BBC Me – no Archers, and no Fiona Bruce

The ‘stars’ are too often overpaid and overused. The corporation should bring back the experts

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Back in the 2000s, when attending the annual New Year’s Eve party thrown  by some old friends, I sometimes used to bump into the then controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer. Mr Damazer, an infallibly courteous man and, additionally, keen on first-hand audience research, would always mark these encounters by asking what, if it were in my power to accomplish, I would change about the way his station was run. Having perhaps taken a glass of wine, I would always reply that my first steps would be to decommission The Archers and The Moral Maze, and evict John Humphrys from his niche on the Today programme. Whereupon Mr Damazer would look rather puzzled. “But you see,” he would somewhat wistfully remark, “I can’t do that.”

No more he could, and no more could anyone decommission Top Gear. But the memory of these exchanges was pushed back to the surface by last week’s news that several of the household-name presenters employed by the BBC could soon see their salaries cut as the corporation attempts to trim its “talent” bill (the inverted commas around “talent” are not me being ironic, by the way – they are merely reproducing the newspaper headlines). Certainly, looking at some of the remuneration on offer – most of it estimated, as the BBC is still horribly sensitive to criticism of its wage scales – one could see instantly why the incoming director-general, Tony Hall, and his accountants are so keen to establish whether their licence-payers are receiving value for money.

As for the sums on offer, Croesus, were he living today, would doubtless be lurking in the foyer of Broadcasting House. For no fewer than 14 of the BBC’s performers and presenters, it turns out, are in yearly receipt of over £500,000. This fortunate galère is presumed to include Graham Norton (an estimated £2.6m), Match of the Day front man Gary Lineker (£1.5m), the two Jeremys, Paxman and Clarkson (£1m each), while even Michael McIntyre and Fiona Bruce are thought to be on a cool £10,000 a week. This is a great deal of money – public money, at that – and the viewer who sits through one of Mr Norton’s comedy turns may wonder exactly which criteria the BBC’s contracts department employs to come up with it.

Fiona Bruce, pictured here back in 2010 Fiona Bruce, pictured here back in 2010 The argument against seven-figure sums for BBC television presenters is the by now antediluvian one about state-run enterprises needing to be seen to be as frugal as possible. The argument for them – as with the banking industry – is that these are the market rates and, if not offered them, the big names will be off elsewhere (to which one always wants to reply: where exactly? Would Gary Lineker depart to Sky if his salary were halved, and would it affect the quality of the programme he presents?). On the other hand, the real case against Clarkson’s millions is not that they over-reward mediocrity. It is that they help to sustain that highly injurious modern phenomenon, the celebrity broadcaster, whose impact on the medium in which he or she operates is nearly always a disaster and leads to feeble programmes where the presenters frequently appear to be more important than the topic they are bidden to discuss.

There is nothing new about the idea of the celebrity performer, of course, and John Snagge, Charles Hill, the “radio doctor”, and Wilfred Pickles meant as much to the radio audiences of the 1950s as McIntyre means to the Friday-night comedy fans of 2014. And yet these exemplars tended to be confined to their own specialist areas: one never found Tommy Handley, star of the war-time hit It’s That Man Again, doubling up as a radio chef. Today’s BBC celebrities, on the other hand, are curiously protean figures whose expertise is mysteriously assumed to be transferable beyond their original remits, with the result that hardly any topic is thought fit for the mass audience without a “name” to front it up. How, for example, did the BBC decide to begin its commemoration of the First World War? Why, by allowing Jeremy Paxman to puff his book about it.

This tendency is, alas, observable on nearly all the corporation’s four main channels. Its consequence is Ms Bruce – personable and lively but by no means an expert – in action on Antiques Roadshow. It means that, switching on BBC4 to inspect an intriguing-looking documentary about George Formby, you discover Frank Skinner on stage with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Worse, the cult of personality, the thought that everyone is being judged by their idiosyncrasies, has begun to affect news broadcasting, so that Norman Smith, Nick Robinson, Robert Peston and the other correspondents seem to be in nightly competition with each other to produce the most exaggerated vocal mannerisms and bodily movements, whereas what one really wants is a demure and smooth-voiced sobersides who sees his job as to convey information rather than to make a spectacle out of himself.

None of this would matter quite so much if it didn’t have so detrimental an effect on the programmes themselves. As it is, one tends to watch Newsnight not so much for its line on the issues of the day as for the sight of Mr Paxman eviscerating some hapless Treasury minister who has strayed into his orbit. To go back to that New Year’s Eve encounter with Mark Damazer, my complaint about certain Today presenters – I had no axe to grind against Mr Humphrys but was simply using him as an illustration – is that their domination of the medium is, in the end, a distraction. It is the same with some of the celebrity footballers brought on to Match of the Day, several of whom, in terms of articulacy and ability to comment on the game, would come off second best when set against the average fan plucked from the terrace.

Naturally, there are occasions when the celebritification of the corporation’s roster works in its favour. To attend a literary festival anywhere in the Gulf is to watch, wide-eyed, as a succession of molten gods – John Simpson, say, or Jeremy Bowen – stalks through the hotel foyers to the delight of the local expatriate community who watch them nightly on News 24. This is the BBC reinforcing its brand, maximising its international influence and getting the global audience on its side, and ought to be warmly supported. When Jeremy Bowen, for example, delivered a lecture at last month’s Emirates Festival in Dubai, he did so with the British consul in the front row and the ruler of Abu Dhabi incognito in the second.

But then Mr Bowen is a genuine expert whose views on the various crises of the Middle East will always be worth having. Far too often, the corporation seems to assume that virtually any programme can be brought safely to its scheduling meetings provided the audience has heard of the person presenting it. But a good rule of thumb, in any discussion of what to pay the people who decorate our screens, is that the message-bringer is usually a whole lot less important than the message.

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