Tim Dawson is a writer. He created and wrote three series of the hit BBC sitcom Coming of Age, and has contributed to several other comedy programmes on the BBC and elsewhere.
The BBC has done it again. As the nation seeks a few days respite from division and argument, the BBC has launched their Yuletide adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Sadly, it exhibits much of what is wrong with both the Corporation and our wider cultural discourse.
Naturally, the story has been reimagined as an anti-Brexit parable. Everything that makes Christie entertaining – the wit, the twinkle, the twee contemporaneous details – have been shorn away. The picture has been washed out: we have been treated to a portrait of a 1930s Britain overrun by fascism. (In reality, unlike on the continent, fascism gained little foothold in Britain; and was more likely to be mocked – with its Spode-like popinjays in their preposterous uniforms – than admired).
Christie herself was of course a Conservative, of the even-tempered Burkean variety. So it’s hard to believe she’d have sympathised with scriptwriter Sarah Phelps’ own strident, Junckerphile left-wing politics. To an BBC executive, this new mini-series’ conspicuous rejection of the source material may confer ‘freshness’: to many others, it will seem disrespectful. Packaging in an anti-Brexit crusade – particularly now – seems tin-eared and crass.
There is an assumption amongst the high priests of the corporation that another sermon on the evils of Brexit/Conservatism/‘Fatcha’ (delete as applicable) is welcome. Yet the relationship between the BBC and its audience is growing ever more fractious. Perhaps the way in which the BBC is funded is fuelling the acrimony – we are supposedly a liberal democracy, but we are forced to pay a regressive tax to maintain a state broadcaster.
More likely, it is the nature of the broadcasting we are compelled to pay for. The corporation has never been more political. From its Christmas blockbuster drama to its woefully underperforming comedy output, to its obsession with diversity quotas – the corporation’s left-wing, metropolitan agenda is at the heart of everything it does. And viewers are switching off in droves.
This is part of a wider cultural trend. Our universities – once world-leading beacons of critical thought – have been reformed by thousands of low-grade academics into left-wing madrassas. On social media, militant ‘campaigners’ hunt down any defiance of the New Orthodoxy, and organise punishment pile-ons. It is ironic that, 50 years after the abnegation of the Lord Chamberlain’s role in censoring live theatre, actors and academics, students and socialists, find themselves at the forefront of a new movement to curtail free thought and expression.
State industry quickly begins to operate in the interests of the producer rather than the consumer. Both the BBC and our higher education sector now reflect this universal rule. Some University Vice-Chancellors are earning three or four times the Prime Minister’s salary. An Executive Producer may expect to earn £200-250,000 a year. Meanwhile, graduates are leaving inauspicious institutions with valueless degrees; and the BBC’s Christmas viewing figures have been so poor that, even in the upper echelons of Broadcasting House – usually impervious to anything so vulgar as public opinion – alarms bells will be ringing.
Conservatives are squeamish about a culture war. But the hard left is waging one, and our only choice is whether to cede more territory or enter the fray. Achieving a cultural rebalance will mean tackling the corporation and higher education simultaneously.
The truth is that we have far too many universities, offering far too many degrees which will be of little value to an employer. Attempting to corral 50 per cent of school-leavers into university has been a mistake; unsuitable for many, and creating a bloated and unwieldy sector which is not delivering to the needs of either students, companies or wider society.
Reform should pivot around marketisation. Universities should be forced to publish details of what graduates from each of their courses can expect to earn and the chances of finding gainful employment in the months after they’ve left. We should encourage sponsorship of individual students by potential employers. Such institutions as the University of Buckingham – a successful private university which offers many undergraduate degrees in two years instead of three – should be learned from, and public universities incentivised to follow their example.
The BBC must also drag itself into the modern world. That doesn’t mean employees wandering around in LGBT+ ally badges (how appallingly patronising), but the organisation engaging with the reality of its position. As Anthony Jay (producer, Thatcherite and co-writer of Yes, Minister) noted in his 2008 Centre for Policy Studies report How to Save the BBC, a corporation run by a liberal elite for a liberal elite will lose the faith of those who pay for it.
He suggested that ‘quality’ should be at the heart of the BBC’s output – and, since quality can only be measured by viewing figures, this meant dropping the left-wing cant and catering to popular tastes. He also proposed that the license fee should be reduced, and funnelled into a slimmed-down range of channels. We could go further – switching to a subscription model which would allow the BBC to continue to pursue its political agenda unfettered, as it would only be beholden to those who choose to pay for it. Ultimately, the corporation can only expect to sit at the heart of our cultural life if it is aware of its audience. That means bringing salaries under control; abandoning the relentless identity politics; and creating programmes which reflect, rather than lecture, the nation.
Entering the cultural melee on behalf of ordinary voters represents an obvious opportunity for Conservatives. The luvvies may not appreciate it; but taxpayers will. It’s as easy as ABC.