16 Jul 2015
dave's picture

I had an article all set to go, related to our new podcast about sitcom writing - then yesterday I found out that Bluestone 42, written by Richard Hurst and my co-podcastee James Cary, had been axed by BBC3. This was not a big surprise, not least because BBC3 itself had been axed a few days earlier.
 
James is a friend and I was upset on his behalf, but I also genuinely thought this was one of the best new sitcoms of the last five years. Simply by being 'a sitcom set in a British Army bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan' you knew it was not going to be ordinary. It was funny, popular, well written, and by series three was developing into a classic show.
 
I remember when James first told me about the idea. This was around the time that soldiers were still being killed with some regularity by roadside bombs, I was dubious that the BBC would commission a show that you knew would have to be pulled from the schedules any time such an incident occurred. But Stephen McCrum believed in the project and sold it all the way up the command chain, the show went ahead, and appeared as scheduled the whole time, with the single exception of one repeat.
 
There's a lot of anger around the BBC at the moment. A 'save BBC3' Twitter site has recently appeared attacking the BBC's decision to axe the channel, and is showing endless figures to prove how successful the channel was. I was going to write a piece about how angry I was that the BBC were scrapping Bluestone 42, exactly the sort of show it excels at making. Then I thought, why? Slagging off the BBC has become such a common pastime we forget that this is how its enemies make it vanish.
 
I was going to write a piece about all the great things about the BBC, but there are already many such pieces appearing everywhere, angry coherent responses to the latest attacks. I decided instead to take the politicians at face value, and examine the criticisms. I think this list covers all of them. 
 
The organisation is over-staffed with management. 
It's true that management have become more prevalent over the last 20 years. I remember walking down corridors of BBC offices in the early 1990s, noticing how names and job titles on doors had changed. The common 'producer' title of the 80s had been replaced by, 'executive accountant', 'senior manager' 'executive senior accountant manager' and so on. This was the period when public services were being held to account for every penny spent, and costing TV and radio shows took precedence over creative decisions. I've been working for the BBC on and off for more than 30 years and in that time I can't remember a single government that hasn't tried to make deeper cuts. Personally I've tended to find the appointment of layers of management leads to less efficiency, but that is how privatisation works and we are stuck with the model.
 
The organisation has been beset by numerous scandals
The Jimmy Savile revelations unbdoubtedly caused a huge amount of damage to the BBC. How was he able to get away with this for so long? The answer came through loud and clear - Savile had worked so hard to cultivate connections with powerful politicians that it became impossible to confront him. Every other BBC 'crisis' has been manufactured by its enemies, and you don't have to look far to realise that mostly, the claims against the organisation were exaggerated. Tony Blair's forcing through of the Hutton Inquiry was the quickest and most thorough examination of the Iraq war, a Director General lost his job and the BBC newsroom was broken - not because the story they reported was untrue, but because an inconsequential fact in the story was reported incorrectly. And can anyone remember the 'scandal' of Sachsgate? Where a prank phone call went a little bit too far, everyone apologised and that was the end of it? Except for the head of Radio 2, another public sacking for a non-offence.
 
The top people are paid too much money
Of all the criticisms of the BBC nothing matches this ridiculous statement for sheer breathtaking hypocrisy. For 30 years successive governments have forced the BBC to adopt more commercial approaches, like all public services huge chunks of their income have been siphoned off to private companies. The BBC has responded dutifully to these demands, and it continues to be an organisation that produces financially successful programmes. Unlike the private sector, where bosses are rewarded regardless of how successful they have been, the BBC is one of the purest examples of the free market, where high income is nearly always a measure of success. Or rather, was. The fuss about high pay was yet another ridiculous attack, without foundation, another classic example of the BBC being bullied by its rivals, and having no choice but to do as they asked.
 
The BBC is biased
This is probably the main reason why the BBC has so few friends. It's not just governments in power who attack the BBC news output at every opportunity, but people who one would normally expect to have sympathies towards the broadcaster. All through the last government, left wing commentators accused the BBC of failing to report everything from daily privatisation of the NHS to the campaign for Scottish independence. Every day the 'Mail' and 'Telegraph' bang on about the BBC's left wing bias, because they find it impossible to grasp the concept that some people who work for public institutions hold the pursuit of civic duty higher than the urge to earn as much money as possible.
 
The BBC is too big
This criticism is usually made with reference to BBC Online, one of the best and most comprehensive internet sites for news, sport, education, business, science and more. Not only that, anyone who has ever made a programme with the BBC knows that from the outset they look for ways to create internet content alongside the show. The result is a brilliant web presence that truly interacts with other media, and takes people to TV and radio shows. Why does the BBC bother with an internet presence, these idiots ask, as though it's possible for a multi-faceted broadcasting organisation respected around the world to compete without it. Idiots. 
 
The licence fee is a regressive tax.
In other words, everybody pays the same, whether you're Alan Sugar or a family on benefits. Income tax is an example of a progressive tax, where the rich are expected to pay more. Most countries collect a combination of progressive and regressive taxes - VAT is also a regressive tax, you pay the same extra tax on a gallon of petrol as George Osborne, but surprisingly he doesn't seem quite so bothered by this particular redistribution of wealth to the top.
 
Writing recently in the 'Washington Examiner' about ISIS and their policy of destroying ancient monuments, the Conservative MEP Dan Hannan wrote movingly: "The thought of those ancient remains under the sledgehammers of the jihadi iconoclasts is almost unbearable." And here's 'Telegraph' blogger and BBC Basher-In-Chief Damian Thompson writing angrily about how Saudi Arabia is destroying much of Islam's heritage: "are cartoons of Mohammed really more offensive than reducing the remains of his life to rubble?" It's difficult not to draw parallels with a group of people destroying the culture that has brought so much pleasure to billions around the world. This wilful decimation of one of our greatest institutions and exports is not limited to the Conservatives, but the vindictiveness that runs through every pronouncement they make about the BBC reminds us why they have never been able to shake off Theresa May's descriptions of her chosen tribe as 'The Nasty Party'.
 
I'm glad to see the BBC is not giving up without a fight. But anyone who has seen what has become of their local councils and NHS services in the last five years will know that usually there is only one winner.

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