Leading Article: A BBC blasphemy

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The Independent Online
For many years it has not been very clear exactly what the board of governors of the BBC is for. Except in times of institutional crisis (such as the late Eighties, when they fired the hapless Alasdair Milne as the Corporation's Director- General) the governors have not been regarded as significant players.

That is partly because they appear to have been chosen exclusively from a narrow section of the establishment: a headmistress of a girls' public school (never a state one), someone who was once in a Labour government, a senior clergyman from one of the Scottish churches, a former permanent secretary and - to complete a boxful for the Proms or Goodwood - a pukka big businessman and a right- wing trade unionist. All humanity is most certainly not there. Even television producers and channel controllers can claim greater familiarity with life as it is lived.

Alas, the BBC's new charter defines a statutory role for the governors, part of which is in supervising the taste and decency of the Corporation's output. Or rather, in limiting bad taste and indecency. This week the outgoing chairman of the board of governors, Marmaduke Hussey, outlined new guidelines to add to the several thousand already available to BBC personnel. Among other things, greater care is apparently to be taken in the use of bad language and "especially, religious language" before the 9pm watershed.

Taste and decency are real concerns, to which BBC editors must be alert. But they have a problem: whose taste and whose decency? If listeners did not accept, say, Chris Evans' language, they presumably would not listen to him: the problem is that people do want to listen to Chris Evans, partly because of his irreverent language. And why should we regard irreligous language, or even some common swear words, as being worse than the corruption of our language by cliche? Some find the use of cliches in news bulletins ("bears all the hallmarks", for instance) more offensive.

As far as sex and nudity are concerned, how much of that is worse than the competition going on between the Casualty and Silent Witness make- up teams to produce the most disgusting corpse of the year?

The commercial pressures on the BBC to keep audiences against ever more fierce competition, as well as the changing expectations of the listening population, inevitably exert a greater force on programme makers and editors than Marmaduke Hussey: their response to him, in practice, is likely to be printable only as a row of asterisks.

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