DJ Taylor: All hail Patten, champion of a clever BBC

It's goodbye to vulgarity as Auntie's new chairman prepares to outrage the philistines with his pro-elitist stance
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The Independent Online

In the past few days, a new champion has sprung forward to defend the nation's oppressed intellectual minority. The hero in question is, of course, Lord Patten, to whose file of lustre-strewn appointments – major-domo of the Conservative Party, retiring Governor of Hong Kong and Chancellor of Oxford University – has recently been added the chairmanship of the BBC. According to newspaper reports, there is no limit to Lord Patten's schemes for improvement. He is supposed to want his minions to "wise up" rather than dumb down, to favour "elitism" over "vulgarity", to be indifferent to the fate of BBC3, and to prefer BBC4 – that jewel in the corporation's crown – to the over-subsidised consumerist sauna that is BBC2.

All this, in the context of recent BBC history, is the equivalent of lightning out of a clear sky, and one would love to be a fly on the wall of the office of director-general Mark Thompson as he and Lord Patten set about the task of outraging the philistines. At the same time, you can't help noting that all the talk about upping the intellectual ante of the small screen is purely theoretical, and that while a fair proportion of viewers (and, although one should never automatically assume these things, producers) are avid for the BBC to "do clever", no one is absolutely sure what form this cleverness should take.

One of the great unwritten laws of television, after all, is that self-conscious displays of braininess are nearly always doomed to failure. Back in the 1980s, one of the first series of Spitting Image ran a burlesqued eggheads' discussion under the caption "Jonathan Miller and Bernard Levin talk bollocks". At the time this was a perfectly fair comment on the kind of traps that television fell into when it ventured on to the highbrow uplands, and faint echoes of it can still sometimes be apprehended on The Late Review.

If Lord Patten Mr Thompson and Mr Thompson's replacement – this being the next administrative task on which Lord Patten is purportedly bent – really wanted to increase the BBC's intellectual attack, they could start by breaking down the average producer's reluctance to contemplate the spectacle of a single presenter, alone in a studio, without props, illustrations or electronic garnishes, merely talking to the audience. I am just young enough to remember the lectures A J P Taylor used to deliver on BBC2 in the 1970s, in which an unscripted harangue on, say, the Schleswig-Holstein question, would be effortlessly levered into the 28-and-a-half-minute slot created for it. Another advantage of the solus lecture is that it is extremely cheap to make.


Still with our relationship with the media, or rather – as this engagement is anything but reciprocal – the media's relationship with us, the decision of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to float his progeny on the New York Stock Exchange has thrown one aspect of this equation into sharp relief. Investors are keen to buy into Mr Zuckerberg's company on the grounds that it is a precisely controlled vehicle for advertising, capable of the most ingenious forms of micro-targeting. Analysts, alternatively, are darkly conscious that Facebook's 845 million users are only prepared to put up with a certain amount of interference, and that if, for example, those people living in Reading and interested in hill-walking are relentlessly bombarded by ads for Thames Valley walking-boot stores they may go elsewhere.

That advertising should be regarded as something to be put up with rather than joyously embraced is one of the great paradoxes of the modern media. I never knew a newspaper section editor who didn't regard the weekly descent of the advertising department on their pages as anything other than a grotesque affront to their personal liberty. "I'm afraid some bloody ad has come in for Jeffrey Archer's new one," a literary editor would apologise, "so we're going to have to cut your review" – as if a half-page advertisement worth thousands of pounds weren't the life-blood of his newspaper's existence.

It is the same with television. No one really wants to watch sport on the commercial channels whose largesse keeps sport going, if only because the proceedings will be intermittently knocked out of kilter by ads for toilet paper. One signal service that Lord Patten could perform for television would be to strike some deal with his friends in government that gives the corporation greater clout in its negotiations with the Premier League and the England and Wales Cricket Board.


This Tuesday sees the presentation of the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award, sponsored by The Omnivore website and bestowed upon the author of the wittiest and most incendiary book review of the past 12 months. The ceremony will take place at the Coach & Horses , Soho, over which the shade of its former owner, Norman Balon (who, when a Labour MP diffidently enquired if this were the way to the Private Eye lunch, replied "Fuck off. I'm on the phone") still impenitently lingers. Judging the prize last week I was struck once again by the extraordinary cliquishness of the literary world – several of the entrants were known to me, as were the authors of several of the books to which hatchets had been applied – but also by the avalanche of coverage which the event has attracted, and the number of columnists bidden to write about it who, in normal circumstances, would not recognise a book if they fell over one in the street. If newspapers devoted as much space to the reviewing of books as they do to gossip about the reviewing of them, then the survival of our literary culture would be that much easier to guarantee.


The appearance on the Hatchet Job shortlist of savage critiques of the work of two of our most distinguished living poets – Geoffrey Hill and Carol Ann Duffy – coincided with reports of a lecture in which Sir Geoffrey, currently the Oxford Professor of Poetry, criticised the Poet Laureate for using language which was "not democratic English but cast-off bits of oligarchical commodity English such as is employed by writers for Mills & Boon".

There is no spectacle quite so diverting as the sight of a couple of enraged poets squaring up to each other. But to say that Sir Geoffrey has a point about Carol Ann Duffy's poems, many of which look as if they were expressly written for a schoolteacher trying to raise the spirits of a class of bored 15-year-olds, is merely to note the kind of compromises that poetry, along with every other art form, has to make in order to get itself noticed in our bright, shiny, mock-cultural world. In any case, compared with some previous laureates – Alfred Austin, for example, who wrote of a royal illness "O'er the wires the electric message came/He is no better, he is much the same" – Ms Duffy's bouncy quatrains can look like untrammelled genius.