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Why Everyone Seems to Hate the BBC

Simon Pitt | Television | Saturday 14th November 2009

The BBC is, in many ways, the perfect media corporation. It has no shareholders, and doesn't aim to make a profit. It puts all of its money back into making programmes. Theoretically, it is driven by quality, not viewing figures, and provides content that is impartial and free at point of service without adverts or sponsorship. It is watched over by the BBC Trust and has a Royal Charter that means that are certain things it has to do, regardless of the personalities of those at the top. It is the oldest media broadcaster in the world, and known and respected worldwide. In a recent survey, the BBC was the most trusted brand in the country (more trusted, even, than the National Trust).

Nevertheless, over the last few years, you haven't been able to open a newspaper without coming across someone ranting about the BBC. Of course, the BBC has always had its controversies. In the 1930s, suspected communists were blocked entry and officials stamped a green Christmas tree on the personal records of anyone suspicious. However, despite occasional allegations about the personal lives of Angus Deayton and Richard Bacon, the BBC sailed through unscathed. For around 60 years, the BBC was friendly old Auntie Beeb. Until 2003, that is, when this all changed.

In May 2003, the Andrew Gilligan reported on Radio 4's Today Programme, that the Government had "sexed up" the case for war. The claim that nuclear missiles could be launched with only 45 minutes notice had been added, and, Gilligan said, the person behind this was Alistair Campbell. (The BBC, of course, eventually got their revenge on Campbell by creating the gross caricature of him, Malcolm Tucker, in The Thick of It). The Government launched an enquiry (the British Government, it seems, could launch enquires with only 45 minutes notice) and David Kelly was named as the source. David Kelly's subsequent suicide (or "death in unusual circumstances" if you like conspiracy theories) caused the Government to appoint Lord Hutton to investigate the matter.

When Lord Hutton came back with his report, he blamed the BBC almost entirely. In some ways isn't that surprising, since the Government had appointed him in the first place. In the fallout from the report, Gavyn Davies, Chairman of the BBC, Greg Dyke, Director General of the BBC, and Andrew Gilligan all resigned. The subsequent (and largely unread) Butler report suggested that the Government had added the 45-minute claim "because of its eye-catching character". If you look this up in a thesaurus, you will see this is a synonym for "sexing up". But by this point, it was too late.

This wasn't the first time government pressure had caused a BBC Director General to resign: Alasdair Milne had left under pressure from Thatcher's government in 1987. However, in the intervening years the media had changed beyond recognition. The government was now the target of most newspapers. Its only option was to direct attention away from it, and onto the BBC.

Why the government hates the BBC:

The BBC's remit of impartiality is troublesome for the government, but this hasn't always been the case. John Pilger suggests that in the early days impartiality was secondary to supporting the establishment:
Lord John Reith [...] believed that impartiality and objectivity were the essence of professionalism. In the same year the British establishment was under siege. The unions had called a general strike and the Tories were terrified that a revolution was on the way. The new BBC came to their rescue. In high secrecy, Lord Reith wrote anti-union speeches for the Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and broadcast them to the nation, while refusing to allow the labour leaders to put their side until the strike was over. So, a pattern was set. Impartiality was a principle certainly: a principle to be suspended whenever the establishment was under threat.
However, this has all changed. The government is no longer a respected institution, but a big bag of sleaze and spin, and an easy target for lazy journalists. On the BBC, The Today Programme has been a cause of concern for the Government, due to its influence and rigorous reporting. The so-called "Big 8:10" interview, often with John Humphreys, can sink a political career (both Thatcher and Blair refused to ever appear on it; probably because they were too scared). Gilliam's 45-minute claim was too much for the government, mainly because it was too close to the truth.

Five years later, Britain was in trouble and the government even more so (since it was their fault). There was a world economic recession. This hit England particularly hard, mainly due to the economic policies of Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Luckily, on 18th October 2008, a late night show went out on Radio 2. The presenter was Russell Brand, with guess Jonathon Ross.

