Armed with an overwhelming mandate (a 12 seat majority) and mass popular support (36% of the vote), the Tories are wasting no time waging war on their traditional pet hates: the poor, the sick, the young, the vulnerable…and the BBC.
Culture secretary John Whittingdale has announced a “root and branch” review of every aspect of the BBC, to be conducted by eight hand-picked “experts”. These include a former head of Channel 5, a former head of Classic FM, a former executive of a Murdoch company, the late Leon Brittan’s (1939-2015) press officer, the chair of the Banking Standards Board and the owner of a smartphone app. In the past Whittingdale has made no secret of his hostility to the licence fee and indeed the entire concept of public service broadcasting. It’s safe to say the BBC, like a venerable maiden aunt with bleeding bunions doggy-paddling in shark infested waters, is in a bit of trouble.
A key part of the review is to examine the BBC’s supposed “leftwing bias” – a Tory lietmotif since, since…well, since when? Why on earth does this absolute bastion of the establishment, this cringing supplicant to royalty and privilege, this volume manufacturer of Britishness and all its baggage, this epitome of cultural conservatism, this super-effective state propaganda machine, enrage Tories so much?
The answer is two-fold. Firstly, because Tories are profoundly stupid. One of their elemental stupidities is to embalm a version of the past that they themselves concocted, for reasons long forgotten and irrelevant today anyhow, and then refuse to ever, ever let it go – because to do so would be to admit fundamental flaws in the whole blinkered rigidity of the Tory mentality. One of the most cherished of these Tory myths is the idea that the Beeb is some sort of 5th Column of leftists, or “pinko commies” as frothing-at-the-mouth Daily Telegraph readers like to put it. This laughably wide of the mark notion can be dated back to the 1960s, the decade demonised by every Tory since Thatcher, and the reign of Hugh Carleton Greene (1910-1987) as Director-General of the BBC. Greene had the temerity to drag the Corporation into the 20th century by introducing programmes for a slightly wider catchment than that reached by impossibly plummy people being deferential in dinner jackets and ball gowns. Despite playing only a peripheral and cautious role in swinging sixties liberalisation – essentially the long-overdue introduction to the small screen of perennial rightwing fixations: satire, swearing and sex – the BBC was never forgiven, and its irredeemable leftiness became a Tory article of faith, bashed into immutable principle by the priggish Watch Committee Methodism and corner-shop authoritarianism of deranged bossyboots Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013).
The BBC has long since been cowed and intimidated into box-ticking, pussy-footing blandness, but nevertheless still gets accused of this legendary leftwing bias. I’ve been examining the non-news schedule of flagship channel BBC1 to see if it’s true:
9.15 Fake Britain
“Inform, educate, entertain”? More like “Conceal, brainwash, bore” in this piss-poor consumer affairs programme which blithely disregards the brazen fraudulence of an economic system predicated on the profit motive, and instead shoots fish in a barrel hounding pipsqueak lowlifes who flog miracle baldness cures, anti-freeze masquerading as gin and lamb curry made from beef. Making Watchdog look like World in Action, Fake Britain casts not a shadow of doubt over consumerism itself, lets big business totally off the hook and implies that the only problem with capitalism is a few bad apples – not of course the rotten barrel. What a rightwing distortion!
10.00 Homes Under The Hammer
Sickening property porn gleefully rubber-stamping cherished neo-con ‘housing ladder’ dogma that spreads misery, injustice and inequality across the UK. Homes are treated as a sure-fire chance for the already-loaded to make a fast buck rather than as a basic human right that should never be left to ‘market forces’. Rightwing to its callous, crass core.
11.00 Close Calls: On Camera
The idea that the BBC should provide ‘something for everyone’ because we all pay the licence fee has long been a source of tension between the patriarchal elitists and the condescending paternalists within the Corporation. More than ever before that universal service principle is under full-frontal attack. The Tories owe their power to the unstinting support of Murdoch’s media empire – and now it’s pay-back time. The aim is to remove the last obstacle to the commercial channels’ complete monopoly of the lucrative lowest-common-denominator demographic by restricting the BBC to ‘highbrow’ ghetto programming nobody else will do because advertisers aren’t interested (Michael Portillo boarding a train, Brian Cox gaping in wonder, Fiona Bruce braying to autocue, that sort of stuff). This will inevitably pave the way for the subscription-only service Whittingdale craves. Typically clueless, the Beeb gives Whittingdale ammunition with programmes like this vicarious fodder copied and pasted off YouTube. The thumpingly formulaic trash, pitched at the late-rising non-employed with jaded nervous systems and fronted by Auntie’s approved Welshwoman Alex Jones, wouldn’t look out of place at 3am on TruTV. The underlying themes (people are marvellous and it will all end happily ever after) are essentially rightwing in their gung-ho positivity and infantile predestination, let alone their demonstrable wrongness.
