‘What is the BBC for?’

Sometimes you can’t cram everything into a book that you’d like to include. Retrieved from the cutting-room floor, this is an outtake from All In It Together: England in the Early 21st Century (published 17 June).

Diamond Jubilees are rarer than hen’s teeth. So when, in June 2012, Elizabeth II became the first monarch since Victoria in 1897 to achieve sixty years on the throne, the occasion clearly had to be marked.

The monarchy was in good public standing now; the death of Diana was a fading memory, and the decade since the Golden Jubilee had been a happy one. Charles was looking more content, having remarried in 2005, this time to his long-time love, Camilla Parker Bowles, and in 2011 his oldest son, William, had married Catherine Middleton. Thirty years on from his parents’ wedding, Wills and Kate caught the public imagination. Here was the second in line to the throne marrying a commoner, a woman whose mother had been an air hostess. And while Kate wasn’t exactly common in the sense that common people understood the term (her father’s family had known royalty for generations, and she had been privately educated at Marlborough), the narrative was irresistible; the Daily Express saw ‘an ordinary girl marrying a prince as the ultimate victory of the classless, mobile society’.

In less robust good health, however, was the other institution without which a Jubilee was now unthinkable. Because while the royal family had been going from strength to strength, the BBC had been having a difficult time, and it started with monarchy.

Upsetting the government over coverage of Iraq didn’t much trouble the public; upsetting royalty, however, was something else altogether. In 2007 the BBC commissioned a documentary, A Year with the Queen, which included a sequence of Her Majesty being photographed by Annie Leibovitz; this was used in a trailer for the show. The footage, however, was heavily edited and shown out of sequence, so that it gave the impression of the Queen stomping prematurely out of the session. Or, as Peter Fincham, the controller of BBC One put it, it showed her ‘losing it a bit and walking out in a huff’. There was no truth to this insulting portrayal at all, and Fincham duly resigned.

Around the same time, the BBC itself broke a broadcasting scandal. Ever since the 1990s, some of the commercial channels had run prize-winning phone-in competitions with questions so simple that anyone could answer them. The point was that calls were to a premium-rate number, which was expensive, and which charged you even if you just got the pre-recorded message telling you that lines were busy.

This was a lucrative business; viewers of GMTV, which had the breakfast franchise at ITV, were reported to have spent £35 million over four years, calling in pursuit of prizes. The scandal came when Panorama revealed that sometimes lines were kept open even after winners had been selected, so that many of the calls stood literally no chance of being successful. The managing director of GMTV resigned in consequence, the company was fined £2 million, and promises were made to return the £35 million.

The BBC didn’t use premium-rate numbers, but it still got embroiled in the fallout of stories about rigged competitions, albeit in the most trivial manner. It emerged that the children’s show Blue Peter had invited viewers to name a new cat, and then ignored the people’s choice (either Cookie or Pussy, depending on whether one believed the BBC or the Sun), deciding instead to call it Socks. Kittengate, as some termed it, was perhaps the least scandalous scandal ever to scandalise the nation, but it broke at a time when there was much talk of breaches of trust between broadcasters and viewers.

‘In both politics and television, you devalue the only currency you have if you forfeit the trust of the public,’ pontificated the culture secretary, and future BBC executive, James Purnell. (Shortly afterwards came the story that he’d had a publicity photo doctored to show him at the opening of a hospital building, when he hadn’t actually been there.)

More serious for the BBC was the behaviour of some of its most highly paid employees. There was a huge row in 2008 when, in a fit of laddish banter, Radio 2 presenter Russell Brand and his guest Jonathan Ross left messages on the answerphone of actor Andrew Sachs, concerning his granddaughter, in what became known as Sachsgate. (‘He [Brand] fucked your granddaughter,’ was Ross’s most pithy contribution.) Both Brand and the Radio 2 controller resigned from the station, and Ross was suspended from the Corporation without pay for twelve weeks.

