The time has come to defend the BBC


By Kenneth Roy

A monarchist resigned yesterday as a reader of the Scottish Review. He was unhappy with our coverage of the jubilee. My own ‘attitude’ left a lot to be desired, it seems. One resignation: did we get off lightly? The BBC has had 2,500 complaints about its coverage. Sounds a lot worse until you look at the arithmetic. The Scottish Review is a small current affairs magazine with around 18,000 readers; the BBC’s audience is a whole nation which comprises – ‘comprises of’ according to the Daily Telegraph’s preferred usage – 62 million people.


When you put it like that, 2,500 complaints out of 62 million doesn’t sound too bad. It represents 0.004% of the viewing and listening nation. Which leaves 99.996% of the country satisfied, not sufficiently moved to protest, or majestically indifferent.

On the other hand, the Scottish Review’s unchuffed subscriber represents 0.005% of our average weekly readership. Help. We are doing rather worse than the BBC.

Is it possible to be doing rather worse than the BBC this week? It is scarcely credible. But I will not dwell over-long on the crisis of confidence facing this magazine. I will put my head under the duvet and avoid all those ‘What’s going on at the Scottish Review?’ features.

But before I disappear for the weekend to ponder where it all went wrong, I had better throw in a word for a media organisation almost as unpopular as we are. It is true that the BBC did not tell us who was in the accursed boats. Nor, as it happens, did Sky TV, which has emerged as an unlikely hero of the hour. The only boat which was instantly recognisable, but only because it had its name plastered all over the hull, was KPMG’s with its self-promoting logo ‘Cutting Through Complexity’. What was it doing there? It’s a commercial outfit full of guys in suits, isn’t it? Let me cut my way through complexity and acknowledge that I had no interest in being told the names of KPMG’s senior partners, or the names of their spouses, or the names of those valued clients who had come along for the sail.

The BBC misjudged the occasion. It should have hired some Ac-Tor to enunciate the names of all 1,000 vessels, and all who sailed in them, in tones of hushed obsequiousness. Instead of the Royal Shakespeare Company, we got Blue Peter. Irritating and boring, of course, but no more irritating and boring than the occasion itself: just a mirror image in the water.

It was Gerry Priestland, a BBC man, its religious affairs correspondent, who said: ‘Journalists belong in the gutter because that is where the ruling classes leave their guilty secrets’.

Journalistically the BBC let us down, but not in the way alleged with increasing hysteria by the right-wing press. It was left to the Guardian to expose the murky undercurrents in the Thames: the young people decanted off buses and left freezing under London Bridge at 3 in the morning. I would not have had any of the Dimblebores, or the self-satisfied tribe of Simpsons and Marrs, presiding pompously over the ritual. I would have had one or two decent reporters loitering with intent just off the official radar.

It was Gerry Priestland, a BBC man, its religious affairs correspondent, who said: ‘Journalists belong in the gutter because that is where the ruling classes leave their guilty secrets’. Last Sunday they didn’t have to descend even as far as the gutter to reveal the guilty secrets of Britain’s government. Under the bridge would have done. The BBC wasn’t there.

But it is rich of the Daily Telegraph, whose pages ‘comprise of’ a pictorial exhibition of young lovelies, to protest at a falling-off of standards at the BBC. Page 5 in yesterday’s edition was devoted to a marital disagreement between a tedious pair of London socialites; the big thing on page 9 was a picture of the actress Lindsay Lohan (a showbiz puff for her part in a biopic); page 10 had two more decorative women and a gossip column; on page 11, the titillating story of a woman prison officer’s ‘sex calls’ to inmates; yet more eye candy on page 14. Not for nothing is this arbiter of BBC standards known as the Daily Hellograph. The only surprise was the absence from the front page of Kate Middleton in her latest frock. They had the queen instead.

I will spare you another of the BBC’s vicious critics, the Daily Mail. There are limits.

The right-wing press claims that the BBC is in turmoil over its inadequacies on the day of the great downpour. There are many things worthy of self-examination by our public service broadcaster – the reduced status of its current affairs flagship, ‘Panorama’, once a vessel worth naming but no longer; the death of the single play which once held a mirror to our society and even changed it for the better; the uncritical obsession with sport; the witlessness of Saturday night custard pie television; the far from inspiring leadership at Pacific Quay. But, for all its many defects, it continues to represent civilised and civilising values, particularly on radio and on its digital channel BBC4. With a few honourable exceptions, the same could not be said of our jingoistic national press.

It seems I have just written a piece in defence of the BBC. There are times when I surprise even myself.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review