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David Keighley: Drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll. No wonder the BBC adored Bowie


Many a tear has doubtless been shed for the iconic David Bowie.

He was an outstanding and hugely influential musician, actor and performer – throughout his long career, he worked hard to innovate and entertain.

But for the BBC he was something else – and that’s why yesterday’s news of his tragically early death from cancer elevated him to the level of sainthood – from the Today programme onwards.

For the chums at the Corporation, music is not just about entertainment, it’s about politics and right-on causes. If you doubt this, take a look at this compilation of Top of the Pops from 1981. Never mind the music, the news footage has been selected to make it an all-out attack on the recession and despair generated by Margaret Thatcher.

So for David Bowie – who allegedly experimented with bisexualism and took, at some stages of his life, industrial quantities of illicit drugs – that meant instant beatification on Today.

From the moment of the announcement, the running order was ditched, Jeremy Corbyn’s botched reshuffle was bounced down the running order and presenters Justin Webb and Nick Robinson adopted reverential tones. All normal rules of journalism were suspended. All that mattered was establishing how good and how influential he was.

Not since the death of Nelson Mandela have such large chunks of the Today programme been dedicated to a single person. The Bowie adulation later spread to other parts of Radio 4, with the setting up of a special page to collect stories about him.

The Corporation’s deep love affair with Bowie began in 1973/4 when Alan Yentob, the BBC’s recently-resigned ‘Creative Director’, filmed a documentary about him during his Diamond Dogs tour that was shown in the Arena series under the title of Cracked Actor.

When he shot the programme, Yentob must have known that at this stage of his career, what dominated Bowie most was not performance or his craft – but drugs. He was heavily addicted to cocaine and it is obvious from almost the minute the programme opens that this was a man in a fragile, precarious mental state.

Bowie said himself a decade or so later:

“I was so blocked…so stoned…It’s quite a casualty case, isn’t it. I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.”

To the BBC and Yentob, of course, that doesn’t count. They bracket heavy use of illegal drugs and the whole drugs culture with ‘creativity’ in the music and arts arena. It’s a love affair that is also manifested every year in the millions of pounds that are spent in covering Glastonbury. More programming effort is put into the festival than almost anything else in our cultural or civic life.

Cracked Actor also dwelt heavily on Bowie’s professed bisexuality. Back then, of course, gay ‘liberation’ (as it was then called) was in its relative infancy along with its close twin in the liberal agenda stakes: women’s lib. The fact that Bowie’s approach and persona seemed to encompass both was no doubt viewed by Yentob as a Lottery Rollover bonus: a one-man full-scale, all-frontal assault on prejudice.

That clearly was the lens through which Webb and Robinson viewed Bowie’s career yesterday morning. He was a man who was an exceptional hero, not just for his music, but because – above all – he fought battles against stultifying establishment prejudice.

One thing you did not hear on Today, however, is that Bowie said later in his career (after the Yentob programme) several things that raise doubts about the persona he projected and the BBC so willingly amplified.

First, in a Rolling Stone interview in 1983, Bowie admitted that his public declaration of bisexuality was “the biggest mistake I ever made” and “I was always a closet heterosexual.”

Then David Buckley, in his biography of the singer, noted in an interview conducted for the book that Bowie had said his interest in homosexual and bisexual culture had been more a product of the times and the situation in which he found himself than his own feelings; he said he had been driven more by “a compulsion to flout moral codes than a real biological and psychological state of being”.

For the BBC that’s an inconsequential footnote. Bowie is above all a drugs and gay icon – and that’s all that matters.

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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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