Friday, 19 August 2011

Friday Comment: Take Up Your Arms: It’s Time to Fight in the Culture War

TPR has always had a strange relationship with the BBC. In principle, it is abhorrent. Just imagine that today, in the pioneering age of the internet, a government supported agency came up to you and said “you must pay £142 a year to own a computer that can access the internet so we can produce an inexhaustive range of websites. Failure to do so will be a matter for criminal prosecution.” Many of us would be outraged by such a move and everybody from the penny-pinchers to the ultra-libertarians would be flouting the law in a principled act of civil disobedience. However, when it comes to the BBC, we accept it – willingly, in most cases. TPR himself accepts it, and uses BBC iPlayer more than any other on-demand service and whenever he comes to think of his favourite programmes, on television or radio, the work of the BBC often features amongst the best. The tension caused by the principle behind the funding of the BBC is mediated by their quality broadcasting.

However, it goes beyond quality. The BBC is tolerated – nay, supported – on the grounds that not only does it produce high volumes of quality output, it also produces broadcasts with a public service angle. For example, take the recent documentary series ‘Great Thinkers in Their Own Words’. This unashamedly high-brow series was enlightening to even those who consider themselves to be semi-experts on matters of society and psychology, featuring never before seen footage of some of the 20th Centuries' great thinkers from the BBC archive. Alternatively, we have ‘My Father was a Nazi Commandant’. Perhaps a surprise hit for both the BBC and those who viewed it, this show tracked the daughter of the Commandant of Plaszow concentration camp in Poland as she sought to meet up with the oppressed Jewish girl who served her father’s household before she was born. Or think of ‘Only Connect’, the most intellectual of quiz shows – and a major success. All of these programmes are quality and fulfil the public service remit that Lord Reith had in mind at the BBC’s foundation. All of these programmes are worth fighting for as a valuable contribution to British culture. All of these programmes first appeared on BBC4.

Therefore, it is of particular concern that the Guardian is reporting that BBC4 is set to be streamlined to “arts and repeats” in the BBC’s attempts to find 20% cuts in their budget. Times are hard and friends are few, and I dare say the BBC ought to find opportunities for budget cuts and greater revenues from selling commercially their broadcasting around the world, yet they must never stray away from their main focus in providing quality public service broadcasting. And arguably, BBC4 fulfils this remit better than any other BBC station - even if its quality is not always reflected in its ratings. When budgets need to be cut, we must all see the appeal in cutting that which receives the fewest viewers. However, this must be mediated by the extent to which BBC4 helps the BBC fulfil the reason why so many of us acquiesce in funding it year after year: quality, public service broadcasting. BBC4 is worth fighting for.

You can join a FaceBook campaign here (I do not know how official the campaign is, or who runs it, and I certainly don’t endorse any of its comments beyond “Save BBC 4”).

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