How to save the BBC

69
1940

Kenneth Roy

Of all the interest groups variously assembled in Edinburgh in the last three weeks, the prize for the most insufferably self-regarding must go, as it goes every year, to the media execs gathered under the leaky umbrella of the Edinburgh Television Festival. The word ‘luvvies’ was surely invented for this lot.
     A journalist with the Guardian, sponsor of the 2010 celebration, seems not to know much about James MacTaggart (1928-74), in whose name the annual opening lecture is given. Let me enlighten him: MacTaggart was a gifted producer of television plays and was married to Anne Donaldson, a senior journalist with the Glasgow Herald (as it then was).

Kenneth Roy

Of all the interest groups variously assembled in Edinburgh in the last three weeks, the prize for the most insufferably self-regarding must go, as it goes every year, to the media execs gathered under the leaky umbrella of the Edinburgh Television Festival. The word ‘luvvies’ was surely invented for this lot.
     A journalist with the Guardian, sponsor of the 2010 celebration, seems not to know much about James MacTaggart (1928-74), in whose name the annual opening lecture is given. Let me enlighten him: MacTaggart was a gifted producer of television plays and was married to Anne Donaldson, a senior journalist with the Glasgow Herald (as it then was).
     Andrew Jaspan, the editor of Scotland on Sunday who did not appreciate my insistent refrain that no one would wish to be reminded of Scotland on a Sunday, sent me regularly to the Edinburgh Television Festival when I was that paper’s TV critic. One year it was seriously bad. Rupert Murdoch had been asked to deliver the MacTaggart Lecture in the church next to the George Hotel, where Kenneth Tynan once smuggled his young mistress Kathleen up the back stairs – of the hotel, that is. Being in the same room as Murdoch made me feel a little queasy, particularly as I was sitting immediately behind Janet Street-Porter, luvvie-in-chief; all through Murdoch’s rant I was aware only of Street-Porter’s neck. Both had neck that awful night.
     It has not got a lot better. Instead of the MacTaggart platform being given to a genuinely creative person – there are still a few around in television – it is customarily hijacked by some ‘executive’ for points-scoring, empire-building, or reputation-management purposes. Last weekend we had the king of the designer stubble, Mark Thompson, who is paid £834,000 a year to be director-general of the BBC, and his apologia for the current unhappy state of John Reith’s inheritance.
     Mr Thompson wonders why there is such hostility to the ‘passion and creativity’ – I believe these were his words – of the BBC. Although he is paid almost £100 an hour, every hour of the night and day, every night and day, to work out such simple questions for himself, clearly he is in need of some assistance. We will ignore the bullying and intimidation routinely exercised by the BBC’s servant in collecting the tax to watch or listen (a tawdry outfit called TV Licensing); disregard the vast salaries paid to the managers, most of whom could be fired without anyone noticing the difference; hold our noses at the humiliations of Saturday night ‘entertainment’ on BBC1; put aside the 90-second bullets passing as news – let us acknowlege that all of this is outwith Mr Thompson’s power to reform or ameliorate at a mere £834,000 a year.


If BBC News, on a matter of importance with which one was personally familiar, could get something so wrong that it actually turned the facts on their head, how much trust is it possible to place in its factual reporting
as a whole?


     We will concentrate instead on the core of the problem. I was made aware of that core on the night after Jimmy Reid’s death when the BBC (nationally) reported on its main television news bulletin, presented by Huw Edwards, that Jimmy Reid had ‘led a strike’ at UCS. Those were Huw Edwards’s words, though it is unlikely that Mr Edwards wrote them. The phrase ‘led a strike’ was, of course, a complete reversal of the truth. Fortunately for viewers in Scotland, an admirable film profile by Kenneth Macdonald an hour later presented the work-in at UCS in a faithful and sensitive context, but elsewhere – in what we still dare to call the United Kingdom – the damage had been done. If BBC News, on a matter of importance with which one was personally familiar, could get something so wrong that it actually turned the facts on their head, how much trust is it possible to place in its factual reporting as a whole? I suggest: not much.
     I have a proposal. If Mark Thompson means what he says about restoring the standards of the BBC and cutting the crap, he will instigate a 60-minute news and current affairs programme, properly resourced and of the highest standard, on BBC1 each weekday evening, starting at 9pm. Information and discussion of quality – providing what the BBC used to call ‘a window on the world’ – should be returned to peak-time and not ghettoised and fragmented in some rolling news format or relegated to an hour when most of us are thinking of bed or already in it. On this new flagship programme, needless to say, no one would be employed who believed that Jimmy Reid had ‘led a strike’.
     I have a further proposal. If Mark Thompson means what he says about restoring the standards of the BBC and cutting the crap, he will re-introduce one of the glories of the organisation he is privileged to run – the single play. That is a truly scary prospect; I don’t imagine that contemporary drama holding a candid mirror to our society would appeal to the sort of people who now run this country. But it is an absolute pre-requisite if the BBC is ever to recover its self-respect. There was a time when plays on BBC Television changed the way we thought about our lives; one, ‘Cathy Come Home’, led to a change in the law on homelessness. Whatever happened to the single play? How do we restore it to its vital place in our national life? Let that be the theme of next year’s MacTaggart Lecture. Sadly, I don’t expect for a second that it
will be.
     It is obvious that our new political masters – exemplified by little Jeremy Hunt, the ‘culture secretary’ – loathe the BBC. Let them loathe it, every last weasel. But let them loathe it for all the right reasons – for its courage, its daring, its breathtaking creativity. If we want to honour the memory of James MacTaggart, this is the way to do it.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.