Throw Yentob to the wolves - but don't chuck the overweight BBC baby out with the bathwater

EDITOR'S BLOG: Working out how to fashion a BBC fit for the 21st century will take wisdom, sensitivity and patience

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 18 Aug 2015

I went to a Prom last night. Alongside many late middle-aged white guys up from Godalming in their short-sleeved shirts, slacks and Cornish pasty shoes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The Peter Grimes Overtures were sublime. The talented and impossibly glam Nicola Benedetti doing Korngold was terrific. Prokofiev’s 5th - almost certainly signed off by Uncle Joe Stalin - was more take-it-or-leave-it, Soviet heroic bombast. But the whole thing was, as ever, amazingly well done, right down to the programme notes.

As I was its guest, it made me think about the future of the BBC. Auntie is not in a very good place at the moment. Her brood feels very fed up, unloved and anxious about the future. They cower in the trenches waiting for the next spiteful salvo from The Daily Mail to come in.

They don’t appear all that hopeful about their new minister for Culture, Media & Sport John Whittingdale, although they acknowledge he’s rather more interested and engaged than his predecessor Sajid Javid was. In fact, they seem to think if they stand a chance of avoiding complete dismemberment, partial salvation may come from Cameron and Osborne themselves who might show some mercy and call the attack dogs of the free market right off before Tony Hall, Evan Davies and Alan Yentob are torn limb from limb. (It looks as if Yentob is making a pretty good job of self-destruction with his handling of the Kid’s Company debacle, anyway.)

Not enough that we do in the UK is world-class these days, but quite a lot of BBC output still is. Almost anyone from other European countries, with their dreadful state-subsidised broadcasters, thinks the BBC is admirable. BBC Worldwide makes an absolute fortune peddling the wares across the globe and will continue to do so without further input from the underling-punching Jeremy Clarkson.

The Beeb’s problem is that the days of it having a go at everything are now well and truly over. It used to be able to place its tanks on anyone’s lawn - from magazine and web publishers like us, to educational businesses and live music producers.

On the sport front things look especially grim. There is next to no live football to speak of, so Gary Lineker sits twiddling his fingers. Discovery has nabbed the Olympics from 2022.  We’re offered a load of athletics that nobody apart from Brendan Foster gets excited about.

There will always be Wimbledon. But look what they did with that this year. Using the well-worn philosophy of ‘If it moves: throw Clare Balding at it’, they made a right monkey’s lunch of the whole thing. The new look emerged as well thought through as ‘Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank.’

However, following a bellyful of Sky Ashes cricket coverage I found myself at my in-laws for the final day of the 4th test and so tuned into Test Match Special with Aggers, Blowers and Tuffers. The Saturday morning hour I spent with them celebrating rubbing Mitchell Johnson’s  nose into the popping crease was little short of heavenly.

TMS is a programme that could not exist anywhere else - it’s been carefully nurtured over decades and been allowed to develop into the bizarrely eccentric happening that it now is. It is almost Beckettian - like ‘Waiting For Godot’ in whites on grass. And it is listened to by around four million people during the Ashes. That is more than eight times as many people as watched Sky on the Saturday of the First Test. When Channel 4 had the cricket years back in 2005 they could only manage two million free to air.   

But herein lies the problem. Everyone will have their favourite bit of the BBC, without which they simply could not go on living. I’d pay the licence fee for TMS and the Today programme alone. But it cannot work like that. Not unless we all adopt some fearfully complex on-demand micro payment system. I haven’t watched BBC1, for example, for years and, as far as i’m concerned you can stuff ‘Strictly’ and all that ‘Bake Off’ reality pap. But the BBC is a universal broadcaster there for all of us, like the NHS, to accompany/carry us from the cradle to the grave. But unlike the NHS is it not ring fenced and the cutting knives are out.  

One thing that has to be spared more salami-slicing is the World Service. There’s a pretty strong argument that the need for increased Russian language stuff, for example, is at its strongest since Stalin and Prokofiev’s time. Putin’s propaganda machine is slick, nasty and all-controlling. When it comes to cleverly-wielded soft Brit power the World Service has no equal.

Sorting out the BBC requires a realistic wisdom and a high degree of sensitivity. There is going to have to be some give and take. But we need to be very careful indeed as we approach the renewal - or not - of the BBC’s charter. One shouldn’t forget the words of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’:

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Now I’m not claiming Blowers, Bruce Forsyth and Huw Edwards are paradisical. But we have a dreadful history of wilfully trashing cultural artefacts and institutions that are valuable in our country and then deeply regretting it later. And once they are paved-over it’s usually  impossible to get them back.

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