DJ Taylor: The BBC defied gravity, and now it's adrift

Commentators who got the jubilee tone wrong can still do justice to the Olympics. Plus, warped priorities in the world of books
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The Independent Online

It was on about the Wednesday evening of last week that I began to feel sorry for the BBC. By this stage in the proceedings, the barrage of assaults on the corporation's jubilee coverage – on Fearne Cotton's badinage, Clare Balding's backchat with the Thames rowers, the near-terminal unease of the palace concert comperes – had begun to feel faintly gratuitous. However irritated one may have been by the cast of The One Show's unsuitability for the role so breezily allotted them by some Broadcasting House apparatchik, it was worth asking the critics how exactly they would have approached the problem of a river pageant, in bad weather, in a media landscape that is deeply uncomfortable in the presence of ceremonial, pageantry and, indeed, history itself.

The question "When did the BBC lose its ability to handle great events?" would make a good subject for a media studies degree final exam. The corporation's coverage of the 2010 general election was a nightmare, full of celebrity interviews from election-night parties and Jeremy Vine's psephological special effects, while the real business of getting in the results as rapidly as possible seemed to have been ceded to ITV. Already, seven weeks before kick-off, one is grimly conscious of the kind of drivel liable to waft above the Olympic Stadium in late July. But in the midst of filing these complaints, one should never forget that the elusive first principle of how a state broadcasting company should tackle "spectacle" in a (supposedly) democratic age has never been properly addressed.

In her novel The Virgin in the Garden (1978), set in the early 1950s, A S Byatt devotes a long passage to her characters' reactions to the Coronation. Paragraphs of Richard Dimbleby's meditative voice-over, with its disparagement of Elizabeth I and its encomia to "the product of a happy childhood, based on the highest ethical and Christian principles" are reproduced verbatim. Clearly, six decades later, this kind of thing will not do, if only because we have lost the collective historical consciousness that would give it meaning. But what will serve instead?

You can see the corporation's dilemma. Plump for a Dimbleby-esque gravity and people will accuse you of staidness. Employ some alleged comedians to crack jokes on the palace podium and the same people will charge you with light-mindedness. Before an incoming director-general gets to grips with this wider conundrum, here are a few tips for whoever is in charge of the Olympics coverage: no trackside interviews with breathless athletes who have just finished their races; no fancy graphics; and no vox pops from the stadium edge. In fact, why not take the absolutely revolutionary step of simply showing the events and letting the experts comment on them?

The Chancellor's plan to encourage Britain's "army of small savers" to boost the nation's economic prospects by investing in government "growth bonds" has met with a positive response. The money, which will apparently involve the kind of tax breaks available to ISAs, is booked for such infrastructure projects as toll roads, green energy and house building.

The beauty of this scheme, as in the wartime issue of savings certificates, lies in its faint hint – actually a pretty strong hint – of a patriotic summons. Want the nation to prosper? Well, why not invest in an enterprise that will benefit us all? It is almost like being asked to send aluminium saucepans to aircraft factories. All the same, as details of the plan emerged, I was sharply reminded of the scene in Simon Raven's satire Friends in Low Places (1965) in which the Marquess of Canteloupe, "Parliamentary Secretary for the Development of British Recreational Resources", proposes to issue bonds which "in theory at least" will be financing medical research into incurable conditions.

"Make it a moral duty," Canteloupe insists. "And you know how sentimental the English are about health; so the bonds could carry bugger-all in the way of interest, and even so no would ever dare cash them in. Imagine going to a Post Office and selling a bond with Paralytic Old Folks or Spastic Kiddies written all over it..." The Government's "growth bonds" look set to display exactly the same moral garnish. For once, Mr Osborne has been rather subtle.

The book I most enjoyed reading last week was Adam Thorpe's edition of the selected poems of John Fowles. The enjoyment was somewhat compromised by news that the book will be the last produced by its sponsors, the Flambard Press. Over the 22 years of its existence, operating from an address near Hexham, Flambard has grown into one of the finest small publishers in the UK. Its novelists have ornamented Booker longlists, while its reissue programme includes the very wonderful Sid Chaplin's Tyneside classic, The Day of the Sardine.

The chief reason for Flambard's closure is apparently the withdrawal of its modest Arts Council grant. So how, you might wonder, is the Arts Council spending our money these days? By coincidence, Flambard's demise follows in the wake of the award of £3m for the construction of an "International Writers' Centre" in Norwich, as part of the city's newly won status as a Unesco city of literature. Doubtless, as J M Coetzee and co flock to Norfolk to be entertained in this glittering new ziggurat, the money will be advantageously laid out, but you can't help feeling that one or two cultural priorities have been grievously misplaced.