What better way to wriggle out of the media turmoil, than to distract everyone from the global economic crisis with the news that two comedians had left a rude message on the voice mail of an actor (an actor who was, incidentally, famous for playing a racist caricature of a Spanish waiter). Cue a media explosion after MPs managed to bring this up in the House of Commons. Once the story broke, politicians were falling over themselves to say just how much they didn't like the incident. Even Gordon Brown put his size 9s in, saying it was "clearly inappropriate and unacceptable". Maybe he should have been putting more time in to doing something about the recession, rather the providing insipid soundbites about something that had nothing to do with him. Poor old Mark Thompson even had to come back from his holiday. This was perfect for MPs, because it meant that when the MPs expense scandal broke the following year, they could shift the attention to the BBC by complaining about their expenses. The irony was that only expense they could really complain about was Mark Thompson's last minute flight booking for his journey home, which they had created.

Since the 45-minute claim, creating media thunderstorms out of minor BBC transgressions has become a pattern. Even the Blue Peter Cat, Cookie or Socks or whatever his name is, hasn't been immune as Government PR companies have gone into overdrive to get the Government off the front page.

The BBC is, in two words, a Government scapegoat.

Why the media hates the BBC:

The BBC is, in some ways, the only media company with a working business model. They don't aim to make a profit, and they don't charge for using any of their services. Instead, they charge a flat yearly fee, which they have been charging for more of less the last 80 years. Moreover, the fee is enforced by a fleet of TV detector tanks. The World Service is funded by a grant from the Government (i.e., a tax), so they have the whole weight of the Government and law behind them. On top of this, the BBC has three commercial, profit-making arms: BBC Worldwide, BBC Studios and Post Production and Global News.

Since they don't aim to make a profit, the BBC can provide their content free online (at least, they can if they own the copyright). Consequently, the BBC website (and the news site in particular) is the seventh most visited site in the UK. It dwarfs all attempts by other newspapers. This angers companies like News Corp, since they charge for their channels and want to start charging for news. The BBC drives James Murdoch mad. This led to his ill-conceived rant at Edinburgh against "state sponsored news" (which the BBC isn't).

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, like all newspapers is struggling. Online news (not just the BBC) is driving newspaper sales down. Their strategy is to recycle a few tired old headlines that they know will whip up the slightly right leaning middle classes that read their papers. Having exhausted Princess Diana, the BBC is the next easiest target. All companies are wasteful. Since the BBC is public funded, they can easily find somewhere where they waste money and then and whip up a storm of anger from their readers.

This has led to some quite bizarre stories. A number of newspapers ran stories about BBC expenses, but struggled to find outrageous claims. They made a valiant effort to whip up a storm of anger about Mark Thompson claiming 70p for parking, or Jana Bennett claiming for half the excess on her stolen handbag. This ignores the fact that total BBC executive expenses equalled £363,963; roughly the equivalent of the expense claims of, say, MPs Eric Joyce (backbench MP for Falkirk) and Michael Connarty (backbench MP for Linlithgow & Falkirk East). Interestingly, the Guardian Article on BBC expenses was flooded with public comments that this was "a non-story" and that the expenses were perfectly reasonable.

Why the public hate the BBC:

The public largely hate the BBC because they are stupid.

In a recent survey, one interviewee said he didn't watch any BBC programmes, he only watched Eastenders (which is, of course, on BBC One). Someone else said he only watched National Geographic and UK Gold, not realising that they show mainly repeats of BBC programmes. This has led the BBC to stick "the blocks" (the BBC logo) on everything so us idiot consumers know just how good the BBC is.

Most members of the public also moan that the BBC doesn't make any good programmes anymore, and will hark back to the days of "The Two Ronnies", "Monty Python" and "Morecombe and Wise". What we want, say the public, is the BBC to repeat archive shows. This ignores is the huge complexities behind copyright. Moreover, despite what the public think, they don't really want to watch archive shows at all. Radio 7 broadcasts repeat programmes 24 hours a day and Dave is forever farting out old programmes, and neither station achieves particularly high viewing figures. Michael Grade tells the story of how when he was Director of Programmes he was continually pestered to repeat "The Prisoner". When he eventually did repeat it, the viewing figures was appalling (what he fails to say is that he repeated it at 1 AM).

