In defence of the BBC

Auntie's getting a right old kicking lately. But I still love her, and so should you, says Simon Zonenblick.

Auntie’s Director-General Tony Hall says the BBC needs wider diversity of opinion. It’s there already, says Simon Zonenblick…

During lockdown – largely confined to home – I enjoyed a ceaseless supply of music, news, documentaries, and sports. And I still do – all thanks to the BBC.

Radio 3 brings, every afternoon and evening, the world’s finest orchestras to my home. On Radio 4, I enjoy items as diverse as In Our Time, The Moral Maze, Today in Parliament, and Natural World. I’ve heard from American astrophysicists, Brazilian politicians, British fashion designers, Israeli novelists, globe-trotting cricket commentators. TV series like Great Railway Journeys, the Saturday night extravaganza of Strictly Come Dancing, are often imitated, never matched.

Wondering what to listen to while writing this piece, I was faced with so many concerts that it took almost as long to decide as to write the piece. I settled on Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder by the Helsinki Philharmonic – a concert which, like most on tap from the BBC, I could rarely afford to attend in the outside world.

Yet, I hear calls to “de-fund,” or dismantle, the BBC. I want to rebut these calls, ponder what may result should Beeb-bashers get their way – and shine the spotlight, not just on where the corporation might fall short, but on some reasons I believe it worth celebrating.

Most Beeb-booing comes from one of two camps. There are the ultra free-marketeers, who can’t understand anything not profit-making and would defund or scrap it as per a wider cutting of investment. Then there is the hard left, who scent “establishment values,” and whose anti-Auntie antipathy exemplifies a culture offended by everything. Both these groups share two things – distaste for the Licence Fee (attacked by the former as an additional tax, the latter a burden to the poor) and a rubbishing of all the BBC offers in return.

I echo some misgivings fee-wise, but to accusations of narrow range, or “reinforcing” outdated narratives, I’m less sympathetic.
Any broadcaster fronting science with presenters of such expertise as Professors Alice Roberts, Jim Al-Khali, and of course Sir David Attenborough, needs little defence.

I’ve mentioned some mainstream entertainment programmes. The BBCi player lists 116 history series – thousands of programmes – from Ancient Greece to African art. All major sporting tournaments – Olympics to World Cup – take centre-stage.

For music, none has ever pipped it. Classic FM is inoffensive, but stretches few boundaries. Radio 3, meanwhile, delivers music from the most acclaimed, and challenging, contemporary musicians. On pop, the Beeb is unrivalled for coverage of concerts and the charts, and remains the stage on which the biggest stars such as Beyonce or Kylie unveil their offerings, or give priority interviews. When artists like Bob Dylan turn DJ, it is Radio 6, the digital arena for alternative music, where they head.

Dance music is still at home on “underground” channels, yet the continued, international, significance of Radio 1 – and the reach of stations like 1Extra – can’t be overstated. Presenters like Pete Tong are at the cutting-edge of dance, his Essential Mix show the genre’s premiere platform.

Often, anti-Beeb bile boils down to individual taste. One detractor says there’s too much news, another not enough; we are all familiar with sneers at reality TV. Some decry period dramas while others love them. People assume their tastes are universal, and impose a simple either/or – as if only a bygone-Beeb will lead to a brave new world.

Increased competition could make the BBC more risk-taking. But to me this means addition, not replacement. I want to live in a pluralistic society, my only dilemma choosing between diverse alternatives, not ever-decreasing circles of approved options – wholly market-driven or deemed least likely to offend.

Now to the question of bias – hurled from both sides of the political divide, interestingly.
Mostly, its those who boast of never watching the BBC who imply intimate knowledge of its broadcasts by claiming bias – either alleging the top brass enforce conservative (and Conservative) traditions, or that producers are all guided by left wing ideology.

I would argue any bias is almost 50/50. Which is another way of saying: there is none at all.

The Today programme arguably offers an easier ride to Tory ministers, but dramas usually depict businesspeople as heartless, crooked, or both. Comedies safely target democratically elected Western governments. But anyone comparing our national broadcaster to conspiratorial internet channels, or state media in Russia or Iran, or considering the relationship between the BBC and British governments, sees they are defined by neither hardline Thatcherism nor totalitarian censorship.

But logic is rare. There are many people who usually express great concern about any government policy they think will cause unemployment – for example, people who become angry at the threat of a No-Deal Brexit or austerity – but these same people have often been among those saying “Scrap the BBC!” If they got their way, it would inevitably mean those working for the Beeb (around 20,000 I believe) would lose their jobs, and it always strikes me as quite shocking that people either don’t grasp that, or are happy for it to happen as collateral damage, when they are, as I say, usually vocally opposed to anything that will cause job losses.

At a time of international flux, the BBC’s World Service is a British institution that remains internationally respected, broadcasting in 28 languages, including in some of the poorest places on the planet. Well-off Beeb-bashing Brits, high-tech gadgets tuned to podcasts-a-plenty, lives enriched by First World choices, seek to deny employment, and news, to those in countries where the World Service is a platform for largely unheard voices. A random check of one day’s schedule includes:
Coverage of Joe Biden’s election candidacy; Climate Change and Greenland; the UK’s exam results controversy; German football; natural gas in Turkey; an AI expert on the internet and societal anger; the Pyramids; how India’s female hockey team inspired a generation of sportswomen and a Bollywood movie; a discussion of religion; a general’s recollections of the Hurricane Katrina relief; a programme giving voice to Iranian victims of domestic abuse.

Auntie’s antagonists will scoff, because their own favourite subjects aren’t listed. But they never say how their alternatives might “inform, educate and entertain.” Thinking of radio programmes I’ve recently heard, from the exploits of an Ancient Chinese explorer to the Universe’s origins, of TV I enjoy, from Eastenders to Match of the Day, reflecting on art and philosophy I would ever have encountered but for the BBC, I’m left wondering what more its opponents want?

The BBC is a proud British tradition, attracting prominent performers, esteemed contributors, and millions of viewers and listeners, as a result. Its expiry would eventuate either a complete free-market takeover – subject to profit-making, and at greater cost to viewers, or a flawed but beautifully-intentioned Auntie swept aside by a brutal Big Brother ramming government-approved messages down our throats.

And if the BBC’s limitations apply to its replacements? Should they be scrapped? Perhaps abolitionists would prefer media to exist only theoretically, so we can all dream up perfect programmes, conforming entirely to our own opinions and tastes. No flaws, no diverse viewpoints, in short nothing to jolt us even one millimetre out of our comfort zones.

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Simon Zonenblick

Simon Zonenblick is a poet and nature writer also trying his hand at podcasts, radio and journalism. His existing work includes a film about Branwell Bronte, several collections of poetry and fiction. This autumn he is due to publish a collection of poems and an audio CD. He lives in the Calder Valley, Yorkshire.

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