This week it was the corporation’s expressed wish to curtail its coverage of regional current affairs that brought forth protests – from politicians of all parties, and from the theatrical and creative communities. One of the tenets of public service broadcasting would be undermined, they said, as if with a single voice.
I’m not saying they are wrong, but the argument is old and familiar, and ultimately self-defeating.
The discourse runs like this: the BBC gets accused of being over-sized and of having too wide a remit, and responds by identifying unloved services it can throw overboard – only to be told that those in question are in fact venerated “crown jewels” which cannot be lost at any cost.
This happened 10 years ago when the Asian Network and the 6 Music radio station were identified for the chop before being reprieved. It happened again earlier this year when it was Victoria Derbyshire’s TV programme facing the axe. Now the unfortunate victim is Inside Out, the local current affairs strand that goes out when everyone is watching Coronation Street on the other side. The regional politics programmes, beloved of MPs not famous enough to get on The Andrew Marr Show, are similarly threatened.
Yet something has got to go if the BBC is to find the £125m savings it says it needs to offset the effect of fewer people buying TV licences during the lockdown. It’s a far less severe blow than that felt by nearly every other organisation after three months of economic paralysis, but that’s beside the point. Accountants are one thing the BBC is not short of, and balancing the books is what keeps them in work.
So if those supporters of Inside Out and Sunday Politics are to have their way, what should be cut in their place? Let’s turn on the TV and see, shall we?
On BBC2 we find Michael Portillo on another railway journey in his purple trousers. He’s an amiable chap, but how can a format as stale as a buffet car sandwich have been stretched to 26 series? Not even Ken Barlow has had this much screen time.
And how about finding a skip somewhere for the Breakfast sofa – for if ever there was a “me, too” programme, this is it. The BBC resisted going on air at breakfast time, claiming it couldn’t find the cash, until the very moment ITV announced a service of its own. The same was true of local news in Yorkshire, which the corporation insisted did not need to be treated as a separate region. It was only the advent of Yorkshire Television that changed its mind, at which point it disgracefully fell over backwards to get Look North on the air a few weeks before Calendar.
Now let’s turn to prime time – and how many advocates of public service broadcasting would bewail the loss of The One Show, I wonder? A programme that is to current affairs what the Three Stooges were to ballet dancing, it can scarcely conceal its condescension of the audience. “Soap legend Anita Dobson will be here with news of how you can revisit some of the most iconic scenes from Albert Square,” said the presenter, Alex Jones, on Tuesday, finding an interesting new definition of ‘news’. Two generations ago, this slot was occupied by Tonight, in which Cliff Michelmore and Alan Whicker conversed with viewers they assumed to be as intelligent as they were. Is it the audience that has dumbed-down or the BBC? Perhaps both.
But it is radio that is the corporation’s real Achilles heel. The old Home Service apart, there is no compelling argument to keep any of the networks, since all now are duplicated many times over by commercial stations and podcasts. Radio 1 in particular represents unfair and unnecessary competition for dozens of financially-strapped music stations across the country.
Even on Radio 4, one has to wonder if it isn’t time to slap a compulsory purchase order on Ambridge and turn The Bull over to affordable housing.
The problem of course is that whatever you propose to get rid of – except, perhaps, those accountants – you’re going to run into opposition. Everything is someone’s favourite.
But in this new economic climate, we are all going to be tightening our belts, and if we are indeed all in it together, the BBC will have to slim down with the rest of us.
Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.
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James Mitchinson, Editor