11.30 Heir Hunters
Shameless materialism and something-for-nothing greed dressed in a throwaway patina of ‘probate research’. All the usual cliches of the ‘reality’ genre are present and correct: ‘coming up’ teasers, repeated recaps of what you’ve just seen, a trilogy of crude linear narratives and artificially-imposed deadlines to add tension. The viewer is treated like a venal, shallow idiot, itching to dance on someone’s grave for a windfall. Profoundly rightwing.
12.15 Bargain Hunt
Yet another celebration of consumerism, profiteering and the BBC’s overarching daytime subject: money. This time furniture and cluttery nick-nacks are monetised in a fatuous competition format, inconsequential lipservice is paid to history and Tim Wonnacott chews scenery as the relentlessly jolly host – posh but with eccentric touches for the common herd (a bow-tie and a ‘tache). Considering that, at this time of day, TVs are only blaring in the communal lounges of geriatric care homes and the temporary lodgings of the subsisting underclass, this is nasty, rubbing-your-nose-in-it scheduling, saturated in how-the-other-half-live passivity. Rightwing? With knobs on!
Blessed relief from the money-mad onslaught comes with this long-running coma ‘n’ catheta soap. Production values are rudimentary, characters are cardboard cut-out ciphers and melodramatic exposition sits uneasily with perfunctory helpline health messages, but nevertheless Doctors is a great training ground for actors, writers and technicians. Since it’s set in an NHS hospital not a private Harley Street clinic, and thus by default doesn’t denigrate a vital public service, Doctors is probably considered raging Trotskyism by the Tories even though it’s merely middle-of-the-road milk-and-water.
2.15 The Link
Unfathomable quiz show where three teams compete for lovely CASH!! So excruciating I watched through my fingers. Where do they find these people? The twee, contrived, agonisingly slow format rewards an encyclopaedic knowledge of useless ‘celebrity’ trivia, corrals contestants into the awkwardly mannered behaviour of blushing debutantes at a 1950s Hunt Ball and emanates an unmistakeably rightwing vibe.
3.00 Escape To The Country
Incredibly, more property porn. The premise is toxic: repellent middle-class couples from prosperous parts of England use vast equity lucked out from the insane casino of the ‘housing market’ to downsize to rural paradise, abetted by a roster of ‘experts’ straight from the Beeb’s Presenters Training School (Rules: grin unceasingly, wave arms about, speak as if addressing a baby). Often it is to the peaceful beauty of Wales that the smug parasites retreat – an unremarkable semi in the Home Counties being worth whole blocks of streets in Merthyr. Not a scintilla of interest or concern is expressed about the communities where they arrogantly parachute. There is no such thing as society on Escape To The Country, just price ratios. Could not be more rightwing.
3.45 The Instant Gardener
The dull formulas keep on coming. Here the knackered old ‘garden transformation’ standby is resurrected for another walk in the park. Quick! The clock is ticking and that Basingstoke roof’s got to get a makeover before hard-working Aimee gets home! Who watches this pap? Certainly not anyone interested in gardening: there’s virtually no horticultural content and in any case there is no such thing as an “instant” garden much less gardener. No, it’s just the BBC chucking a morsel at another perceived strata of licence payers, focus-group determined and entirely imaginary: the superannuated green-fingered who have their evening meal early. Because one of the presenters is black, lumpen Tories would count this as another example of “political correctness gone mad!” at the BBC, but with its feel-good vacuousness and all-in-this-together mindlessness The Instant Gardener is in fact very Cameronian.
4.30 Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Just like Bargain Hunt shown earlier, except fleecing people for personal gain takes place at car-boot sales not auction rooms. The BBC at its worst, from the preposterous semi-orgasmic intonations of the hideous presenters to the line-up of terminally conventional antiques experts self-consciously trying to be ‘wacky’ and ‘eccentric’ (the BBC is the upper-class English twit’s last habitat on Earth). Despicably rightwing – and proud of it.
