T elevision licence-payers who tuned in to Wednesday's edition of Newsnight would have witnessed a spectacle entirely typical of the way in which the BBC currently comports itself – the sight of the corporation's attack dogs gleefully unleashed on the pink, calamitously exposed and horribly vulnerable flesh of the corporation itself. The occasion was a round-table discussion between Jeremy Paxman, the BBC's sharp-suited former business editor Jeff Randall, and the former controller of BBC3, Stuart Murphy, and the subject – inevitably – was the future of the BBC. (Paxman had already enjoyed a brisk tête-à-tête with Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust.) The highlight, on the other hand, was Randall's enumeration of some of the items to which BBC3 had in the past year put its proud imprimatur.
These included the comedy series Tittybangbang, an enticing-sounding documentary entitled My Man Boobs and Me and, not least, something called F**k Off, I'm a Hairy Woman. Did Sir Michael really think, Randall proposed, that this was the kind of thing that even a fragment of the channel's £93m worth of public money should be laid out on? Ah well, Messrs Lyons and Murphy countered, some people liked watching My Man Boobs and Me, and Mr Randall wasn't really among the target audience. Additionally, such exercises were a useful way of encouraging new talent, don't you know? The gleam in Randall's eye suggested that he wasn't convinced.
The latest news from the round of contingency plans and corporate strategy briefings is that BBC3 will survive, along with its stablemate BBC4, the digital channel to which the corporation has recently consigned most of the relatively high-brow stuff it used to beam out on BBC2. Like Jeff Randall, I am not a part of the demographic at which BBC3 is aimed – reposing instead in that altogether fatal category, the white, Oxbridge-educated, forty-something male – but I do have some faint experience of the channel's hectic and variegated output. Only the other evening, in fact, I found myself watching a programme called Dog Borstal, in which the owner of a sportive American bulldog, worried about her children's safety, took the animal off for counselling. This consisted almost entirely of calorifically challenged women muttering, "It's a bit aggressive."
Not long back, too, in a spirit of mild anthropological enquiry, I sat through several episodes of Tittybangbang, clearly developed on the Little Britain template of catchphrases and risqué-to-the-max, but which, calculation insisted, harbours exactly one funny sketch, about a team of female darts players. Then there was the dense, particularised glory of The Most Annoying Pop Songs We Hate to Love – a whole hundred of them assembled into a never-ending series – in which lady comedians and young men from the music papers tried to get to grips with why they found t.A.T.u. so irritating and were they really lesbians?
If these bleak vistas of cutting-edge young person's TV had a shared characteristic, it was that everything seemed to have been a) done on the cheap; b) extended way beyond its natural length; and c) borrowed from the darker vaults of Channel 4 and Five. A whole hour of canine psychologising? Another sketch about the foreign women with the leaking breast implants?
All of which tends to confirm one of the most seductive arguments against the proliferation of TV channels, or indeed the proliferation of media outlets generally. This is, to borrow the phrase used by Kingsley Amis to calculate the effect of post-war university expansion, that more will mean worse. As the amount of money available for the BBC3s of this world is invariably limited, and as – to judge from a programme like Dog Borstal – the talent pool is similarly constrained, the consequence of an upsurge in programming is a general reduction in quality.
Programme makers and channel bosses may issue press releases about "choice" and "diversity", but in fact the amount of choice on offer is rather limited. What "choice" actually means, in the modern media world, is the liberty to decide between a few very good things and a large number of mediocre to downright awful ones. This observation applies to vast acreages of early 21st century life, but in the case of so established a part of the cultural fabric as the BBC, its resonance is yet more significant still.
Even more dismaying are the personal implications. Meeting the literary critic Cyril Connolly for the first time at a memorial service in the early 1970s, Philip Larkin claimed to have greeted him with the words: "Sir, you formed me." Much the same could be said about my relationship with the BBC.
As a child in a middle- to lower-middle-class household in the late 1960s, I was by instinct and experiment a BBC boy. ITV – nobody actually said this but the inference hung in the air like mustard gas – was "vulgar", consisting in the main of tuxedo'd horrors with northern accents telling dirty jokes. The BBC, on the other hand, was a mirror of bourgeois probity and decorum. It was here that one encountered Valerie Singleton and John Noakes, the Sunday teatime family serial, The Onedin Line and a whole lot more besides.
The three great public events I remember from early childhood – the 1966 World Cup final, the Aberfan disaster and the 1969 moon landing – were brought to me by the BBC. A bit later there was historical drama – the glittering mid-1970s golden age of The Pallisers and I, Claudius – closely followed by Panorama, Play for Today and The Old Grey Whistle Test.
As a teenager, switching on to this mid-evening university of the screen, I liked the BBC because it combined an establishment-sanctioned authority with an underlying ironical taint – to listen to Kenny Everett's radio show, for example, circa 1982, was to discover someone who spent most of his time burlesquing the people who paid his salary – while seeming, in however stylised and self-conscious a way, to be an inalienable part of the culture it presumed to report on and reflect.
And then, sometime in the mid-1980s, the relationship – a relationship in which I had invested a great deal of emotional energy and long, enraptured hours in front of the flickering screen – began to turn sour. What went wrong? It's not simply the ageing process – that continual nagging awareness that nothing in life is ever as good as it was – which insists that the corporation's history over the past quarter-century has been a long, slow degeneration. What, from this particular vantage point, is so profoundly irritating and viewer-repelling about BBC television? In no particular order: the 10pm news and its procession of chirpy correspondents, all of them emphasising the wrong words and addressing the viewer as if he or she were slightly mentally defective; the aitch-dropping, glottal-stop eschewing children's presenters; the loss of practically every sport worth watching to the satellite channels; the transformation of BBC2, formerly the diadem in the corporation's crown, into a cookery-cum-house refurbishment class; the terrible historical soaps (Rome, The Tudors, etc) in which the least vestige of historical verisimilitude is dashed aside in pursuit of contemporary relevance.
