Once upon a time, there was only one television channel.
And before that there was the British Broadcasting Company, Ltd., Britain’s radio station, which began broadcasting in 1922. It was the BBC’s transmitter in London that John Logie Baird used to make the first mechanically-scanned 30-line television broadcasts in 1929 – two years after the BBC had become a Corporation. And the following year the BBC’s transmitter at Brookmans Park in Hertfordshire, a couple of hours’ drive – in those days – from central London was used to broadcast the first regular schedule of programmes.
Regular electronically-scanned television programming started in 1936 from the transmitter at Alexandra Palace in North London. In its earliest years it was reaching just a few hundred homes in the immediate vicinity; you can stand on the terrace at Alexandra Palace and look out over Wood Green and Hornsey and Harringey and think that back in 1936 every television viewer on Earth, pretty much, was there.
By the time the outbreak of World War Two caused the suspension of the service, it was reaching as many as 40,000 homes. It didn’t resume until 1946.
The BBC already had its first Director-General in John Reith, a Scot who, while working as secretary to the Conservatives during the 1922 General Election, saw an advertisement in the Morning Post for a General Manager for the new British Broadcasting Company. He had no experience in broadcasting or journalism, but he shaped, first BBC Radio, and then BBC Television, and I think we still feel his influence today. For example, during the General Strike in 1926 the BBC reported all sides in the dispute, without comment. He tried to get a comment from the Labour Party, who were then in opposition, but the government vetoed it and refused him permission to let a representative of Labour or trade unions put their case on air. This led the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, to complain that the BBC was `biased’ and `misleading the public.’ I don’t know if this was the first time the BBC was described this way, but it was not the last. Not by a long, long way.
Reith – later Lord Reith – was only Director-General until 1938, but he casts a long shadow at the BBC. It was, I think, during his stewardship that the character of the BBC was forged, a commitment to quality, to education, to raising the expectations of listeners and viewers, to independence.
Of course, the BBC isn’t independent. It exists by Royal Charter and it’s paid for by the licence fee. In order to own and operate a television in this country, you have to buy a licence. Currently a colour television licence costs £145.50, and a black and white one costs £49. This money goes, after passing through something called The Consolidated Fund, to the BBC, even if you never watch any of the BBC channels. Even if all you do with the television is plug your Playstation or Xbox into it. If you own a television, you have to have a licence. Enforcement comes in the form of licence detector vans, which drive down your street using technology the BBC refuses to explain, and track down people who are watching television without a licence.
But I digress. The BBC had it all its own way until 1955, when the first independent television station was launched. ITV is funded by adverts, which is why you’ll sometimes hear people talking about `commercial television.’
ITV was always the rude little cousin, the coarse populist. As Variety began to decline in theatres, it found a home on ITV. While the BBC kept up its mostly highbrow programming, you’d find ITV building studios in old variety theatres. ITV broadcast the first home makeover programmes (how do I know? I interviewed the bloke who presented them, that’s how) You’d have ITV broadcasting a show like Sunday Night At The London Palladium, a variety show that was enormously popular. Some Variety stars, like Morecambe and Wise, made the jump to television successfully. Many more didn’t. ITV offered a diet of game shows and sitcoms, and the longest-running soap opera in history, Coronation Street. The BBC gave us The Brains Trust.
I think the populism and popularity of ITV flatfooted the BBC a little. I have a feeling the BBC tried to maintain a veneer of intellectual cool. Because there’s no doubt that the BBC was, for quite a long time, an intellectual organisation. Oxbridge was a fertile recruiting ground for BBC talent, and it provided a golden age.
Anyway, come 1964 the BBC launched a second channel, and thereafter the BBC became BBC1 and the new channel was named BBC2, and while BBC1 still claimed the moral and intellectual high ground, BBC2 became the home of stuff that was really not populist. Under David Attenborough, its first Controller, it commissioned some of the most extraordinary heavyweight documentary series in television history, truly groundbreaking stuff like Lord Clarke’s Civilisation and Jakob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, stuff that still stands up today as great works of television. If you don’t believe me, try to score the DVD box-set of The Ascent of Man and marvel at what we did, once upon a time. BBC2 is still a home to `niche’ programming today – although that claim is increasingly being threatened by the digital channel BBC4.
BBC1 and BBC2 and ITV had things their own way until 1983, when Channel 4 began broadcasting, and in 1997 Channel 5 (known as `five’) came along.
These are the five terrestrial television channels, and this is the battleground.
For quite a long time the BBC suffered accusations of elitism. It was dubbed `Auntie Beeb,’ a genial mother-figure of an organisation drawn from the intellectual elite who knew what was best for us. It even shaped the way we spoke; the English employed by BBC announcers and newsreaders was `received pronunciation,’ also known as `BBC English.’ University was definitely a fast-track into the BBC – at one time membership of the Cambridge Footlights comedy society almost guaranteed you a comedy series on the Beeb – Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie are all alumni of just one year’s Footlights.
As the years went by, the television environment, which the BBC had had to itself for so long, started to change. Market forces came into play. Competition for viewers was the thing. Stuff like Civilisation became minority viewing.
There was also an increasing resentment – driven by the right-leaning tabloids – of the licence fee. Why should we pay this tax to an organisation which doesn’t actually give us what we want, just in order to watch what we do want to watch on ITV or Channel 4?
Personally, I think a lot of the Press resentment of the BBC is a class thing. A perception has grown up of the BBC as a bunch of left-wing upper-middle-class wankers who all know each other and go to each other’s dinner parties in Islington, and why should these people be telling Britain what to think (because our paper should be the one that does that.)
