Why treat us like dimwits?

The BBC should return to making good popular, not bad populist, programmes, says Richard Hoggart
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LAST Wednesday the BBC published its vision for the future after a two-year review of its programmes. Why does this document, People and Programmes: A Promise to the Public, leave the reader feeling so sad? Because it sounds as though it is written by intelligent and honest people but people with sticking-plaster over their mouths. They cannot speak as straight as they must surely wish, which brings to mind Chekhov's words to his compatriots: "You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that."

It is hard to get hold of what the authors are trying to say in the report because there is little concrete and direct speech: "Quality, in other words, is a complex idea and it is genre-specific, particular to each type of programme" or "The `arts' are breaking out of their old categories and increasingly seen by sections of the population as part of the leisure- life".

This is the language of public relations and advertising, typecasting audiences according to income and lifestyle. The BBC uses it because, although not itself a commercial station, it allows a commercial approach to dictate. And that is at the heart of its problem.

Commercial broadcasting was brought in 40 years ago not to increase good broadcasting for all but to make profits for a few. It would have been simple to set up a second broadcasting network in which the programme- makers were indirectly financed from advertising but were focused on straight competition with the BBC. Their single aim would have been to make good programmes of all kinds. (Channel 4, when it was founded many years later, at first ran along these lines.) The commercial television authority would have handled the advertisement revenue and allocated it to the production companies on merit and need.

Instead, the commercial companies were allowed to make programmes and produce revenue. From that moment British broadcasting had a squint. One network was out to increase profits by seeking mass audiences, and so greater advertising revenue, restricted only by an Act under which they operated. Since then their friends in Tory governments have progressively relaxed those regulations.

The BBC, still with a single aim - broadcasting in the public interest - has had to try to fulfil that brief while all the time looking over its shoulder at the competition. It had to look not because its competitors were producing better programmes but because if, as was predictable, the commercial network won on ratings the cry would go up from the ill-advised in Parliament and elsewhere that the Corporation was not worth the licence fee.

"The BBC keeps us all honest," said Michael Grade, head of Channel 4. Yes, but it can't itself speak out frankly about its own awful and unnecessary choices. It can't say that the competition in broadcasting is falsely based and meretricious. It can and does say, very briefly, that much of its competitors' programming is becoming worse ("reducing ... abrogating ... more commercial than ever before ... no risk-taking"), straining all the time to go even more downmarket.

It can't say: "We could make rubbishy programmes such as those, but our public service brief, our professionalism and our respect for audiences rightly prevent us." To that a reader might reply: "But you have made and do make some pretty rubbishy ones in your effort to meet the competition.''

People and Programmes steers away from judgments of quality, so its comments on programmes are about (one of the favoured words) the "popular" - and that often really means populist. It is driven to head-counting and number- crunching and avoids looking at the inwardness of programmes. It compliments itself on putting more drama on Radio 4 but avoids facing the criticism that those dramas are progressively more like stereotyped pap. It talks of the popularity of books programmes such as A Good Read and promises to increase them, but fails to meet the charge that such programmes have steadily become critically boneless and rudderless, loose celebrations in which three or four people exchange cries of "a wonderful read" or "I was totally enthralled" about books ranging from the decent to the trivial.

Perhaps the authors of this apologia really do not see that there is such a thing as a judgment of quality as distinct from the echo back from the audiences. Classic FM is treated with courtesy and admiration here. Liz Forgan, one of the two authors of the document, had said earlier that Classic FM has much to teach the BBC. About better music broadcasting? She could just as well have said, but didn't, that Classic FM has much to teach the BBC about seeking audiences - beginning with not speaking to listeners as if they were dim-witted and bored people vaguely waiting for some soothing mood-music.

"We have launched a popular new programme on BBC1 based on the National Lottery," we are told. Alan Yentob, the other author of the document, does not give up easily. He was apparently angered by the heavy criticism of his decision to buy in the lottery programme. He seemed satisfied with the low-level, disguised contempt via flattery, of the programme as it was devised. He then judged the programme to represent a coming together of the national community. God help the nation, then, if that's where we've got to.

The concomitant of this shifting about with the meaning of "quality" is nervous and excessive praise for the taste of the people out there. Some of us have been saying for many years that we, the audiences, the customers, the voters, are not as daft as those who seek our support often seem to assume. We didn't say it in the ritualistic, plasticised way used here; we looked also at the other side of the coin and tried to resolve the contradictions.

Many people are only basically and not critically literate. That goes partly with our divisive education system. More importantly, it is sustained by those vast engines of persuasion which, in their own interest, tell us that we need not lift our eyes higher or wider, that their trash is good bread. Almost all of us at some time settle for trash, even though we may know better. For all of us the appetite grows by what it feeds on: it is easier to reinforce existing low taste than to suggest that the world is wider and deeper. Valry did not mince his words: "When one no longer knows what to do in order to astonish and survive, one offers only pudenda to the public gaze."

If a referendum were held now on a return of capital punishment it would be passed by 75 per cent. If broadcasting regulations were abolished there would then be immediate pressure for the executions to be televised. Commercial television would show them first. The BBC would be unhappy but would eventually follow suit - on the best "democratic" grounds.

This is the very heart of the BBC's dilemma - the dilemma forced on it for profit rather than in the public interest, by the establishment of a squinting broadcasting system. The BBC had to compete to survive and has done so. Sometimes it has competed by formulaic programming, by copying, by buying from the competition programme-makers to whom it would not have given house-room 30 years ago.

Huw Wheldon, who was in charge of BBC television in the early Seventies, talked straight about quality across the whole spectrum of programming. He insisted, with detailed examples, that good popular programmes were not the same as bad populist programmes; that the challenge to the BBC, when its competitor produced the populist, was to counter by creating the truly popular.

Yet it does after all seem as though the authors of the BBC report can recognise good from bad, popular from populist. £85m is to be released for fresh programme ideas. One fears the worst, yet the proposals seem to promise good programmes of many different kinds. They run counter to much of the earlier exculpatory prose.

Then their intellectual/semantic situation becomes even clearer. Like many of us, these BBC managers have lost the language for expressing their own levels of understanding; they can think better than they speak. The times are against "judgmental" thinking, so they take refuge in populist and relativistic jargon. If only they had been more concrete from the beginning by, say, giving a roll-call of good-and-popular programmes that would have told us where they really stand - Bread, Boys From the Blackstuff, One Foot in the Grave, Edge of Darkness, and, going back,Till Death Us Do Part, Dad's Army, Monty Python, Steptoe and Son. For such things and much else the BBC is widely and rightly respected, and the licence fee thought good value by the majority of people.

Even more important, those programmes often broke the class barrier in taste - they spoke to a common national sense of drama, of comedy, of situation and of language. That was a remarkable discovery and achievement. By contrast, the authors of this book have swallowed much of the fashionable stratified-by-lifestyle argument by which, even if the sense of class has been slightly weakened nowadays, we are to be more and more "targeted" as members of stratified, separated and discrete social groups. That suits advertisers. It shouldn't be accepted without question by the BBC. Even today it can at its best prove otherwise.

Comments