In a separate incident four months later, there were calls for the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson, after the Top Gear host referred to Gordon Brown as a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’ at a press conference in Australia. ‘It is an absolute outrage of the worst kind,’ stormed the former Scotland minister George Foulkes. (Interestingly, there hadn’t been the same level of press coverage – indeed, no press coverage at all – when Paul Merton joked on television that, being Scottish, Brown was ‘too mean to have two eyes’.)

Then there were the regular controversies over content, none bigger than the BBC’s screening in 2005 of Jerry Springer: The Opera, a work that, said the Sunday Times, ‘portrayed Jesus as a homosexual and contained some 400 swear words, including c*** and f***’. The piece was a satire of the media, but the depictions of God, Jesus and Mary were seen by many Christians as blasphemous; there were protests outside BBC premises, and 50,000 complaints were received even before the broadcast.

And behind the scenes, management and senior broadcasters indulged in agonised navel-gazing, in much the same way as did the upper echelons of the Church of England. The BBC took its social role very seriously, wishing to shape the nation as well as to reflect it, but, like many who advocated decent, liberal values, was sometimes capable of displaying both smugness and guilt.

On the one hand, there was the radio presenter in Bristol, who was secretly recorded booking a cab and asking that it not be one with an Asian driver. She was horrified that some saw this as racism. ‘I work at the BBC,’ she insisted. ‘I’m far from racist.’ Her bosses were less sure and sacked her.

And on the other hand, there were the regular self-denunciations. The corporation was ‘too male, too white, too middle-class, too middle-aged and too southern’, its director general John Birt had said in 1993, and two decades on, the same complaints were still being heard, particularly about Radio 4, which stood accused, said London’s Evening Standard, ‘of being too old, too middle-class and too white’.

This was despite strenuous efforts to make the BBC more vibrantly diverse; it became, said Andrew Marr, the former political editor: ‘a publicly funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large’. There was a limit to the diversity, however, and what didn’t seem so important was plurality of opinion; Sebastian Faulkes reflected that in the three decades he’d done work for the corporation, ‘I have never met a right-winger at the BBC’.

Being the BBC, it commissioned a sitcom, W1A, mocking its own culture of well-meaning, inefficient bureaucrats, and parodying the vacuous prattle of media management. ‘What is the BBC for?’ worries its newly appointed head of values, while another character is puzzled by the promotion of approved minorities in pursuit of social engineering: ‘Now we’re driving things up all over the place. I thought we were reflecting things…’

Despite all the furrowed brows, the one thing the BBC could always be counted on to deliver was a big set-piece royal occasion. So, after a difficult few years, the Diamond Jubilee should have been a chance for the BBC to redeem itself in public eyes. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.

The centrepiece of the celebrations was a pageant on the River Thames, with the world’s largest ever parade of boats, 670 of them: pleasure-boats and narrow-boats, barges and launches, war ships, steam ships, Dunkirk little ships, rowing-boats, fishing boats, Dragon boats, gondolas, skiffs and canoes. It was touching and impressive. But it was also very, very slow. Not the kind of thing that appealed to makers of modern television.

The BBC coverage was helmed not by one of what Tony Benn used to call the ‘hereditary Dimblebys’, but by newsreader Sophie Raworth and former Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker, and it was all generally considered to be a bit lightweight.

‘Was it just me, or did the Beeb’s coverage of the Jubilee Big Boat Challenge feel like a five-hour episode of The One Show?’ tweeted Jonathan Ross (now relocated to ITV). It was ‘dire’ and ‘undignified’, wrote columnists on the Daily Telegraph, ‘ignorant and inane’ according to the Daily Express. It spent too much time talking to celebrities, enthusing about the ‘amazing atmosphere’, and getting basic things wrong (it referred to Her Majesty as Her Royal Highness; it failed to correct a comment that the milliner who made Princess Kate’s hat had also ‘made Nelson’s hat for Waterloo’). ‘Has the BBC ever presented a more mind-numbingly tedious programme in its history?’ wondered Stephen Fry.

There was no doubt, though, that the Queen and the institution of royalty came across well. Historian David Starkey concluded that the monarchy looked good ‘because, bluntly, everyone else looks so bad – politicians, the media, the Church, all in crisis…’

coming soon:

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