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David Keighley: The BBC’s latest scam. Hijacking the Beach Boys to keep its precious licence fee


The Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds and its signature track God Only Knows was one of the most sublime achievements of the 1960s’ music-making explosion. The Wilson brothers’ astonishing creativity was somehow distilled powerfully in 2m 51seconds of pure delight.

The BBC, desperately aiming to retain the licence fee, has now hijacked the song in a pop video that has the production values – and presumably costs – of a de Mille Hollywood epic.

The Corporation’s latest charm offensive was launched on Tuesday evening and immediately lauded by The Guardian, the Corporation’s house journal. It is without doubt a highly-polished, slick production. They have assembled a cast of singers and musicians – each contributing a single word or line – that resembles the Corporation’s revered Glastonbury ‘A’ team, ranging from Elton John to Chris Martin and Jamie Callum.

But, as with anything the BBC does, beware. All that glisters is not gold – and this case there are deep financial motives involved.

The BBC explanation is that it has been shot to raise awareness of this year’s Children in Need Appeal, and also as a symbol of a ‘relaunched’ BBC Music. How very worthy.

But this is patently PR flummery. The reality is that – although God Only Knows looks and sounds great – it is a grubby propaganda exercise that is risibly unsubtle.

It is also a flagrant breach of a core BBC principle that the Corporation must not advertise itself.

Deep  in the BBC’s psyche is lodged that a similar ‘promotion trailer’ (not an ad!) based on Lou Reed’s Perfect Day was produced by BBC marketers back in 1997 in connection with their efforts to ensure the best possible licence fee settlement.  ‘Perfect Day’ won massive plaudits for its production values, reached number one in the pop charts, and is credited by many as a key persuasive factor in NuLabour’s eventual decision to grant the BBC index-linked rises that only stopped in 2010.

But others didn’t see it that way, as this article in advertising trade magazine Campaign makes clear. It is as relevant now as it was back then. Bob Wootton, then the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers’ media spokesman, stated:

’It’s about an organisation that can get all these people together for no money. It’s nothing to do with BBC music!  It simply makes people believe that the BBC can deliver.’ Wootton added: ‘It’s (actually) a flagrant ad and a bloody good one!’

In other words, the BBC was using its immense production muscle and lavish funding to persuade audiences that it was a national treasure.

The background now, of course, is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the negotiations over the next BBC Charter renewal (due at the beginning of 2017) might lead to the scrapping of the licence fee – which criminalises each year tens of thousands of the poorest members of our society – and its replacement with subscription funding.

That has clearly massive induced panic throughout the Corporation that they might have to become more responsive to what audiences actually want, and end their various propaganda campaigns such as those in favour of climate change alarmism and the multicultural agenda or against withdrawal from the EU.

So those in charge of the BBC image – a mini-army of at least 200 (when marketeers are added), with a boss on £210,000 a year – have gone back to the store cupboard, spent a vast amount of our money and come up with a re-hashing of an old idea that hijacks one of the best songs in pop history and is blatantly an advert that they believe makes the BBC look slick, original and brilliant.

To ram home the message of BBC worthiness, God Only Knows was shot in the Alexandra Palace, where television broadcasting began in 1936.

Over the next few months, no doubt it will be played at every opportunity – with smug, self-satisfied relish. Have no doubt though as its mellifluous, seductive tones play: the real purpose is that the Corporation wants to keep the licence fee, and they will use every trick in the book to persuade us.  The prime slots at every programme junction would cost tens of millions if bought on ITV.   But they cost the BBC nothing.

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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