In this country, as Alan Bennett famously wrote in An Englishman Abroad, you need only reach 90 and be capable of eating a boiled egg to be reckoned worthy of the Nobel Prize. One hates to argue with a uniquely perceptive observer of national life, but try telling that to the nonagenarian which screened his glorious TV play about the traitor Guy Burgess back in 1983.
Today is the BBC’s 90th anniversary of its inaugural broadcast, and the only Nobel-related birthday presents anyone appears to have in mind are a cake studded with sticks of Alfred’s dynamite in place of the candles, a box of Swan Vestas and a very short fuse.
Bennett put that scornful aperçu in the mouth of the actress Coral Browne, an Australian with sneering contempt for what she saw as the smug decadence of the British establishment. With Rupert Murdoch seizing on the BBC’s embarrassment with classically ruthless opportunism, that certainly rings a bell. But while it may constitute the wettest of the old monster’s dreams, the Beeb hasn’t decayed yet.
There is of course no mistaking an air of senescence, from the Alzheimerish amnesia about the most basic journalistic good practice and George Entwistle’s befuddlement over the duties that go with the title of editor-in-chief. But unlike every other ancient trout whose callous younger relatives (in this case, Murdoch’s BSkyB) want to shove her off into a home, and get their hands on the dosh while she dribbles towards the grave, this great Auntie will recover her wits to see them off.
In recent decades, many wrote premature obituaries to the Labour and Conservative parties and the monarchy when they were perpetually engulfed by chaos, forgetting that old whores like those only live to become old whores because they are, at their core, a representation of an idea. And you can never, as cliché teaches, kill an idea.
The idea that underpins the modern BBC is that of a state-funded broadcaster so large and so strong that it has the powers both to withstand political pressure and to foster that fragile sense of shared national identity. Its independence guarantees sporadic warfare with government, and its sheer size make mistakes of the kind fixating us now inevitable. But the obsession with these horrendous journalistic failures, and how it came to swamp interest in the paedophilia that led to them, tells a story. If people are furious with the BBC, it is that especially ferocious and ephemeral anger which emanates not from raw hatred, but from disappointed love.
Whatever current opinion polling says about the Beeb being mistrusted by a majority for the first time, the loathing will remain reserved for a Murdoch empire that cannot or will not learn humility. To hear Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, the closest thing in Rupertworld to an attack dog, tell John Humphrys yesterday that Newsnight’s misdemeanours were “worse” than those that infected the Murdoch tabloids would have been shocking had it not been so wearyingly predictable. The refusal to draw a distinction between gross incompetence and systemic criminality, or rather the cynical willingness to draw the mirror image of the real distinction, told us what we knew already. The BBC agonises over its flaws. News International dismisses its own as too trifling to be worth the attention.
In the BBC’s eagerness to allow Mr Kavanagh air time to distort and derange the self-evident truth, just as it allowed Humphrys to put George Entwistle out of his misery, lies the seed of its certain redemption. The rigorous independence of its journalism not only far outweighs the occasional fiasco. It is the immune system that will fight off this nasty virus.
A full cure will also require some surgery. The scalpel must be taken to the satirically bloated layers of necrotic management, obviously, and the chain of command be tightened. Elements of the output have stagnated through complacency, and need refreshing: its TV news is sluggish and sometimes facetious (the election night boat on which Andrew Neil canvassed Bruce Forsyth’s political insights made the Titanic look a triumph). However brilliant the Olympics coverage, the sports coverage is weak and smug.
The flaws are multiple and serious, and if this crisis forces the next editor-in-chief to address them, the BBC will emerge stronger from this nightmare than it entered it. In another piece of espionage fiction, George Smiley reflected on the treachery that brought the Circus to its knees in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and with hindsight judged it a blessing in disguise because it compelled the organisation to reform before it was too late.
There is no institution of the BBC’s magnitude anywhere on this Earth that does not face apparently existential crises from time to time, and those with the will to face and learn from them survive. The BBC will come through this, not just because if the only alternative monolith is News Corp, there is no alternative. For all the imperfections, its perspective expresses the values of tolerance and decency, fairness and humanity, to which this country likes to lay claim, and that expression resonates around the world. It continues to represent the best of us, as it has for 90 years.
This may be a muted and despondent 90th birthday for Auntie, but there will many happier returns.