Nevertheless repeats are rarely popular. The reason is, most programmes from the "golden age" of television aren't as good as people remember, mainly because all you remember are the bits you see on "best of shows". The vast majority of so-called "classic shows" are either drab, bland or, more often than not, racist and unbroadcastable.

Meanwhile, the media has whipped up the public to think that the BBC is wasting its money, and due to general lack of knowledge about broadcasting or copyright, the public think the BBC is perversely ignoring what they want.

Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely, vast swathes of the public suffer from a type of jealousy, sitting at home in their armchairs muttering "I could write something better than that." Yeah, well if you could, why don't you then? A while back, I spoke to an organiser of BBC competitions who said that competitions that require even a modicum of effort attract a tiny number of entries. If it's one of those idiot-fest competitions (which isn't actually allowed on the BBC due to their regulations for competitions) where you have to say what colour the sky is, you'll get hundreds of thousands of entries. But, as soon as the public have to do something more than dial a number, the volume of entries drops off significantly.

Why the BBC hates the BBC:

The Evening Standard ran a two-part article recently which took the unique point of view of looking at the BBC from the inside.

The article begins with one insider telling an "anecdote" about Jana Bennett. The anecdote runs roughly along the lines of: I saw Jana Bennett the other day and thought "What does she actually do for the BBC? What is the point of her?". Not exactly the most illustrative of stories.

Nevertheless, the Evening Standard article reveals two levels of the BBC: the senior managers (of which there are hundreds if not thousands of overpaid executives) and the actual workers (who, largely, are underpaid).

Those at the top are terrified of the Daily Mail. Their worst fear is something like the Ross/Brand incident happening again. This, in turn, leads them not to trust anyone, and so they put in systems and restrictions to vet everything that goes out. They prevent those lower down spending money without going through rigorous processes and they require all programmes to be signed off by multiple staff for "compliance."

Meanwhile, all of this is further angering those lower down the chain. Compliance and bureaucracy cripples their ability to do their job. Moreover, since they are not part of the powerful elite at the top they feel disenfranchised and distrusted. What makes this worse is the culture in the BBC of short, fixed-term contracts, and employing people who are over qualified for their jobs. Since there's so much competition to work at the BBC (the public don't hate it so much they don't want to work there), they can hand pick their staff.

Furthermore, the BBC, as a public funded institution, has to be careful about how it spends its money. This leads to layers and layers of auditing and checking, and to projects being cancelled or blocked by the BBC Trust or the competitions committee (as was the case with the doomed, but probably excellent, Project Kangaroo). The fact that this wastes even more time and money and effort is beside the point.

Why everyone loves the BBC really:

What this article belies is the fact that everyone loves the BBC. I was on a westbound central line tube train the other day, and as we pulled in at White City a group of teenage girls who had been happily pulling each other's hair and screaming abuse suddenly stopped when they caught site of TV Centre. The reason people are so interested in articles about the BBC is because they love it so much. It is, after all, the most trusted brand in the country and, as I said above, job applications still come pouring in. An entry-level job as a broadcast assistant at 6Music recently received 2,000 applications for one position.

Political shenanigans aside, there is a huge amount of love for the BBC. Newspapers may whip up a storm against the BBC, but that is because they are fighting against it. The BBC does, after all, offer, for free, high quality programmes and independent journalism. It's no wonder, then, that its commercial rivals hate it so much. In our current culture of commercialism, it's easy to forget that the BBC came first. ITV was set up to allow commercial competition to see if they could make a profit by competing against the BBC. Nowadays, the competitions commission reins the BBC back. The original intention was for commercial broadcasters to fill the gaps the BBC couldn't reach. Now the onus is on the BBC not to tread on the toes of its commercial rivals. When people complain about the BBC, in most cases, their complaint isn't the fault of the BBC, but the fault of restrictions put upon it from outside.

The thing is, against all the odds, and despite (or in spite of) the senior management, the BBC makes rather good programmes. As one BBC insider said to the Evening Standard: "the BBC is a horrendous institution that happens to make rather good programmes".

SP



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