Alexander Armstrong (private boarding school, Trinity College Cambridge, Footlights) and Richard Osman (independent selective school, Trinity College Cambridge, Footlights) exchange stilted banter presiding over a gormless game show. Game shows and quizzes have been a staple of TV schedules since ITV was launched in 1955. They’re cheap to make, they’re unfailingly popular (even I occasionally catch University Challenge, to casually out-perform the young fogeys) and the participants don’t get paid – perfect! Actually the sole area of BBC programming where Tory accusations of lefty bias have some basis is in comedy panel games like Have I Got News For You, Mock The Week, The News Quiz, etc. But that’s only because Conservatives can’t do funny, since being pro-establishment is wholly incompatible with the subversiveness that is at the heart of comedy. And when they do make an attempt they sound like Bernard Manning (1930-2007).
7.00 The Sheriffs Are Coming
This slot is normally reserved for The One Show, so-British-it-hurts candyfloss fronted by the grating Chris Evans (the BBC pays him £2 million a year – well, that’s the cost of “talent”) and Auntie’s approved Welshwoman (see above). While that crock of shit has a summer break we get ridiculously macho bailiffs, court enforcement officers and debt-collectors noisily rampaging around London kicking homeless people out of squats, seizing the pitiful possessions of desperate scavengers and generally taking sledgehammers to crack nuts. All is cheered on by a demotic voice-over that PUTS the STRESS on EVERY other WORD while competing against an incessant soundtrack of flagrantly manipulative muzak. According to the BBC these goons are “on your side”. Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) said something similar about the SS. Fanatically far-right.
8.00 Don’t Tell The Bride
Shifted to BBC1 from ‘yoof’ channel BBC3, this is a hymn of praise to traditional conservative totems like gender division, sexist stereotypes, conspicuous consumption, status-seeking and the institution of marriage itself, as well as an extended free advertisement for the booming wedding industry. It’s now the norm for indoctrinated young idiots to fork out £10,000 on their “special day” because, because…well because programmes like Don’t Tell The Bride have told them it’s the norm. Deeply reactionary rightwing propaganda.
9.00 The Interceptor
We’re past the watershed: adult programming can commence! This Wednesday night saw the final episode of a seen-it-all-before cop drama that has deservedly received a critical panning. Every cliche of the threadbare genre is duly observed – including the one that portrays policemen as rebellious, counter-cultural, hunky mavericks with a burning passion for truth and justice. None I’ve encountered have been remotely like that. Evenin’ all.
10.35 Cashing In
Yes, it’s back to money. Running with the fox and chasing with the hounds as usual (they call it “impartiality”), the BBC now gets down and dirty in pawn shops for a startlingly uninteresting hour of voyeuristic, analysis-free, fly on the wall ‘structured reality’. It’ll be useful filler on one of the BBC’s many part-owned digital commercial channels by the autumn. For now this will have to serve as the solitary instance of reds-under-the-bed all day – and that’s only because it tacitly acknowledges the existence of poverty. Sure to get Tories fulminating; after all Iain Duncan Smith officially eradicated child poverty only this month (he changed the definition).
11.35 Britain At The Bookies
Bookies and punters try to win – yawn – money. Instead of a much-needed examination of the gambling industry and the multitude of broken addicts it exploits in working-class areas, this completely insubstantial and lacklustre PR job for Coral concentrates on finding “characters” (invariably amiable, attention-seeking mediocrities) while letting this particularly venal branch of the leisure industry off without so much as a raised eyebrow. Disgraceful and, naturally, rightwing.
So, by any reckoning, this snapshot of one day in the life of BBC1 shows that Tory accusations of leftwing bias do not stand up to the least scrutiny. This brings me to the second reason why Tories pick on the BBC. Manufactured complaints, whipped up at the behest of the BBC’s commercial rivals, keep the Corporation toeing the line, self-censoring and second-guessing, and keep driving the political spectrum rightwards. The right already have overwhelming control of the media, but that’s not enough. They live in permanent fear that the elite’s criminal conspiracy against the people will be rumbled, and cannot rest until the last vestiges of independent public service broadcasting are eliminated. Karl Marx (1818-1883) was spot on: capitalism will eat itself. Pip…pip…pip…pip…pip…