Nobody quite does navel-gazing like the BBC. Currently scampering around in existential fear as the Tory Death Star fixes its civilisation-destroying sights on one national institution after another, the greatest broadcaster the world has ever known is in full-on defensive mode; and it is not a setting that inspires an awful lot of hope. The BBC will survive, but to how bad will the damage be?
You may be forgiven for thinking that pushing out Claudia Winkleman to praise the virtues of the company she works for in the latest of a pretty crass series of celebrity tail-swallowing adverts might suggest the BBC is severely outgunned in this Machiavellian battle of ideologies. Every time Winkleman says how “incredibly brilliant” Dr Amanda Foreman’s BBC4 Ascent of Woman documentary was, I cannot help but think how blown away the world might have been had the BBC had the guts to really follow up Bronowski’s 13 hour 1973 Ascent of Man, of which Foreman’s populist effort is an obvious and belated riposte. But no, what Foreman’s documentary ultimately amounted to was a 4-hour chronological list of remarkable women that history has failed to really appreciate. This may have been underpinned by the argument that history has ignored women, but is “25 Women History Has Ignored” the basis of a BBC Four documentary or a Buzzfeed article? I studied Hildegaard of Bingen for two weeks on my History BA – does twelve and a half minutes of her here constitute an “incredibly brilliant” documentary, or is it “women’s history” poking its head into mainstream male-dominated television rather in the same way Women’s football now gets a slot after Match of the Day on a Saturday night?
The nature of Foreman’s documentary gets right to the root of the questions the BBC are trying to answer before the renewal of the Royal Charter – what is the BBC for? We all know it is a force for good (apart from possibly Lord Dacre and all those sweaty little minions that live in his rib cage under his cloak) – but what is it actually for? Well, one thing it must be for is to educate and enlighten – that is the need that brought it into this world, and it is no less needed for that now. And by enlightenment, I mean give Amanda Foreman 13 hours to explore the themes of her subject – one of the most important subjects there is – rather than 4 hours to have her introduce us to her bookshelf, like we’re waiting for the starter to be served at a party she is hosting. The BBC must go further than providing brief morsels of conversation topics for the office the next day. Ascent of Woman was a programme marked by the wariness of being accused of ignoring women’s history rather than a full-blooded assault on the subject for its own obvious worth. It was box-ticking when it could have been era-defining.
On Tuesday morning, Radio Four’s Media Show held a special debate on the renewal of the BBC Charter. Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, in a pre-recorded interview, categorically contradicted previous promises made in black and white to BBC directors about the current funding situation. In the studio, James Purnell, BBC Director of Strategy and Digital, and BBC Trustee Richard Ayre seemed a little confused by this. Wrong-footed, even. Whittingdale was telling Media Show presenter Steve Hewlett different things to what he had told them. So what is the future of the BBC? Nobody can tell you while this most untrustworthy of governments hold the trap door lever. And that must be sounding alarm bells closer to home, in the hallowed huts of BBC Wales’ top office. If HQ gets a kicking, what lies in store for the lowly goatherds in the foothills of the Broadcast Empire?
On Saturday night, Radio Four examined the history of the institution, and brought some fascinating insight into how the BBC we know today grew from the original tender in 1922. The day that the BBC was truly born however was the day the government allowed commercial television into the picture in 1955. Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, and by this point retired, passionately maintained it would be the death of the company, undermining its ability to do what it was built to do – educate and inform. But what actually happened was the BBC was forced, as ITV lunged in with a ratings-driven business model, to create programmes people actually wanted to watch. The market that Reith was so dead set against pushed the BBC into a creative golden age that, it could be argued, ended up inventing modern television. The pressure forced the BBC to be creative, to be bold, to take risks. Dr Who was the greatest example of this new vision – a programme designed to educate children about science whilst also being a gripping adventure. The BBC’s main preoccupation in recent years seems to be to cover all ground – television and radio as well as a swamping of online data and digital information – regardless of how thin that makes the ice. And this is why when the BBC is asked (or asks) what is the BBC for? The most obvious and answer is: everything. The Tories will exploit this lack of focus.
BBC Wales rarely does anything exciting or dynamic, bold or risky, and it could be this conservatism that is its greatest threat. Excuse this sweeping statement, but BBC Wales is defined by the very absence of the inspiration it should evoke and embody. But, with its disintegration so goes the nation. It is the only thing we have resembling a national media, and we must fight for it as if it is the nation.
So, perhaps in an attempt to find hope in this bleak outlook, parallels can be drawn between BBC Wales now and the BBC of the 1950s. Lord Reith believed the BBC he built should adhere strictly to its founding principle: to educate the masses. It was market forces that pushed the BBC to be something more than that. BBC Wales, cash-strapped, morale low, just keeps its head above water when it comes to its regional remit under BBC doctrine: that of creating programming that reflects Welsh life.
It is quite likely that the BBC would not exist today were it not for its bold reaction to the threat from ITV in the 1960s. So what if… just entertain the idea for a moment… BBC Wales took heart from this history lesson and began a philosophy of bold programming. What if this existential threat could actually improve BBC Wales? What if the restrictions of the budget encouraged creativity rather than simply stymied trudging conservatism? What if the incentives of pressure that created Dr Who in 1960 on a budget of six shillings and a police box borrowed from the set of Dixon of Dock Green could be recreated today? With a bit of vim, BBC Wales could be something that is envied rather than maligned. What if…?