Its existence almost beggars belief
March 13, 2011 4:46 AM   Subscribe

Matthew Engel, starting a new series on British institutions in the Financial Times, examines the BBC.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (10 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Great bit of writing, thanks. This line caught my eye:
One hesitates to mention this with the BBC in its current mood but such people might do their job for nothing.
as it captures something I think was true in pretty much all our national institutions, including those much maligned in certain quarters like British Rail as was, and that whatever the fiscal rights or wrongs of the 'croak-voiced Daleks', it was and is madness to allow them to undermine that.
posted by Abiezer at 5:32 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

A perceptive piece. The BBC is always in crisis, always moving between over-confidence and crippling self-doubt, and always full of people below deck pumping furiously to keep the ship afloat while the officers shoot each other, steer for the nearest rocks, or decide to turn the whole affair into an underwater airship.

It also suffers from being utterly outside any political framework. As a huge state-funded body working in an intensively commercial field, it annoys the bejeezus out of neocon wonks; as an independent body of intelligent, lucid, hard-working communicators, it is seen as one step away from an organ of insurrection by the instinctively stateist Labourites (I can't call them left-wing, no matter how hard I try).

It benefits, however, by being tremendously popular among huge numbers of the rest of us - and as the ConDems try to dismantle anything with a nationalistic three letter abbreviation, this remains its strongest hand. It also benefits by giving most of its institutional enemies lots of airtime.

The tragedy is that it eats its children. The landscape of the British Isles is littered with burned-out BBC staff like tank carcasses in the desert: the latest trick, which is entirely the monster child of Burt, is to utterly hamstring its programme makers through incredible layers of bureaucracy and incomprehensively destructive cost-cutting. These are in the name of 'efficiency', 'health and safety', and 'modernisation' - which leads directly to enormous inefficiencies as people concoct ever more baroque ways around the paperwork, massive illness through stress and overwork, and technology that is so modern it doesn't work and can't be fixed.

Whether it's worse now than before (I think it may be) is one question: that it's always been like this is, I think, unquestionable. For those with an unhealthy interest in the institution, I can thoroughly recommend Life On Air, which is a history of Radio 4 - and, of course, 1984, which was heavily influenced by Orwell's experiences at Aunty.
posted by Devonian at 5:38 AM on March 13, 2011 [13 favorites]

The landscape of the British Isles is littered with burned-out BBC staff like tank carcasses in the desert

Great line Devonian; I can report several sightings of such forlorn shells here in Beijing, even.
posted by Abiezer at 5:43 AM on March 13, 2011

I hope Engel gave the BBC good Marx.
posted by cthuljew at 6:39 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

...the upshot of the Kelly crisis was that the BBC’s reputation largely recovered, while those of Blair and Hutton did not.

Whilst it's true that the BBC has been largely vindicated over the Kelly affair, this comment completely glosses over the lasting impact of the Hutton report. Post-Hutton, the BBC as a whole, and News in particular, has been extremely reluctant to exercise editorial judgement in their programmes. Idiots and agenda-pushers are given air time in he-said-she-said "debates" over topics that would previously have been reported in a matter-of-fact manner. Just last week, they rolled over when the ConDem government demanded that they refer to spending cuts as "savings."
Add to that the increasing celebrity content in the news programmes, as well as the inevitable 3mins devoted to a plug for a BBC programme disguised as a news item, and it's clear that the quality of news programming has declined markedly over the last few years. In a broadcasting environment that includes the moronic ITN News and the biased-as-possible Sky news, we need the BBC to provide quality news and they're just not doing it at the moment.
posted by Jakey at 7:05 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't think it's a coincidence that the rise of ridiculous layers of bureaucracy (plus a culture of risk-averseness on behalf of the commissioning editors) has led to the fact than IMHO there's not been a truly great, world-class, drama produced at the BBC for over a decade -- not since Our Friends In The North and Holding On -- and as Engels points out, HBO has taken over.

It's hardly surprising as if you want to get your foot in the door as a writer there you can't just send a script to a producer and hope to get it produced like the old days. You have to jump through an insane number of hoops, attending seminars and workshops etc until you are allowed the privilege of writing an episode of Doctors. Jump through more hoops, knock off a few more episodes of Doctors and years down the line you might be allowed a Holby City... it's utterly mental.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:05 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

first came Andrew Gilligan’s report on Iraqi weaponry which was excoriated by the Blair government, triggering a chain of events that led to the death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly and the judicial condemnation of the BBC by Lord Hutton; then came the phone-call prank by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

Not even on the Moon do these two items have equal weight.
posted by three blind mice at 9:06 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

The BBC is great. And I'm a right-wing-ish guy who doesn't like much state regulation. Really, it's wonderful. And not just for DOCTOR WHO.

It's important to remember that every British media source you'll ever read/hear/watch is competing against the BBC - even the liberal Guardian - so they all have a dog in the fight. It's been fascinating, I think, to watch the Guardian over the last twenty years going from "The BBC is All Great!" to "The BBC is Great except for the Website which needs Trimming!" A subtle but important change. (Unless that was Emily Bell in particular, of course, who actually had to fight it, and I'll stand corrected - just an impression I get.)
posted by alasdair at 10:23 AM on March 13, 2011

What's yours is mine

The word 'arrogate' is not one you hear used regularly and even then not correctly. But a supreme example of it in action happened a couple of weeks back during the government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Next to the distraction of proposed cuts to child benefit, the question of the budget of the BBC was always going to be an afterthought. But by freezing the licence fee for the next 6 years, the BBC is effectively being handed a 16% cut in real terms. In addition to these "stealth cuts", the corporation also agreed to absorb £340m that currently comes out of general taxation to pay for The World Service, S4C and BBC Monitoring.

Even at its double-counting best, the previous government never quite had the chutzpah to arrogate the BBC licence fee as part of Whitehall spending. But the licence fee that users like you and I pay has now been co-opted into deficit reduction, as part of Gideon's "you're all in this together" blitz spirit. At a time when more of us will be spending more time in front of the TV than ever, as the cuts and tax rises reduce our opportunities to go out, it's as though it's been decided that even programme quality must suffer its fair share too.

posted by Artw at 3:47 PM on March 16, 2011

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