Leading Article: Let's start the week with some healthy elitism

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The Independent Online
The BBC should do much less than it does, but Radio 4 is one of the few things that it should do. There are, of course, as many opinions on individual programmes and their scheduling as there are dinner tables and saloon bars throughout the country. But the force with which they are argued reflects an abiding national attachment to the underlying concept. It is quite an achievement of James Boyle, the station's controller, that he managed not to offend that sense of attachment with yesterday's leaked story that up to 20 programmes are to be axed, and the schedules rationalised.

Indeed, the silkiness with which the news was received by those fierce guardians of middle-class vested interest, Voice of the Listener and Save Radio Four Long-Wave, suggests that the BBC is at last beginning to learn the news management skills of New Labour. The corporation has been mauled by this lot before, and did not want to go through it again.

But this is not just about preserving the elitist pleasures of the middle classes. The working classes, too, are quite capable of being elitist, and have just as much interest in defending intellectual, educational or artistic elitism.

The defence of Radio 4 rests on a kind of elitism. That is what public service radio is for. The BBC's bloated bureaucracy of managers should be more aggressive about their public service duty, and sound less like schedulers for WKO-TV, obsessively worrying about ratings. Some of the wishy-washy justifications of dumbing down for a "mass" audience which are parroted by the BBC are the sort of thing that give elitism a bad name. The idea that a public service broadcaster should run Radio 1 so that it can peddle "responsible" messages to young people is the kind of patronising pap that suggests anyone under 18 is part of a benighted, undifferentiated mob, forever on the verge of drug-crazed sex. As if people who listen to Radio 1 do not also listen to Radio 4, or take an interest in Piero della Francesca.

The point about the kind of elitism which is good and necessary, and ought to be fostered, is that some things generally attract a minority audience, but the rest of us are glad that they are there, may want to dip into them, and are prepared to pay trivial parts of our licence fee to make sure they remain. This is, necessarily, a principle that applies to categories of cultural activity rather than to specific programmes. The world divides, for example, between those whose daily rhythms are set by the episodes of The Archers and those who send furniture flying in their haste to reach the off button before the second bar of the theme tune.

Other programmes can be rated good or bad more dispassionately. For all the book-puffery and ego-strutting, Start the Week is a programme of serious intellectual intent. One of Melvin Bragg's merits is that he does something about the failure of intellectual culture to talk to scientists. It would be a disgrace to abolish the programme. The celebrity confessionals, In the Psychiatrist's Chair and Desert Island Discs, are national institutions, although neither is as good as people pretend (Sound Choices on Radio 3 is a better version of Roy Plomley's classic; it takes the music more seriously, and these days has more interesting interviewees). Mr Boyle is right to recognise the strength of Woman's Hour and the weakness of Midweek and PM. And it is sensible for him to try to synchronise programme times through the week and to schedule similar programmes at the same times each day. There is only one further consideration: no more phone- ins. If we want them, we can get them elsewhere.

But Radio 4 has to be taken as a whole, and it is Mr Boyle's job to make the mixture as coherent and distinctive as possible. Ambridgephobes are capable of recognising that public service radio should include dreary drama serials, even if they do not want to listen to them. A glance through this week's schedules for Radio 4 suggests that there is not much wrong with the mix as it is, the highlight being a 40-minute feature on Thursday about Barbie dolls. (Did you know there are more Barbies than people in the US, and that Barbie was modelled on a pornographic German comic strip?) But, in spite of the appearance of radicalism in Mr Boyle's shake-up, he seems to understand the wisdom of moving cautiously, and is not behaving like a frantic ratings-chaser.

In this, he should be a model for the BBC. Radio 4 is an important test case, because it comes under the most clear-cut part of the BBC's core remit, which is to do things that licence-payers expect of it, which would not be done otherwise. The most important such activity is independent, impartial news and current affairs programming, and the core public-service networks are Radios 3, 4 and 5. There is no equivalent case for Radios 1 and 2. There used to be a case for BBC2 as part of public broadcasting as the guarantor of innovation, but that was undermined by the success of Channel 4. (As an important aside, World Service television and radio are undoubtedly integral to the BBC's core remit; most licence-payers believe they are vital services, even if they rarely see or hear them.) Meanwhile, the case for putting licence-payers' money into EastEnders rests on an argument about the need to maintain a mass television channel, which will become harder in the multi-channel future.

Some habits - such as blessing someone who sneezes, or cleaning your teeth before you go to bed, or looking both ways before you cross a road - are good, and best left alone. The peculiarity of the wireless is that it can create durable listening habits, partly because you can do other things while listening to The Archers, or Sing Something Simple, or Today, and partly because of the predictability of their timing. Mr Boyle should not break our habits solely for the sake of change.