Let’s get behind BBC in its hour of need – Melvyn Bragg

I WORK for BBC Radio 4 and Sky Arts as a freelancer. I joined the BBC in 1961 as a trainee. My first television posting was to Huw Wheldon, editor and presenter of Monitor, the arts programme.

Labour peer Melvyn Bragg has launched a strong defence of the BBC in the House of Lords.
Labour peer Melvyn Bragg has launched a strong defence of the BBC in the House of Lords.

Huw was a man full of terse advice, chiefly plucked from his distinguished military career. One example is: “You ignore the obvious at your peril.” He also said that the BBC is the “sum of its programmes”.

I begin by stating obvious things about the BBC. It is regularly sniped at, sliced up, and its parts disparaged. It is blamed for this, that and the other, and every current malaise. Its purpose is often punctured. Few of its detractors take on the obvious – the full darts board – and concentrate exclusively on a double top to make a splash.

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I think that the BBC is unique in the world of broadcasting; so, in my experience, do many world broadcasters. Its strengths are even more valuable now when all around us, at this tipping point in our history, so many other institutions seem to be failing.

Melvyn Bragg is a Labour peer who led a House of Lords debate on the BBC.

No other single broadcasting company in the world is as targeted, comprehensive, Hydra-headed, cross-class, successful on several levels and knitted into the audiences as the BBC. Of course it makes mistakes and stumbles, and is subjected to justifiable criticism, but on the whole, over almost a century, this institution has grown into one of the most reliable staples of our troubled society.

It is all the better for being neither propagandist nor fawning on its public. Despite many assaults, it is still independent and arm’s length from a Government who are slow to praise, quick to blame and sometimes eager to interfere.

At a time like this, the BBC deserves to be appreciated for what it really is and not presented as the obstacle to certain factions, corporations and individuals who see it getting in the way of their own broadcasting ambitions.

Unfashionable though it is, it seems that, by and large, the BBC’s ambition is now as it was when Lord Reith invented it almost a century ago, which is to reach all of the people some of the time and many of the people all of the time but, most of all, to weave itself into the texture of this country and serve it, which the BBC has always attempted to do.

Labour peer Melvyn Bragg has launched a strong defence of the BBC in the House of Lords.

It is called public service. That original vision was to inform, educate and entertain the UK without favour or prejudice. It was a bold and tall order but, on the whole, it has been steadily pursued.

So why is the BBC so often attacked, and why by the Government? It makes no sense. Over the last decade, the BBC’s income has been cut by 31 per cent in real terms through the freeze in the licence fee from 2010 to 2017. The Government have stopped paying for the World Service and removed the funding for free licences. In short, the Government have fleeced the licence fee-paying public to dig themselves out of a hole in social services.

The multiplication of new channels continues to test the BBC but, on the creative side, it has not buckled. The press, some of which has its own fish to fry, keeps up a relentless offensive against the BBC. Sometimes the criticism is fair, and the BBC has often benefited from competition, such as when ITV came in and challenged the BBC on its news and documentary values.

Sometimes it can seem that the BBC is taking on too much. Can it still, as Lord Reith hoped, serve all the people? The answer is in the programmes. The BBC is not letting that down. Many of those programmes stand up with the best on the spectrum wherever one looks.

This Government seem bent on making the BBC weaker at the moment, when every indicator suggests that the opposite course would be the wiser. The Government seem to be ignorant of the BBC’s deeply held strengths and the affection in which it is held in this country for its reliability, talent, fun, originality and the feeling of being part of a nation that it engenders. It belongs to us, the licence fee payers.

Recently, it has sometimes seemed that, sadly, we are becoming a lesser country by the year. I hope that the BBC is not allowed to become part of this surrender to a creeping deterioration. Indeed, I believe it could be one of the forces that leads by example the fight against what is happening and organises us to get out of this mire.

It comes down to what sort of country we want this to be. The BBC has earned our respect and repaid our support, in war and peace, over many years. It has built itself in our image. Surely, now that it is so clearly up against it, we cannot let it down.

Melvyn Bragg is a Labour peer who led a House of Lords debate on the BBC. This is an edited version.