The BBC: there is no agenda

A question for all those who think the Beeb is just one big liberal-left conspiracy: have you actually watched TV lately?

Patrick West

Patrick West

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There is a longstanding myth that the BBC is a propaganda mouthpiece for the liberal-left. This kind of thing is habitually claimed in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Spectator and even in the letters page of the Radio Times. While I sympathise with much of the criticism that is made of the Beeb, I sometimes wonder whether right-wing critics of the Corporation actually watch any of its television output.

This came to mind last Sunday as I was spending an idle day watching BBC2. The afternoon schedule on 17 January featured: 12.15pm – The Way To the Stars (Second World War drama); 2.00pm – Snooker; 4.45pm – Ski Sunday; 5.15pm – The Three Musketeers (swashbuckling historical drama); 6.35pm – Top Gear (Jeremy Clarkson tests a BMW X6, Richard Hammond tries out a £340,000 Lexus and James May drives the Vauxhall Insignia VXR); 8.00pm – Snooker; 11.00pm – Massacre in Rome (Second World War drama).

Call me stupid, but I can’t see any evidence of a left-wing agenda here. Quite the opposite. BBC2 on Sundays should be renamed ‘The Dad Channel’. If it’s not showing war films, cars and snooker, it’s showing darts, rugby league or Match of The Day 2. BBC2 on Sundays is clearly aimed at the kind of bloke who spends his Saturdays sitting in his shed reading Autotrader, while listening to some inane rambling football phone-in show on BBC Radio Five Live. BBC television’s output is far removed from a Guardian-reader’s fantasy.

So what’s the source of this illusion that the BBC is institutionally left-wing? I suspect it comes from people who don’t actually watch BBC television, like the licence-dodging Charles Moore, but who probably listen to Today, Start the Week and Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 in the mornings, and occasionally dip into some play in the afternoon which is usually about some anguished lesbians/ethnic minorities, followed in the evening by comedies which feature that awful, cliched punchline about ‘Daily Mail readers’. Yes, Radio 4 is clearly left-wing. But it is not representative of the Corporation’s output; it is only representative of what its right-wing critics listen to.

BBC-knockers should not only digest a bit of BBC2 or Radio Five Live to appreciate just how conservative is most of the BBC’s fare. They should also tune in to BBC1 on Sundays. There is The Big Questions, a light show about religion (sorry, ‘ethics’), two programmes about the countryside (Country Tracks and Countryfile), more religion-lite in the form of Songs of Praise, further nostalgia in the guise of The Antiques Roadshow, concluded inevitably by yet another period drama remake of a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel. Then, during the week, we have The One Show, a classically tabloid example of tele-journalism. And then there is EastEnders, the perpetual moral of which is that there’s nothing more important than ‘faaaamily’ and that there’s nothing worse than a grass/paedophile* (*delete as appropriate). In Albert Square, the worst moral transgression is being ‘out of order’.

Radio Five Live speaks for itself, it being a repository for callers who repeat their indignant feelings about ‘that goal never being offside’ or mandatory, repetitive observations to the effect of ‘we’ve got the technology now to have replays in soccer, so why don’t we use it?’. Sometimes, listening to and watching the BBC’s output feels like being subjected to the musings of a London taxi-cab driver.

Yes, Jonathan Ross got paid too much and he shouldn’t have made those phone calls. Yes, Jenni Murray is a pain in the neck and James Naughtie really needs to be told when to shut up. Agreed: if any member of Mock the Week makes another joke about Daily Mail readers, Stephen Hawking’s voice and/or mobility, or Stevie Wonder’s eyesight, I will put my foot through the TV set. Jeremy Clarkson is a repository of the absurd. And yes, the BBC is bloated and introspective. But its introspection can often be its virtue. What other institution would have such openly self-reflective magazines such as Radio Times, or programmes such as Points of View or Raymond Snoddy’s Newswatch on the BBC News Channel? Fox News and Channel 4 – stations that are unashamedly right-wing and left-wing respectively – rarely indulge in such self-accountability. Charlie Brooker’s misanthropic invective may be very annoying, but his amusing existence on the BBC proves there is something right about it.

Right-wing critics of the BBC (amongst which I count myself as one) should appreciate two things. First of all, there is no point calling for the abolition of the TV licence fee, because if it is done away with, the government will fund the BBC otherwise, by direct or indirect taxation. Secondly, if you are going to criticise something, make sure you have watched it first. This was the great failing of Mary Whitehouse, who was a sincere woman, but fell into the trap of being outraged about things she hadn’t actually seen. Critics of the BBC should likewise actually spend some time watching and listening to its output – or rather, something other than Radio 4 – before issuing the inevitable criticism that ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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