brief window of opportunity. Use it or lose us.

That’s probably enough for one letter – I have this rule of not exceeding a thousand words. But if you would like further advice on how to save the BBC, rest assured that I’m often around.

Best of luck. You’ll need it. But then you knew that already.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review