Bragg accuses BBC of 'hiding away' its arts programmes

Melvyn Bragg accused the BBC yesterday of "brochure broadcasting" by hiding away its arts programmes on the little-watched digital channel BBC4 as a "fig leaf" gesture towards public service programming.

Lord Bragg, 65, the editor and presenter of ITV's The South Bank Show, claimed the policy gave the BBC some arts coverage to mention in its annual report while more populist programmes were shown on the mainstream channels.

In a speech at the launch of the 27th series of The South Bank Show, the Cumbrian-born writer said: "Once upon a time, many of the programmes on BBC4 would have automatically been on BBC2 or even - and not very long ago, let's say the late 80s - on BBC1. And that is a great pity."

Lord Bragg's comments coincide with the annual viewing figures for the critically- acclaimed BBC4, which has only ever attracted one audience of more than 500,000 since its launch in 2002.

The most-watched programmes on the channel last year were the political drama State of Play (560,000) and a preview of the BBC1 costume drama Charles II (420,000). A profile of singer Dolly Parton reached the top 10 with an audience of just 150,000. The life peer commended the quality of BBC4's overall output but said it "may be headed for the category of brochure broadcasting - to flash on the front of the corporate annual report".

He predicted that the BBC would come to regret a policy that he claimed was aimed at winning praise from a small elitist audience. "This could backfire badly. Everybody who produces programmes in radio and television knows that the easiest thing... to do [is] not broadcasting but narrow casting," he said.

"You hit a small and influential audience and you get hundreds of letters commending you for hitting that particular small influential target."

Lord Bragg said that the strategy of concentrating arts coverage on BBC4 "could be seen as no more than a fig leaf and a fig leaf is not enough public cover". Questioned after the speech, delivered in London, Lord Bragg said: "I hope [BBC4] is not seen by the BBC as a token. There's the danger that they are dumping programmes there. I'm not attacking BBC4 as such but I think it's in a dicey situation."

Lord Bragg also used his speech to call for the licence fee to be replaced by a public service broadcasting fund available to all channels.

He said that ITV had been "under the cosh" and that a "ludicrous" £300m government tax on the network was no longer appropriate in the days of multi-channel television and it threatened its ability to produce public service programmes.

A BBC spokeswoman said: "It's a shame Melvyn describes BBC4 as a fig leaf when it's a distinctive channel in its own right, which after nearly two years has laid down its roots and developed a strong identity."

She said programmes shown on BBC4 were "in addition to" rather than instead of the BBC terrestrial schedules. "Many of BBC4's programmes can be seen later on BBC2, such as the critically acclaimed Gauguin."

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