The BBC needs neither its enemies nor its apologists

The corporation has ponderous complaints procedures, but open discussion where producers are really challenged does not yet exist
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The Independent Online

Frankly, I don't care how esteemed Sir Ludovic Kennedy is or how I too thought of him once as a good, fair-minded broadcaster. He has just revealed his true colours with published views as unforgivably bigoted as those of Norman Tebbit, who still believes that this nation is rightfully white and that we black and Asian Britons are here on sufferance.

In a book review in The Oldie (a repository for blimpish fogies who cannot bear to watch the irresistible and dazzling transformation of the media), Kennedy last week slagged off the BBC for having too many black and Asian people on television. The corporation was playing "politically correct numbers games" and offending his sensibilities by having the likes of us in pubs, police stations, advertisements and vox pops. These dark faces paid his salary for decades of course, through all those years when the BBC was a white club for the establishment of Oxbridge men who looked down their noses at the rest of the world and the white working classes.

Since the knighted gentleman took the trouble to ring the Office of National Statistics to ascertain just how many of us (in exact percentage proportions) should be on public service broadcasting, why didn't he also get the "acceptable" figures for Australians or Scots? And what would have been the reaction if he had made similar enquiries about the number of British Jews on television?

Of course there are many who will agree with these despicable views, and this outburst, coming from a respected liberal, will give them succour. We know too that powerful sections of the media, who wish to destroy the corporation for their own commercial reasons, today scent blood now that the BBC has undoubtedly been wounded by the revelations in the Hutton inquiry. (Never forget, though, that Gilligan was substantively right about the assertions in the disputed dossier. There is no doubt that the case for war was overstated by Blair and Co.) The Murdoch empire, the Telegraph group, that creep Gerald Kaufman, all the disgruntled of the nation (including me) have recurrent gripes against the Beeb. And now the Government, wounded itself, is as filled with rage against the BBC just when both are approaching stormy waters with the election and charter renewal on the horizon.

I simply do not believe Tessa Jowell, credible and persuasive though she often is, that New Labour has no vengeance in its heart when it looks at charter renewal. Retaliation and retribution is the way of New Labour, as many who have turned against it know full well.

Loyalists I talk to still believe that they would have won the propaganda war on Iraq if the media hadn't been so "biased". What? Most of the newspapers were on side; most broadcasters were almost paralysed trying to present an objective view of the war which millions believed was wrong. The BBC was careful way beyond the call of duty. On the Question Time programme I was on with Geoff Hoon, there were, I believe, arrangements made to make sure he had the easiest of rides, even hearty applause, while the anti-war speakers were shouted down. And still the Government carried on hounding the BBC. Their fury was partly fuelled, in my view, by the shock of seeing two of their "own" - Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies - behaving not like tribal members but like Reithian gentlemen assiduously striving to keep the balance.

Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference on the war and 11 September, I and every other speaker, including Menzies Campbell, declared that they would be at the barricades if the Government dared to reduce the power and income of the BBC. The audience applauded wildly. It was a visceral response in part. All of us in that room have stories about what the Beeb has meant to us over the years.

The BBC brand is still unmatched around the world. The World Service in particular has thrived, in spite of ferocious competition from Murdoch, CNN and home-grown satellite channels. This is partly because it is shedding its old imperial posture (a project still incomplete). Its current position is remarkable: broadcasts in 43 languages, more than a million monthly hits online, current affairs programmes with audiences of two hundred million - and it gave us Rageh Omar.

Here on the terrestrial channels and digital expansion, the BBC is on the move from the fusty past, and that is what irritates the likes of Kennedy. Drama is picking up - The Lost Prince was a jewel, and soaps like Holby City show us the nation we are with integrated casting and superlative acting. Documentaries such as The Fall of Milosevic more than justify the licence fee.

Yet I too fret that the threats against the BBC will become fatal blows and that it will not survive in the form it must, because there are many endemic problems, old and some more recent, which it must now attend to. Love of the Beeb cannot be blind, and mine is not. First, there is no doubt that a fog of complacency lingers in its corridors. This, curiously, runs parallel with its almost phobic anxiety that the independents are more cool and risqué and must be imitated, however badly.

There is too much smug satisfaction among BBC staff, especially at the top, that they are doing frightfully well across the radio and television landscapes when there is ample evidence that there is little imaginative risk-taking, too much recycling of presenters (Andrew Marr is brilliant, but even he must realise that he is having a Jamie Oliver effect of overexposure), some thoroughly daft ideas (the embarrassing Crouches, a black sitcom written by a white Glaswegian, talented but clueless about black Britain) and dumb and populist programming, especially for young audiences.

Black and Asian Britons are still kept out of lifestyle programming, history series, politics and arts. The BBC will still not see me as an equivalent of, say Peter Hitchens, or Jonathan Freedland. Time Out's astute TV critic Alkarim Jivani will never get the slots that go easily to, say, Tom Sutcliffe; and I don't expect that a person of colour will ever be allowed to present The Commission or Any Questions. Then there is the digital solution - radio stations and separate television "choices" for different constituencies - which is leading to needless fragmentation.

But by far the biggest problem is that the present system is grossly unaccountable. Newspapers get daily responses from their readers; they correct and apologise, sometimes even explain. The BBC has ponderous systems with complaints procedures and internet viewpoints, but an open discussion where producers are really challenged does not yet exist. And it should. Feedback and Points of View are too tame, and the makers of programmes merely justify what they do. We need live discussions every Sunday on two or three of the programmes most questioned that week on radio and television.

So the message to the BBC is: we will fight for you against this onslaught from those who wish you weak or dead; but you must listen to our concerns and make absolutely sure that you truly are the voice of modern Britain, whatever that Ludovic chap says.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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