Here is the news from the Kremlin

I USED to think the BBC was a sort of parallel universe, outwardly like ours, but inhabited by humanoids called 'BBC people', who followed their own rules and spoke their own language. And it worked well enough to explain most things.

But it doesn't work any more. It doesn't explain why there are people at the top such as Duke Hussey, who is, if anything, an alien; nor does it explain why so many BBC people I meet these days are filled with fear and loathing for what is happening to their world.

So I have a new theory. I now think the BBC today is uncannily like the Soviet Union just before President Brezhnev died. For a start, the Soviet Union had its Presidium, that shuffling but powerful collection of ghostly no-hopers and interfering has-beens; and the BBC has its Board of Governors. The BBC has its tough man in charge and its tough man next in line of succession, and so did the Soviet Union. The Soviet leaders ruled by fear, and so does the BBC.

Not at gun-point, of course. Fear works in other ways. I met a man last year who was executive producer of an important new series on BBC-TV. All the programmes had been made, and it remained only to decide in which order they should go out. To open the series he had chosen a programme that everyone, including him, thought was the worst of the lot.

'Why that one first?' I asked.

'Because I hope it's the one that will most appeal to Alan Yentob,' he said. 'And he's the man I have to impress.'

'What about appealing to the viewers?' I asked.

'Wouldn't that be great?' he replied.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more the BBC does resemble the old Soviet Union. The way nice young people go into the system and turn grey-eyed. The way hatchet men are appointed above the heads of programme makers and creative people. The way promotions are engineered for political ends . . .

I knew another man who was asked why he hadn't gone in for a certain post at the far end of the country. He didn't want to move to the far end of the country, he said, and neither did his family. The BBC put his name in for the post, saying he would regret it if he didn't, and he got the post and he is now at the far end of the country.

It's like moving a Russian officer if he becomes too popular with the men. But recently the BBC has begun moving whole regiments around in the old Soviet manner. A particularly brutal example is the announcement that Christchurch studio in Bristol, home of an outstanding drama unit, is to be closed down and the staff scattered.

This studio has had about pounds 1m spent on it recently. It's a wonderful place. The people who work there are a good team. So the Kremlin is closing it down and moving the team to Birmingham. In Birmingham there is an excellent features group that is being split up and similarly scattered (some of it to Bristol]). Is the BBC frightened of its own good people, as the Soviet leaders used to be?

The other day I got a round robin letter from South-West Jazz, an admirable organisation, bemoaning the tragic effect that the decision to close Christchurch will also have on the growth of local music. A lot of the best local jazz (and other specialist music) on the radio has been recorded in Bristol, by a team of amazingly good technicians. No longer, it seems.

The Soviet Union had its annual show in Red Square to show the Russians the guns on which their money had gone. The BBC has an annual programme in which Mr Hussey and the Director-General tell us we are getting value for money.

The Soviet Union, like most desperate regimes, had foreign adventures to impress the people. The BBC pours its money down Eldorado and sends Michael Palin to both Poles. The Soviet Union pretended to listen to its citizens. The BBC has Feedback on Radio 4 . . .

What can one do? What did one do in the Soviet Union to protest? Wrote samizdat, among other things. And it does occur to me that the letter I got from South-West Jazz was not just a letter, but samizdat: a hand-copied letter circulated to the people who feel that the BBC is in the hands of a Politburo that does not respond to the real world, and which gets programmes made the way Birtian dialectics dictate.

Don't get me wrong. Russia is a great place. It just fell into the wrong hands. The BBC is a great place, too . . .

Comments