DJ Taylor: In a philistine age, who is still willing to speak up for Auntie?

And, given politicians' problems with the English language, who is able to? Even the corporation's most loyal supporters are feeling alienated by it
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The Independent Online

Ever since the general election a cruel tide of hostility has been flowing in the direction of the BBC. Now, with spending cuts piercing the public sector's underbelly, the outlying waves have begun to break upon the steps of Broadcasting House. As The Independent's Stephen Glover obligingly pointed out last week, scarcely anyone has a kind word for the BBC.

The Conservative Party has ancient scores to settle – some of them perfectly legitimate – and the Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, has already made ominous noises about a readjustment of the licence fee. The Murdoch press has been sniping for decades, while even liberal newspapers are darkly conscious that the corporation's online news service – comprehensive, lavishly staffed and gratis – has the edge on their own, humbler initiatives. None of this will go away, and the time-honoured BBC approach of keeping quiet and hoping the stink will disappear is clearly not going to work this time round.

One of the problems, alas, is the equivocal view taken of its role by people who, by upbringing, prejudice and temperament, ought zealously to be staffing barricades on its behalf. Here am I, for example, a white, middle-class, late-40-something male. I was encouraged to swallow the idea of the BBC's innate superiority to the commercial channels virtually with my mother's milk, convinced that on any state occasion – a World Cup, an Olympics, a royal match or despatch – no one in their right mind would turn to ITV (an exception was May's election coverage, where they performed rather well). How do I feel about the BBC?

Professionally, heartfelt gratitude at being allowed to make obscure low-audience programmes for Radio 4 or get invited on to BBC4 to pontificate about the English novel is tempered by an awareness that any conversation with a BBC producer begins with the cheerful declaration that "of course, there's no money".

As a consumer, the News at Ten excepted, I never switch on BBC1 or BBC2 from one day to the next, while wondering, along with the current Private Eye, why, if the BBC employs a "head of all journalism" at £485,000 a year, this titan needs a head of newsroom at £140,000 and a head of newsgathering at £172,800 to assist him. And so that nice Mr Thompson is left to grapple with a classic symptom of the sinking ship: the tendency of people on whom he ought to be able to rely for help with the pumps to sit sullenly on their hands.


The difficulties of the former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin with the English language were further exposed this week with the disclosure of her responses to a scheme to construct a mosque on the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Initially, Ms Palin called on all right-thinking people to "refudiate" it, a word not known to the dictionaries, and presumably a slip for "repudiate". Great amusement having been expressed by fellow twitterati, she next urged that the plan should be "refuted" – a proper word this time, but used wrongly. Ridiculed once more, she talked about "misunderestimating it", while, somewhat exasperatedly, claiming that William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll had minted a fair number of neologisms in their time.

All this was very funny, and yet amid the gusts of media sarcasm one noted a faint hint of unease of the kind that used to surface whenever Lord Prescott – as he now is – was being pilloried for his performances. Is it strictly fair to lampoon someone who is doing their best to communicate in the absence of grammar, syntax and accurate word usage?

Lord Prescott's defenders always used to maintain that the humour directed at his malapropisms was merely snobbish – honest John, the people's champion, being abused by a lot of smart-aleck public schoolboys. It was not, and neither are the jokes about Ms Palin's "refudiations". Rather, they stem from the assumption, shared by politicians as various as Keir Hardie and Abraham Lincoln, that anyone avid for public office ought to be able to speak properly, if only out of respect for their audience and the institutions they aspire to serve. Never mind about being understood.


There was a momentous victory for consumer rights last week with the banning of a Burger King advertising campaign for chicken takeaways. Initially seduced by a TV ad for "tendercrisp chicken burgers", which featured a jubilant purchaser eating one of these items in a motel room, two disgruntled viewers complained that the ad was misleading, as the product sold in Burger King stores was "significantly smaller" than its small-screen exemplar.

Pronouncing judgment, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which appears to have done a commendable job, reported that its representatives had bought three of the burgers and discovered that their thickness, the quantity of additional fillings and their overall height was "considerably less" than those advertised.

No doubt the members of the Burger King marketing department are quietly licking their wounds somewhere over the rush of amusing newspaper headlines about "telling whoppers", but in fact the case is a thumping demonstration of the company's success in getting its product across. Not only have certain punters seen the ad and responded to it; they were sufficiently interested in it to compare small-screen visuals with in-store reality.

I was once filled in on the science of advertising by a flatmate who worked for Saatchis. He explained that, generally speaking, the witty and suggestive advertisements which columnists exclaim over have no impact at all. The most TV-friendly brand on which he worked, it turned out, was Domestos, whose ads consisted of a bottle of the stuff plonked down on a sink with a voice-over promising the summary annihilation of 99 per cent of known germs. Viewer-recognition statistics were something like 90 per cent.

Burger King may find the ASA's judgement on "tendercrisp chicken" a momentary embarrassment, but it would have been far worse for the firm had nobody complained at all.


Thursday's news about the "toning down" of the celebrated beating-the-retreat ceremony at Wagah-Attari on the India-Pakistan border offered a wry little comment on the nature of militarism. The daily flag-lowering event, which involves goose-stepping and outbreaks of "fierce stamping" by the soldiers of these far-from-friendly neighbours (four wars since independence), has offered both countries an opportunity to put on what one foreign correspondent has called "their most aggressive, intimidating display of martial rigour".

Now the temperature is to be lowered. This is not only, apparently, to dampen the patriotic fervour of the crowds but to stem the tide of serious ankle and knee injuries.

The goosestep, as Orwell pointed out, is the most terrifying marching step in existence – a kind of symbol of brute power, in which one can practically see a human face about to be squashed beneath the descending foot. Back in the 1930s, there were occasional requests for its introduction to the British Army. The reason for their refusal, apparently, was the fear that onlookers would laugh.

Would British crowds laugh today? One assumes that the answer would be yes, and, equally, that it would be a splendid idea if we never had the opportunity to find out for sure.


Huge disappointment continues to fester here in the East Anglian boondocks over Norwich's failure to become the UK's first city of culture. The "Saville report effect" has been much invoked to explain Londonderry's victory. There have even been suggestions that Derry should have been denied the palm on the grounds that it is a "republican stronghold". Then, of course, there were the people who couldn't have cared less who won. Reading a letter to the Eastern Daily Press by a Mr Martin Wallis, which began "As a lifelong card-carrying philistine ...", I must confess that I sat back on my heels.

One of the most depressing things about recent English history, of course, is the fact that even mention of the word "culture" is enough to have a small percentage of the population gnashing its teeth in outrage. On the other hand, publicly proclaiming your contempt for literature, music and the arts – all the things, it might be argued, that help to explain and contextualise the way in which life gets lived – takes a certain amount of guts.

Curiously, it is a contempt that is almost never returned. Imagine, for example, the chances of a newspaper printing a letter that began: "As someone who has no interest whatever in the natural sciences and resents any money being spent on them ..."

All of which helps to convince me that one of the great aphorisms touted about in my adolescence – "Art upsets, science reassures" – actually makes more sense when turned on its head.