Through the bottom of this well of complaints, of course, slops a single, oily stream: the market. It is the "market", supposedly, that gets Jonathan Ross (pictured) his £6m a year, that denies large parts of the populace the chance to see England soccer games, and ordains that the Henrician court shall resemble a prototype of EastEnders, on the grounds that if the audience couldn't see our own contemporary neuroses reflected in the mid-16th century they might take flight.
On the one hand, the market is the source of nearly all the corporation's keenest anxieties – the thought that they are getting for free and with relatively few strings attached what the commercial broadcasters have to levy through advertising revenue. On the other, it is an excuse for some of its worst excesses. Jonathan Ross, it might be argued, is not worth £6m a year, or even a modest fraction of that tidy sum. Why not find someone cheaper, or even commission a few programmes that aren't – that bane of quality television – merely a personality cult? In this context it is worth noting the inherent financial bias towards TV, irrespective of the returns: Andrew Marr gets six times as much money for The Politics Show as for the following morning's Start the Week, but only half the audience.
It would be very odd, given the corporation's charter, its remits (spoken and unspoken) and its audience – which ranges from the indifferent to the fanatical – if this debate didn't ultimately reduce itself to one of the enduring stand-offs of the modern cultural landscape: the collision between art (here defined in its broadest sense) and commerce. This week's Bookseller, reflecting on the victory of the unfancied Anne Enright in this year's Man Booker Prize, with a novel described by several newspapers as "depressing", notes that the prize was never going to be about sales, "but sales will always come into it". The same could be said about the BBC and its audience figures. In almost every one of the corporation's corridors, consequently, lurks a brood of intelligent, well-meaning people just itching to harness their creative imagination for the nation's benefit but uneasily conscious of Joe Public's febrile hand reaching for the remote control.
Not long ago I bumped into Mark Damazer, controller of Radio 4, and in my capacity as radio critic of The Tablet he asked what I thought needed doing to improve the station's output. I put in a vote for a series called The Sports Programme, broadcast in the second half of last year, a relatively – but only relatively – highbrow take on sporting culture, whose producers were hoping to be recommissioned. Why not a second series, I wondered? Damazer looked grim. A jolly good idea, he declared. He personally had enjoyed The Sports Programme very much, but a new series would cost £400,000 and the money wasn't there. Easy, I suggested. Cut out some dead wood – sack one or two of the Today prima donnas, junk The Archers and The Moral Maze – and there were your savings. Damazer looked grimmer still. "If I did that," he courteously explained, "I should lose my job."
Here, quality lost out to mainstream crowd-pleasing. Elsewhere in radio, "culture" precariously survives. The best spoken-word programmes on Radio 3 – that is, from the angle of the white, male, forty-something Oxbridge graduate – The Verb, Night Waves and The Essay – have audiences in the low thousands, and another senior BBC man recently explained to me that Front Row (7.15pm) survives owing only to its scheduling in the slipstream of The Archers (7pm), many of whose listeners charitably stay their hand on the dial for the first few moments of transmission.
There is no chance of this stand-off ever being resolved. The highbrow wants to hear Philip Roth's latest discussed on Night Waves, even if the number of other people listening could be accommodated in the ballroom of the Savoy Hotel. The soap-head continues to admire EastEnders, a programme that, without wanting to sound censorious, I try very hard to keep my growing boys away from, and doesn't see why he should subsidise the left-field and abstruse in which he takes no interest.
The uneasy accommodations of the BBC are given an extra dimension by this week's news of all-round retrenchment, whose result, we are told, will be a smaller institution, majoring on "quality" and "distinction". Many a media commentator has already attacked this refashioning on the grounds that it is self-destructive – hitting things that the corporation does well (news, drama, children's television) while ignoring the tribes of bureaucrats absorbed in strategic vision. But this particular (non) viewer, can't wait to see a slimmed-down, quality-conscious BBC, keen on distinctiveness rather than trying to mix it with the commercial channels. Think about it! No more TV chefs, dog borstals or Jonathan Ross, but some seriously intelligent programmes done on the terrestrial channels rather than the digital ghetto of BBC4! Panorama screened at a civilised hour! Decent adaptations of classic novels rather than Andrew Davies-style salacity-fests!
Inevitably, this kind of argument gets marked down as "elitist" or flying in the face of something called "popular culture". But there is no popular culture any more – here defined as something that ordinary people fashion for themselves – there is only an Americanised mass culture imposed from above, and about as inherently diverse as the political opinions of the Chinese communist party. (How much "choice", for example, has the cinema-goer attending a multiplex offering half a dozen Hollywood movies?) A revitalised BBC, less interested in turning its early evening schedules into the spiritual equivalent of the Daily Mail, could make a genuine contribution to shifting the mass cultural blanket that threatens to asphyxiate any kind of authentic national life.
As for the line peddled by Richard D North and other advocates of BBC radio's break-up – which might be summarised as "why should the public pay for a lot of highbrow programmes that it doesn't want?" – it might be pointed out that a high percentage of the public money that the Government lays out on "culture" is spent on initiatives with the cultural value of a walnut. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport's great obsession over the past two years has been to dot the country with giant bingo parlours. It would be nice if for once public money could be used to raise individual horizons rather than lower them: in the current atmosphere of belt-tightening and battened-down hatches, the BBC seems ideally placed to take up the challenge.
Further reading 'Inside Story' by Greg Dyke, former director-general of the BBCReuse content