02 April 2007

Lord Reith's Legacy 1938-2007

Lord ReithThe legacy of former Director General of the BBC John Reith, the belief that the purpose of the British Broadcasting Corporation was to "inform, educate and entertain" passed away this weekend after suffering an apoplectic fit while reading that the BBC considers itself "too upmarket".

Lord Reith's Legacy was born in 1938 when the Director General quit his former BBC home for pastures new1 leaving behind him a broadcasting organisation imbued with the, perhaps naive, belief that sometimes people deserve more than they want and that, by producing a broad range of programming including material that might occasionally be in danger of stretching viewers' and listeners' minds and exposing them to new thoughts and ideas, the Corporation could perform a great service to the nation.

For decade after decade, Lord Reith's Legacy saw the BBC building its reputation as one of the world's most respected broadcasters, cleaving to such traditional values as tolerance and respect for others and to its belief that the communication of knowledge is a noble goal, while seeking to bind together the whole nation even in the face of the blight of war, national disaster and the birth of Noel Edmonds.

Year after year the BBC went about its business of informing, educating and entertaining the nation, showering it with the plays of John Osborne, David Hare, Willy Russell, Mike Leigh and Dennis Potter, ground-breaking series like Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation, the satire of That Was The Week That Was and Not the Nine O'Clock News, comedy like Hancock's Half Hour and and the genius of Morecambe and Wise, popular science programming like Tomorrow's World and QED, innovative and penetrating arts programming like Monitor and Arena, films by Ken Russell and Ken Loach, popular dramas from Troy Kennedy Martin, Nigel Kneale, Alan Bleasdale et al. And all this in the face of unending attack from left, right and middle, whether as a "slave of the establishment" or a "member of the politically correct subsidariat".

Despite threats from elected leaders as diverse as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher (not to mention unelected ones like Alastair Campbell), John Reith's legacy soldiered on, willing to fight for some semblance of quality programming, encouraging ITV to follow suit with such excellent programmes as World in Action, Survival, The Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited and moving Channel 4 to heights of radical invention as it sought out new ways to speak to the less represented members of the nation.

A televisionAs the years passed, however, the old lion of broadcasting began to age. As its mane became shaggier and its claws less sharp, so a young rival began to bare its teeth. Roaring out a cry of "Foul" at the BBC's license-fee funded programming (whilst making no mention of its own ability to cross-fund itself from the profits - barely taxed by any country - of News International) BSkyB leapt in to make its challenge. Bellowing its buzzwords of "choice" and "diversity" (and keeping absolutely schtum about "low quality" or "expensive subscriptions") it offered a new kind of leadership to the broadcasting pride, a leadership built on the desire to lay one's paws on the largest possible audience, whatever the price. Unhindered by any duty to public service broadcasting, proudly boasting a flagship channel built solely around repeats of The Simpsons and imported sci-fi and backed by the furious might of The Sun, The Times and The News of the World, Sky assaulted Lord Reith's Legacy again and again. Unchallenged by a spineless and spavined regulator, enslaved by an unthinking love for a market most free, or by an eternally prostrate government, desperate to be anointed by the blessed Murdoch, Sky's ascendancy was unstoppable. Soon the other channels fell into place, shuffling their documentaries off to the outer boundaries of the schedules, quietly murdering their arts programmes in their sleep, bludgeoning their science programming with voyeuristic tales of freaks masquerading as sensitive explorations of medical problems.

At last, even the BBC itself - Lord Reith's great gift to the nation - was to fall. Beaten into submission by the unceasing attacks of the press, the vindictiveness of a government unable to forget the BBC's temerity in questioning its desire for war in Iraq, a Chancellor eager to sit at Mr Murdoch's right hand and the cack-handedness of its leader, Mark "Bite Your Arms Off" Thompson, the ageing Corporation at last buckled at the knee and bowed its head. Its concession in an official report that it provided too much "Today" programme and too little Chris Moyles was too heavy a burden for Lord Reith's legacy to bear: on reading the news, the Legacy was stricken by both a heart attack and the massive electro-magnetic forces generated by Lord Reith himself revolving in his grave.

Lord Reith's Legacy will be buried at All Souls Church, Langham Place opposite Broadcasting House. It was predeceased by foreign language films on terrestrial TV, intelligent science programmes on TV, original plays on TV, high-quality arts programming on TV, probing celebrity interviews on TV, intelligent documentaries unrelated to the Nazis or Al Qaida on TV and any kind of programming which might - however briefly - force the viewer to do anything beyond sitting slack-jawed on their sofa and letting the last of their atrophied brain cells drool out onto the floor from their limp lips whilst watching Graham Norton scouring the internet for transsexual Alsatians and alfalfa farmers who dress up as Wonder Woman.

Lord Reith's Legacy is survived by an unmitigated diet of soap opera, cop shows and hospital shows, endless Big Brother, a half-hour Panorama, Horizon presented by Tinky-Winky, Fearne Cotton, Celebrity Fame Academy and Chris Moyles's jackboot stamping on the face of humanity - for ever.

1 (and, admittedly, the chance to write extensive diary entries praising Adolf Hitler)

1 Comment:

Dumbo said...

R I P