Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

‘The BBC Made Me’

The BBC did not make me. It influenced me.

Some executives gave me opportunities, for which I remain grateful.  Others tried to muzzle me, stop me from working. In any case, which BBC do you mean? I’ve known at least three.

As an adolescent in the 50s I experienced a Reithian BBC. Rigidly class ridden, deferential, austere and respectable, its voice had no connection with my world. But my world respected it, because it had had a good war, speaking for the whole nation, even though it was actually a propaganda branch of the armed state. The BBC was the nation’s trusted voice in this existential conflict.

But if, like me, your home did not contain a single book, then the BBC was an oasis. From what we called the wireless came high culture in drama, music, poetry; talks from some of our best minds, who came down from the Universities for me, to explain things personally.

Reith, though a Fascist sympathiser and an authoritarian, introduced the high minded ambition to educate, inform and entertain. The BBC opened my mind and aroused my sense of possibility.

Then in the 60s I knew a different BBC, from the inside. Hugh Carleton Greene, with Stuart Hood as his consigliere, led a revolution, inviting the BBC to discard its corset and try on a  mini skirt. He could tell that the times they were a’changing.

The conservative element dragged its heels, keeping to its Senior Common Room backwardness. It remained slack about money, not out of avarice but out of amateurism. It still allowed the man from the Secret Service to veto appointments. It retained an air of superiority and class condescension.

But the ruffians were at the gate. We were allowed to make stuff today’s management couldn’t even imagine, let alone commission.

Then 35 or so years ago the Beeb was forced into a shuddering U turn. The Director General, Alasdair Milne, was sacked by No 10. The Beeb obediently recreated itself in the Thatcher image – “the management’s right to manage” – and the management consultants, the McKinseys and the Bains, poured all over the public sector, to “help” –  as they liberally helped themselves to tax payers wealth.

We still suffer from the result. Now management sees itself as either a buyer, and therefore in control of the creative act, or as a cop, terrified lest these creative delinquents embarrass them.

You will have noticed that each of the different BBCs arose partly as a response to the wider cultural climate and but mainly as a response to the political reality. The BBC is Whitehall dependent. It changes as the political weather changes.

It is changing yet again. Forget the sniping about political balance – Blair’s apparatchiks did the same.

The market fundamentalists hate the BBC because it is a no profit public institution, a standing offence to their religious dogma. They hate it because it occupies lucrative territory denying profit to private corporations. But they are still a minority in the Conservative Party and in a smaller minority in the country. They know the BBC is loved, even by Tory voters.

So they cannily plan to starve the BBC and enclose it and weaken it until its popularity and relevance are dissipated enough for the coup de grace. All the time swearing they’re doing nothing of the sort.

Look at the NHS for the model.

When that happens it will be too late to revolutionise it, too late to reform it yet again.Commerce will have captured our culture. Our commodification will be complete.

So we must fight politically to convince them that it isn’t worth the fight.

In every Tory marginal a “Hands Off Our BBC” lobby should be organised and a petition signed for delivery to No 10. Every Tory MP must be lobbied in the House of Commons. The internet and social media used to organise support.

No one from the BBC can be involved. The clear message must be Hands Off Our BBC or face the electoral consequences. If they see how popular and determined is the support, they will back off.

There are other problems and politics is the language of priorities. This is politics and those are the rules.

I’d like to save a BBC that respected its historical mission to educate, inform and entertain; that was truly separated from Westminster and free to speak truth to power; was democratised from within and from without, relinquishing its top down, suffocating managerialism, becoming a truly modern, creative institution; a BBC drawing together all strands of our cultural life; one whose perspective was not concentrated in a few London boroughs.

Years ago Huw Wheldon told me that the BBC was “one of the great achievements of Western Civilisation”. That’s Huw, I thought, with his typical hyperbole.

Now I think it wasn’t hyperbole at all. I think he was right.



2 Responses so far.

  1. Stuart says:
    It is very important. The fact that US public radio airs the BBC news says a lot. It is an intelligent lifeline to those across the world.
  2. bobby says:
    I’d say there is a huge difference between the news of the Milne era and that of the Birt era. One choose to tell of events happening in the world and to let it’s citizens make sense of it or to have debates upon an issue, whilst Birt’s BBC choose to explain and frame events to the little people, crusading journalism which by it’s very nature is distorted. Milne’s BBC reporters were recruited from all over the country, the post Birt era BBC is a Metropolitan clique. I stopped paying the Tv Licence when they vacated BBC Television Centre, though they had already started to out-source all production. It was like Hollywood re-locating to Texas for some politically correct reasons. Reality Tv instead of Drama, panel shows instead of sitcoms, stand up comedy instead of light entertainment, make-over shows instead of current affairs and arts programming. Perhaps inevitable, considering it’s restructuring as a top down Stalinist commissioner of programming. There is so little left of the Beeb I grew up with and loved, alas.

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