The BBC – a flawed institution but worth preserving
by David Morgan
Sun 27th Dec 2015
An important national institution, the BBC's model of public service broadcasting funded by the license fee gives it a notional independence from the state and allows it to operate at arm's length from government.
While this editorial independence might not stand up to detailed scrutiny, as in many essential matters it adopts a perspective that is overtly oriented towards supporting free market liberalism and Cold War foreign policy (there is clear continuity, for example, in its fierce anti-Soviet and anti-Russian positions), the existence of the BBC is still worth defending.
The concept of a broadcasting system not totally dominated by market forces is valuable in that it allows programme makers the freedom to experiment and take risks that is simply not available to them in the ratings-driven commercial sector.
The presence of the BBC, it can be argued, also acts as a benchmark and standard for the entire broadcasting industry forcing the commercial channels to emulate the quality and diversity of the schedules and programmes that the BBC makes.
While the left rightly deplores the pronounced political bias of flagship news programmes such as BBC-2’s Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today, which became all too blatant in the negative reporting of the new Labour leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell, we should not forget the progressive and innovative role played by the BBC in many areas throughout its history. The major contribution of the BBC to culture over the post-war period has been particularly impressive.
It is well worth reminding ourselves of the nature and range of some of the best BBC's innovative programmes in the fields of drama, music and documentary.
Take the modern drama produced in the '60s and '70s when a platform was given to new writers and original writing in The Wednesday Play and Play for Today series.
These series gave unique opportunities to a seemingly endless list of talented writers such as David Mercer, Dennis Potter, Harold Pinter, David Hare, Howard Brenton, Mike Leigh, David Rudkin and Alan Bennett.The themes that they covered in their plays were often provocative, contemporary and highly political.
Some of the authors who began their careers in television are still working today but more often for the stage and screen, while others have sadly been largely forgotten. Most of David Mercer's original scripts were made for television and, as such, have not been revived, but his challenging body of work dealt with key themes such as changing social morality, class, war and revolution. To cite one example, Let’s Murder Vivaldi, a satire from 1968, with a young Glenda Jackson and Denholm Elliott, deals with women’s liberation and infidelity. Mercer’s script is as good as any by Pinter, Shaw or Chekhov. An astute theatre director should revive it.
Leading film directors such as Alan Bridges, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Alan Clarke also developed their skills with apprentice work on BBC drama productions.
Many of these gritty realistic dramas are now over 30 or 40 years old but still retain their freshness and make much modern television appear extremely tame and formulaic by comparison. Fortunately, many of these productions can be found on YouTube or in the BFI online archive, so they are not entirely lost.
The impact of the BBC in shaping musical tastes and opening up broadcasting to new music should not be underestimated. In popular music such as rock and alternative rock, the late John Peel’s show, which aired on Radio One for about 30 years, was immensely influential in assisting the careers of many independent musicians to break through and reach a wider appreciative audience. Peel achieved a cult following.
The role of Radio Three in giving airtime to often quite obscure classical music and to "new music" should also be recognised.Where else would you be able to listen to a full uninterrupted opera on the radio?
With regards to documentaries, the BBC has been a vital innovator, with programmes on the natural world and science fronted by presenters such Attenborough, Jonathan Miller (The Body in Question), the late James Burke (Connections) and many others. Historical documentaries from classics such as Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man to more recent series by Michael Wood (on ancient history), Terry Jones (on the medieval period) and Jonathan Meades (on architecture) have proved highly educational for a mass audience.
A common feature of all these programmes is that they have never sought to patronise the viewer and have succeeded in putting across complex ideas in a highly popular and compelling format. The reason that these broadcasters had been able to innovate in the first place is a direct consequence of the existence of public service broadcasting. The Tories, who disapprove of the masses having free access to knowledge, must not be allowed to destroy the BBC. For all its flaws, it is well worth preserving.