Quentin Letts is the Parliamentary sketchwriter of the Daily Mail
Sterner editorial discipline may not be easily imposed on a sprawling organisation, yet this is essential if the BBC is to retain political support. It will fall into line if the Director-General re-states quickly – with some early coups de main – a morality about the way the licence fee is spent.
The BBC’s mission is “to inform, educate and entertain”. Note that batting order. “Entertain” comes third. That is where it belongs.
There is clearly no point making shows which are not going to be watched or heard, but some output has become so over-sugared by populism that it may present a health risk to diabetics. Certain channels shimmer and tingle with the broadcasting equivalent of e-numbers and saccharine: phone-ins, votes, celebrity guests, studio audiences, canned hilarity, leaden emphasis on “relevance”. As politicians say – though seldom mean – Britain deserves better. So do the many people at the BBC who want to make more serious programmes, but at present feel under pressure to conform to low-brow demands.
BBC Three is a scandal and should be axed. Radio One is indistinguishable from its commercial rivals. Radio Five Live’s off-peak material has become a cloaca maxima of platitudes from dullards with a bizarre sense of entitlement. But I suspect that in your hearts you know this. They damage the BBC brand.
The BBC has an allergy to elitism (which it confuses with privilege). I would like to see a BBC which is allergic to ignorance, allergic to coarseness and pap and received wisdom. The licence fee is itself a privilege, and makes it incumbent on its editors to resist vulgarity. I do not just mean swear-words, which may occasionally have their place. I mean the sort of grooty thinking which allows Richard Coles’s trailer at 8.30am on Radio 4 on a Saturday morning to hail Billy Bragg as “one of the greatest living Englishmen”. Billy Bragg? He can’t even sing! I mean the 4pm Radio Five Live “star guest” who is invited to attack the Grand National and gets away with saying that “a hundred horses” take part in the race. No they don’t. Why book such birdbrains? Why allow the BBC airwaves to be corrupted by such casual errror?
When we buy packaged food we can look at the label for details of calories, fat, salt, etc., are contained in the product. High ratings are like calories. They may be desirable but alone they are not enough to sustain.
The next Director-General will not have the hours to don earphones and pre-scrutinise hundreds of programmes. Yet should the new boss not show solidarity with the shopfloor? Asda’s chief executive occasionally sits behind a supermarket till. Let the new Director-General roll those sleeves and help to edit a “Today” programme or a BBC1 news bulletin. We already have “celebrity guest editors” (dreadful idea, as it happens). How much more fitting it would be for the DG to do the job.