Sebastian Faulks: The BBC binds the nation. Don't condemn it because of one bad day on the Diamond Jubilee

Without Radio 4, the United Kingdom would, I believe, have a collective nervous breakdown


The BBC's coverage of the Diamond Jubilee flotilla last Sunday provoked at first specific criticism, then a wider attack on the organisation. The discontent began with a feeling that the television coverage lacked dignity or factual content, that it relied too much on slightly famous people saying how "great" the atmosphere was. Some critics then talked of "institutional" failings at the BBC, which they would like to see diminished or replaced.

BBC1 apparently decided its lengthy broadcast would come not in the mould of election night but in that of The One Show, its cosy, early-evening magazine. Editors seem to have feared that six hours of watching boats might become dull. It's easy to see in hindsight that the better way to fill the longueurs would have been with more facts – with Kipling's six honest stout serving-men, What and Why and When and How and Where and Who. As Clare Balding, herself part of the broadcast, put it at the Hay Festival: "My belief is always that facts are my friend... And if you ever hear me say, 'The atmosphere here is wonderful' – shoot me." Ms Balding admitted that the coverage of the flotilla had "misfired", and I think we should take her word for it, even if the Monday evening concert was well covered, particularly in the use of helicopter shots to give a sense of place. But there it is. One bad decision, one weak day at the office ...

Only a fool would argue from a single disappointment that the whole of BBC is in some way fatally flawed. However, when tribal politics and business interests are involved, fools abound. There is the further complication of people using criticism of Sunday's broadcast to manoeuvre for the vacant post of director general. The Murdoch newspapers have long been hostile to the Corporation; this position seems based on little more than some lazy idea about the "establishment" and a feeling that any organisation connected to the state may stop Mr Murdoch maximising his profits in a deregulated free-for-all. Right-wing tabloids claim the BBC is biased to the left and is a nest of "political correctness".

Their belief has more justification than the Murdoch one. In more than 30 years of occasional work for it, I have never met a right-winger at the BBC. However, it doesn't follow that a mildly leftish belief prevents you from doing a good day's work or implants bias in your reporting. The only time I have noticed real distortion was in a Radio 4 history of Britain, narrated by Anna Massey, when it came to Mrs Thatcher, whom it dismissed as a minor aberration after whom normal service was resumed. Whatever your own beliefs, that is not what happened.

In 2009-10, I worked full-time for BBC2, making a television series about books. Once, at the end of a long day, I found myself lost in a corridor in TV Centre and asked a staff member the way out. "I can't help," she said. "I'm blind." The entrance lobby sometimes looks like an outpatients' department, so many are those with physical difficulties. You may call this determination to employ across the board "politically correct"; I found it impressive.

Much less so is a kind of bureaucratic nervousness. The Corporation undoubtedly has too many managers, and in the later stages of a programme this can lead to bizarre political manoeuvring. Most of the travel budget on my series had been spent on flying five of us to the foothills of the Himalayas to film a section on Merrick, the repressed homosexual sado-masochist who is the villain of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. Nine months later, in the edit, I was asked if I could rewrite the section in such a way that it did not mention Merrick's homosexuality. When I had got my fallen jaw back in place, I pointed out that this would be like doing a section on Othello without mentioning that he was a Moor, or from Venice.

I never did understand the reasons for this loss of nerve, but together we overcame it. The most frustrating aspect of working for the BBC was spending most of the lunch hour trying to find a café where lunch was within the permitted £5.50 a head. This was difficult in Mayfair, but I felt the licence-fee payer would have applauded our efforts.

We all have our particular BBC irritations, I suppose. Here are two of mine. Journalists ought to be able to be rude and adversarial with politicians when necessary, but for that to be the default tone for every news interview is wearisome and self-defeating. You and Yours is a consumer programme worth an hour a week in anyone's schedule, but every weekday morning? Surely not, particularly when there is also Money Box and Money Box Live. ("The worst band I've ever heard," as Linda Smith remarked.) But these are only quibbles. In general, the BBC seems to me rather like the monarchy. You would not, as they say, start from here; but just as, against all modern logic, our hereditary head of state has proved to be the envy of the world, so the BBC is in my view the greatest cultural possession this country now has left.

Its importance grows daily, as newspapers lose readers and influence. Without Radio 4, the United Kingdom would, I believe, have a collective nervous breakdown. It is our agora, our parish pump, our water cooler; it exerts a defining and centripetal force on our society. Without its binding coherence, we would be left with the atomised Babel of deregulation, Facebook and "on-demand" streaming, each with our own little headset.

I am writing this on Friday afternoon, having just heard a measured World at One, followed by Richard Holloway's terrific philosophical series Honest Doubt. Have you ever listened to French radio in your hire car? Or watched Italian TV? The Italians ended up making the cable guy their prime minister – and bunga bunga to you too – but give me Desert Island Discs and Test Match Special. And if Radio 4 is our greatest present to ourselves, the World Service has been our gift to the world. Without it, those who lived under totalitarian regimes would have lost hope; imprisoned leaders would not have had the strength to carry on; and millions would never have heard factual news reporting or known that there was such a thing as democracy.

To extrapolate from one substandard day on the Thames the idea that the BBC is not worth having is more than foolish, more than commercially self-interested and politically naive; it is the self-indulgence of spoiled children, ignorant of the privileges their history has showered on them.

Sebastian Faulks's latest novel is 'A Possible Life', published in September by Hutchinson

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?