Next month, you may have forgotten, it’s all change at the top for the hapless BBC, the leviathan that swallows roughly £150 from nearly every household in the kingdom and comfortable home to a complacent, soft-left, pro-European high-spending monoculture.
Out goes the BBC Trust, a quango of well-meaning media types and assorted paid-up members of the great and the good for whom the annual bung of £32,000 no doubt comes in useful. In comes … a superquango, in the shape of Ofcom, a Blair-era corporate outfit which is happy to provide its services for only £9 million per year – think the entire licence fee for Exeter. The omens are not good.
Ofcom is not a cultural organisation. It is actually a corporation of box-tickers, number-crunchers and enforcers: up to now its main jobs have been licensing broadcasters and keeping them to the terms of their licence, regulating telephone and broadband providers and distributing the electromagnetic spectrum. All right: that might make it ideal to audit the accounts and impose some financial discipline. But no: that’s the job of the national Audit Office. So what will Ofcom do?
We now know, from the Chief Executive of Ofcom herself, one Sharon White, in a speech at the Oxford Media Convention (organised by the left-leaning think-tank IPPR) this week. And it doesn’t make enjoyable reading. Tougher, stronger regulation to ensure diversity is what she wants: and please note, this does not seem to mean diversity of points of view (if only), but rather diversity of workers reckoned by gender, origin and race, and where necessary quotas to make sure it happens.
Content she’s also apparently quite happy to dictate. When she says that the BBC must “lead” in meeting the challenge of people who “feel that they are neutrally portrayed at best, or negatively at worst”, and that “audiences must feel protected”, this sounds like corporate-speak for “I will intervene if a pressure-group makes itself sufficiently obnoxious.” The middle-aged and middle class have much too much say; there is not enough “edgy” or “relevant” content for that pampered group “youth”. Not enough edginess? I’ll introduce another box to tick to make sure the quota is fulfilled for this quarter.
And, of course, we all have the greatest confidence in Sharon White’s judgment. She approves of distinctiveness; rather in the same way, one suspects, as a bishop approves of virtue. And she suggests, apparently with a straight face, that “many of the BBC’s most-loved programmes – EastEnders, Match of the Day or its radio breakfast shows – are distinctive and original in their own way”. This left at least one person gasping and stretching his eyes (remember Hilaire Belloc’s Matilda, who “told such dreadful lies, It made you gasp and stretch your eyes”?); but then clearly I must have been missing something.
Apart from the usual excess of modish cliché, what’s depressing about this whole speech is just how arrogant it all is. Even if we like matters such as nostalgia (of which Ms White tells us we have too much), we must be given the BBC that is good for us: in exchange for the index-linked sums to be mulcted from us via the television tax (aka licence fee), we must be fed relevancy and told, whether we want is or not, what a wonderful, diverse place Britain is.
And not only arrogant: it is also supremely patronising. Women? Give them programmes about dominant and successful women, or it stands to reason they’ll feel left out. Northerners, or Asians, or young people? They clearly can’t empathise with programmes that aren’t about them and don’t address their concerns; and so on. The fact that some groups might want to escape from their own narrow enclaves is beside the point. The focus groups have spoken; that’s an end of the matter.
Of course, those outside the comforting government and media bubble realise that there are other ways to do things. One might be to say that all points of view are always welcome on the air-waves, and that any tendency to monolithic uniformity will be frowned on and if necessary suppressed.
Another – horror of horrors – might be recognition that, despite the 11-year stay of execution it has just received, the licence fee is an immoral impost that is ultimately doomed. It would be perfectly possible to make the BBC a subscription channel.
At least that way, when faced with the drearily politically-correct future we are promised by the redoubtable Sharon White, we could just switch channels and save some money as well.