Anyway, we get into the early days of the 21st Century with the BBC desperately trying to be populist while at the same time trying to stay true to the fairness and impartiality that John Reith inculcated into the new organisation. It butted heads with governments both Labour and Conservative.
And then Andrew Gilligan interviewed David Kelly.
New Labour came into power in 1997, and I think it’s safe to say that Britain had never seen an organisation quite like it. It was media-savvy to a degree unknown in British politics. It handed out `exclusives’ to journalists who favoured it, and excluded journalists who were not `on message.’ This might not have been a new strategy, but the rigor, the glee with which it was done was completely new. It was absolutely in control of its media image, and nothing was too small to escape scrutiny. Under Alastair Campbell – himself a former journalist – the default mode when something went wrong or was unfavourable was to go on the attack, to shout as loudly as possible, to push, push, push. Mostly, if you do that, people back down. Or shoot you.
You’d think the BBC and New Labour would have been a perfect fit. After all, they were both upper-middle-class organisations and the BBC had long been derided as left-wing. But actually they rubbed each other up the wrong way almost from Day One, and the Iraq war was always going to be a flashpoint.
In May 2003, Andrew Gilligan, a reporter on Radio 4’s Today programme, interviewed Dr David Kelly, a Ministry of Defence weapons expert. One of the subjects they touched on was the dossier on Iraqi weapons capability which had been presented by the Government as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq, and the report Gilligan filed for Today implied that his source had told him the dossier had been `sexed-up’ to make it scarier – that Iraq had the capability to deliver a weapons-of-mass-destruction strike at just 45 minutes’ notice, a claim Tony Blair had made in the House of Commons. This line was repeated by two other BBC journalists on the same day.
Personally, I think if it had stopped here things would have been fine. Relations between the BBC and New Labour had deteriorated to the point that this kind of thing was just part of the infighting between them.Unfortunately, Andrew Gilligan repeated the claims in The Mail On Sunday on June 1, naming Alastair Campbell as the person who had `sexed-up’ the dossier.
The Government closed ranks, denouncing the BBC for `poor journalism,’ and the BBC stood by its story, saying it had a reliable source.
I think – and it’s only my opinion – that what had once been about the question of whether we should go to war in Iraq now became a matter of protecting Alastair Campbell. David Kelly – who had previously quite happily given interviews to journalists as an unnamed source, found himself caught between two enormous organisations bent on butting heads.
Gilligan, to give him credit, tried to protect his source.There are varying accounts of how David Kelly was `outed’ as the source, some of which do the government and the Civil Service no credit at all, but outed he was, and he gave evidence – with great dignity, I thought – at an inquiry about the `dodgy dossier.’ He then committed suicide.
The Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly opened in August 2003, and it basically found the Government blameless and strongly criticised the BBC and Andrew Gilligan. It had the same effect as dropping a hand grenade into a pond full of carp. In the wake of the Hutton Report, the BBC’s Director General, Greg Dyke, resigned, as did Gavyn Davies, the BBC’s Chairman.
After that, things just continued to go from bad to worse for the BBC.
There were some questions about the probity of phone-in competitions on television shows. Television stations get a cut from all these phone calls, and it adds up to a surprising amount of money. I won’t go into the ins and outs of this – you can look it up – but a lot of television phone-ins were found wanting. The BBC were not blameless – it was found that in some cases (sometimes because of technical difficulties) they had `faked’ the results of the competitions. In one case, involving the children’s programme Blue Peter, they had brought in a child who was just visiting the studio and asked them to pose as the winner of a phone-in.
Now, the BBC are not alone in doing this kind of thing, and big fines have been handed out to channels that have done the same thing. But post-Hutton the BBC was in a special position. It must not only be whiter than white, it must be seen to be whiter than white. So we had the rather sad spectacle of the BBC’s Director-General doing a public mea culpa and decreeing that henceforth all BBC staff would have to take `honesty courses’ to make sure this kind of thing never happened again. Yes, Best Beloved, honesty courses. To teach them not to lie.
Then came Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand, leaving naughty messages on Andrew Sach’s answering machine during a radio show, making salacious comments about having slept with his grand-daughter. It’s notable that this attracted little attention until it was covered by the Daily Mail, whereupon it garnered so many complaints that Brand and the Controller of Radio 2 were fired, Ross was suspended – and subsequently decamped to ITV – and the BBC was fined £150,000.
There have been other ‘controversies’ since, and each one has chipped away a little more of what makes the BBC unique. The BBC has been forced into cost-cutting exercises which have led, in part, to a ludicrous emigration from London to Salford, the closure of important parts of the World Service, the closure of Bush House.
The BBC was never perfect, but it had its heart in the right place and it produced genuinely extraordinary programming. It still does, as a matter of fact, but I think now what we have is the world’s pre-eminent broadcaster reduced to a whining corporate eunuch of its former self, a Corporation so scared of accusations of `elitism’ that it fills its programming with pap in order to make itself look populist, a Corporation so scared of losing its licence fee that its balls have simply fallen off. There was a time when accusations of elitism or favouritism or pretty much any other ‘ism’ would have been met with an upper-middle-class sniff of disdain and the BBC would have sailed serenely onward.
Obviously, this is not entirely a good thing. Some of the Beeb’s attitudes and programming need challenging still, but it seems to me that the Corporation is a shadow of its former self, that some of its character has gone, and we can all only be poorer for that.