LIFE AND DEATH
In a museum
During those crucial days in November 2018, when Theresa May was struggling to get her Brexit bills passed in parliament, British television played its part.
No fewer than 120 hours per week could be spent in watching how we British won the war. My dedicated research team listed them all. There were sturdy war films (Where Eagles Dare, The Night of the Generals and so on), documentaries (Nazi Treasure Hunters, Churchill’s Bodyguard, Nazi Mega-structures etc), comedy series (‘Allo ‘Allo, triple bill), and family viewing (The World at War ad infinitum).
Repeat episodes from Dad’s Army, launched in 1968, Nigel Farage’s favourite programme, could be found on different channels on every night of the week. You could sit down at ten o’clock in the morning, cup of tea in hand, and re-live the glory days, until past midnight, and be under no doubt whatsoever that we won the war. Project Fear? Pshaw!
We are lucky to have so much nostalgia upon which we can rely, like a squashy armchair, but there does come a point when we have to stand up, and stretch our mental limbs, a burst of activity that becomes more reckless with age.
The role of the licence fee
Much has changed since the BBC was founded in 1923, and particularly since the last review of the licence fee in 2016. It was scheduled to rise with inflation. Now, as the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries MP, announced to the House of Commons on 17 January, its income will be frozen for two years and may be abolished altogether. Is it needed at all?
The internet has expanded, ‘exponentially’, as they say in the trade. We have left the EU. We are standing alone, our borders intact or semi-intact, and our sovereignty preserved or semi-preserved, our wealth reclaimed from the coffers of Brussels, and raising more credit (or not) in the market. There were plans for a grand celebration, but covid got in the way.
The days of our release were marred by the pandemic. Three times as many civilians have so far died (150,000+), the highest death toll in Europe, as were killed in the Blitz (43,000); and we cannot blame the Luftwaffe. Twenty-four months of social distancing were the worst possible way to launch the plans for Global Britain.
The BBC could have cleared its schedules to trumpet (or not) our freedom!
Does the BBC have a left-wing bias?
Currently, the annual licence fee (at £159) funds nine national TV channels, with regional services, ten radio stations, the BBC’s website (including BBC Bitesize), the BBC’s i-Player, BBC Sounds, the BBC’s World Services, nine orchestras, with choirs, and hosts the Proms. It is also required for the ITV services, Channel 4, Channel 5, satellite and cable.
BUT, as Andrew Rosindell, MP for Romford, pointed out, the BBC no longer plays the National Anthem on TV at midnight to foster “a sense of pride and national unity!” In parliament, Dorries agreed. “What is wrong with playing the National Anthem?”
Unfortunately, as Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingbrough, pointed out to GB News, the BBC has an ‘unconscious’ left-wing bias. Dorries has called for the BBC to observe a “less elitist and snobbish approach to the recruitment of its staff”. “A vocal number” had objected to her own elevation. “Were they all from the left?” she asked, and answered her own question. “There were a number of people who used my appointment as a means of political attack.”
The unspoken question behind the threat to the licence fee is whether this would bring our national broadcaster more into line with populist appeal, as recognised by the Tory Party.
The current editorial policy of the BBC
The current management of the BBC seems sympathetic. The director of editorial policy, David Jordan, told the communications committee of the House of Lords (11 January) that “everyone should expect their views to be appropriately represented by their national broadcaster, even if they believe that the earth is flat”.
This was not, however, why the licence fee was first introduced. The founding fathers wanted to protect the BBC from commercial marketing and party political pressures. They wanted it to inform, educate and entertain, not to advertise, proselytise and hand out leaflets.
Their prime concern was the integrity of the public debate. The BBC should be reliable and trustworthy. That was the point of the licence fee. It should reflect well-informed opinion. Lord Reith would shy away from the idea that ‘impartiality’ implied ‘moral equivalence’, that all points of view should be represented and that ‘truth’ was simply an accumulation of facts.
During the days of covid restrictions, this old-fashioned view of public service broadcasting might have come into its own: captive audiences for Freeview; a backlog of unacknowledged European history; and more tragedy than could be contained in the combined works of Homer, Aeschylus and Shakespeare. Every migrant boat brought a catalogue of despair.
It was the right time to reflect that the world was full of other people.
Walter Presents an alternative…
High up, on the online platforms of Channel 4, like an arrow-shaped window in a castle, were the revelations of Walter Luzzolini. In the wake of the Brexit referendum, Luzzolini took upon himself the task of watching 3,500 hours of foreign language television. His aim was to select popular dramas from other countries that might entertain audiences in Britain.
It was like opening the gates of a zoo! They poured into our lives, these stories of people who coped when the Berlin Wall collapsed, smuggled in and out of Poland on the Belarus border, caught the Mafia in Italy, flirted with Aids in Mali, or managed a seaside hotel on the Baltic. Where had they been hiding? Why had they been so invisible, so near and yet so far?
There could be, of course, another explanation. Walter Presents might belong to a liberal-left conspiracy, which seeks to upset the patriotic narrative upon which we have come to rely. It might belong to the same infiltration that inspires the hostile questioning on Channel 4 News and Good Morning Britain, from which government ministers are so keen to escape.
The results of our survey
With the aid of the Christmas double edition of the Radio Times, my team of dedicated researchers decided to examine these claims. We wanted to find out if there really was a left-wing or pro-woke bias across the full range of public service broadcasting. If so, it would be a serious matter. We would want to throw sausage rolls at the screen.
On the other hand, were there any signs that public service broadcasting was fulfilling its role as a national forum that discussed ‘reality’ and ‘what life was for?’ Did the licence fee have any higher purpose at all?
We examined the facts and, in a true civil service spirit, arrived at no conclusion. Due to climate change, there were even more episodes of Attenborough, including a full day on Eden.
This elitist trend was revealed during Christmas week, when, clearly for cultural reasons, it was possible to analyse how the Carry On films evolved from their origins in 1958 to their apogee in 1978. They were on every afternoon, on several channels and strung together.
There was a sprinkling of Bond films, Poireau, Maigret, game shows and murder mysteries set in country villages, but nothing that pointed to a political attack on the British way of life.
BBC’s role in the past
There was no shortage of programmes that remind us of how we won the war. This genre has established itself as part of Christmas festivities. Where would British television be without the annual offerings of Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape, Sink the Bismark and other khaki classics?
For the factually minded, there were WW2 documentaries – World at War, Rise of the Nazis, Nazi Mega-structures – which could be taken down from the shelves, dusted and dumped into the schedules. No research was needed. Nothing more needed to be said that had not been said in 2020, 2019 and so on, back into the mists of time, when most were made.
For those who like a good laugh, there were the hilarious WW2 comedy series, such as ‘Allo, ‘Allo, and Goodnight, Sweetheart. Their time-honoured jokes do not lose their cringe-worthiness. Episodes from Dad’s Army were screened every night, on BBC 2, Gold or, as a feature film, on ITV. It was as if we had locked ourselves inside Our Finest Hour, and thrown away the key.
Having scrupulously examined the written evidence of the Radio Times, my research team and I decided that there was little prima face evidence for the political partisanship of which Bone, Dorries and others have complained. Indeed, there were few signs of intelligent life at all.