Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Well done, PD James. But will the BBC get the message?

The most prestigious political programmes and documentaries are not open to people like us

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What a splendid, entertaining programme, better than a long glass of pink champagne. PD James, as guest editor for the Today programme interviewed the BBC director-general Mark Thompson. La grande dame sans merci, nearly 90, "filleted", "torpedoed" or "skewered" the hapless Thompson, said excitable commentators.

Thompson stuttered when interrogated about vast management salaries and the disgraceful culling of older women from the screen, a complaint forcefully reiterated by Harriet Harman this weekend. Nothing beats doughty Englishwomen of a certain age when they decide enough is enough.

Worryingly though, the very serious concerns raised by PD James have vanished as the match and its winner become the story. Her age, crime-writing and gender are proving too much of a distraction. Maybe that was the cunning plot all along. Get the leader of the pack to the formidable headmistress, take his punishment and carry on as before. Not so fast I say. Too many of us feel the corporation is losing its purpose and integrity, failing to reflect the nation as it changes and grows.

Like PD James, I have long loved this institution, a love inherited from my father who would forget to eat but addictively listened to the crackling sounds of BBC coming through the old radio. I detested the Empire but not its seductive broadcaster which seemed to rise above grubby commercial concerns and obvious partisanship. Into the heart of Africa it brought beautifully modulated language, lofty journalistic principles, poetry, self-confidence and ideals. Propaganda yes, but irresistibly high quality.

Coming to Britain in 1972 was a shock in many ways – the nation was in a state of social and economic collapse – but the BBC was still there, eternal, excellent and holding on to its founding ethics. It gave us exiles a feeling of belonging and kept alive the image of Great Britain.

Over the years the romance with the BBC faded but not the abiding affection, not even when we saw how it excluded so many who lived on these isles. Today serious disillusionment is sweeping in. You can still find fantastic programmes and exceptional broadcasters, but they cannot offset the increasing dross, repetitiveness and mob appeal. I like many of the individuals, including Thompson, but many of their decisions and choices – like having the BNP on Question Time – have become indefensible. The captains of the "unwieldy ship" as described by PD James care not about their mutinous passengers, and disregard their complaints. Not running the appeal for the victims of Gaza was but one example of highhandedness.

Thompson argues that 37 individuals in the management team deserve three times more than the PM and would go elsewhere if offered less. So, like greedy bankers, let them go to that elsewhere. Where will they find such a safe and cushy alternative? ITV and Channel4 are trying to survive the vicissitudes of the marketplace. The DG shows himself to be as insular as indignant parliamentarians who think we should pay for their duck houses and second homes.

Patent age discrimination is faced by women because the BBC abjectly follows the generators of popular culture – glossy mags, glam queens, celeb circuses. Licence-fee payers are paying for the insidious propagation of female images of beauty that make most of us feel hideous and irrelevant. We see more able and sharp black and Asian female presenters now – Riz Lateef, Anita Anand, Mishal Husain – but one wonders where they will be when they are not young and beautiful.

The most prestigious political programmes and documentaries are not open to people like us. When it comes to highly paid entertainers, the club is even more restrictive. All white male stand-up comics and wits like Stephen Fry are recycled endlessly.

This is our BBC. The management and BBC Trust seem to have forgotten that. We must thank PD James for reminding them. She should get the DG back in six months and ask for a slashed pay list at the top, programming worthy of the institution and proof that talent systematically excluded is finally being admitted through the forbidding doors. If none of this is forthcoming we will know that the interview was just a diversionary tactic, a bit of amusement as the ship sails into the new year.


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