Inform, educate and entertain: John Reith caricatured in Punch in 1934

The BBC, a class apart

Michael Collins says the corporation is fighting the wrong war, as usual


This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In October Alan Yentob and Camila Batmanghelidjh appeared in court at the beginning of a nine-week hearing following the collapse of her charity Kids Company, of which he was chairman. Six years earlier the pair were seated together in a setting suited to the excesses that led the charity to insolvency. It was a black-tie dinner at a Mayfair hotel where select guests paid tribute to a figure as synonymous with the BBC as Eric Gill’s Ariel and Carole the Test Card girl: Yentob. 

The event was organised by the Media Society and overseen by its president, Peter York. One speaker joked of the millions Nigella Lawson had made since Yentob put her on screen. Another claimed the Daily Mail harangued Yentob because he continued to produce radical films (he’d recently interviewed Bette Midler). Some referred wryly to Judaism; many namechecked Oxbridge. Yentob, they said, the ultimate BBC insider, was once an outsider, being the one intern that wasn’t an Oxbridge graduate when beginning his BBC career in 1968. This, they proclaimed, said much about the man: the Great Panjandrum. But what did it say about the BBC? 

When Greg Dyke described the BBC as “hideously white” during his brief stint as director-general in the early 2000s, it started a trend for similar generalisations about the corporation that were just as disingenuous. If the staff were defined by race they were also defined by class. The percentage of ethnic minorities working within the BBC surely surpasses that of the share of the national demographic, yet this is not the case when it comes to social class. What defined a majority of creatives at the BBC, whatever their hue, was a degree awarded by one of two universities.

BBC opinion formers: Alan Yentob and new Creative Diversity Director June Sarpong

Those of us in the minority that managed to bunk in without this qualification discovered that, decades after the radical Sixties tenure of Hugh Carleton Greene, little had changed. Despite a respectable TV résumé I failed the BBC boards. Being chippy and common I attributed this to the absence of a degree, when interviewed by someone who appeared to be a descendant of the Sackville-Wests. I appealed directly, and desperately, to the presenter and producer on Peter York’s Eighties at BBC Arts in the mid-1990s, landing a short-term contract in a dream job. At lunchtime I circled the “doughnut” at BBC TV Centre, staring skyward to T. B. Huxley-Jones’s sculpture of Helios, not quite believing my luck. I was in the beautiful, minimalist belly of the broadcasting beast despite being, like Alan Yentob, an outsider. (He’d attended the Sorbonne. His parents had a home on Park Lane. The family owned Dents, the luxury glove company. But he never went to Oxbridge.) 

This obsession with class, Oxbridge and pedigree is as Reithian as the founding father’s famous credo: “inform, educate and entertain”. John Reith attended Glasgow University, which he considered one of his failures. Initially, he ignored John Logie Baird for attending a university in the same city and fiddling around with televisions. (He had numerous idiosyncrasies, like barring homosexuals and divorcées from playing in the BBC orchestras.) During his reign as first director-general a mission statement in Latin was inscribed on a corridor wall in Broadcasting House: a dedication to the God the governors affiliated themselves with by spreading the word. And the word was: that good seed sown may bring forth good harvest, and that all things foul or hostile to peace may be banished thence, and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are lovely and honest, whatsoever things are of good report, may tread the path of virtue and wisdom. 

The “Defund the BBC” campaign continues to clock up support, alongside criticisms of the bloated salaries of in-house celebrities

 If Reith’s faith in broadcasting was shaken with the birth of television, it disappeared entirely with the prospect of commercial channels. When ITV was launched he compared it to the plague, warning of its impact on moral values and ethical and intellectual standards. “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants,” he said, “is often creating a fictitious demand for low standards which he will then satisfy.”

This perhaps sums up the legacy of recent director-general Lord Hall, when pushing a fictitious demand for a laboured “diversity” agenda. The equality of opportunity many of us would have liked to have seen emerge at institutions such as the BBC is being replaced by an equality of outcome. Will social pedigree be entirely overtaken by that of a tokenistic ethnicity when it comes to recruitment? (Yesterday’s Dimbleby is today’s Chakrabarti.) In both instances merit isn’t always paramount.

 Odd this should be a focus as the broadcaster is in the throes of an existential crisis without precedent in its history, two years away from its centenary. According to a recent report on what makes Britons proud to be British the BBC scored a paltry 7 per cent. 

The “Defund the BBC” campaign continues to clock up support, alongside mounting criticisms of the bloated salaries of in-house celebrities. The role of a public service broadcaster remains valid but less so its purpose since the internet and streaming services have made so much about conventional television redundant. 

The age of Hugh Carleton Greene, single-figure channels and an “appointment to view” from the BBC’s high season are past. The corporation seems uncertain as to who the viewers are and the feeling is mutual. The young believe the BBC is right-wing, their elders see it as being on the left. The latter are more likely to fork out for a TV licence fee, a bone of contention now more than ever, particularly when Hall’s parting shot was to plough millions into a diversity programme as Black Lives Matter made headlines. He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants …

Most of the public have lived with multiculturalism, while a well-bred media clique have only attended the course

When it comes to the BBC’s original brief these days it’s diversity we need to be educated and informed about, while being entertained by contemporary programmes that hammer home ethnic quotas to a patronising degree, and dramas that rewrite history to the same end. “They call it ‘cultural Marxism’,” writes Peter York, addressing the BBC’s critics in GQ. “The rest of us call it ‘modern Britain’.”

Most of the general public have lived with multiculturalism for years, while a well-bred clique in the upper echelons of the media have only attended the course. This “modern Britain” is absent from homes of top TV executives and those that inhabit their social circle, where the brown faces present are on the covers of old vinyl, on book jackets, or on at least £300,000 per annum. These positive discrimination initiatives never reach the top table, although with the crisis deepening, class is beginning to be addressed in a cursory attempt to reach the demographic many in the media regard with contempt.

To justify her £75,000 salary for a three-day week June Sarpong, the BBC’s first Director of Creative Diversity, and author of The Power of Privilege: How White People Can Challenge Racism (2020), informs us the BBC doesn’t represent the white working class. New director-general Tim Davie wants to address the Oxbridge culture at the BBC. Not so much the revolution being televised, as television being revolutionised.

Inform, educate and entertain: John Reith caricatured in Punch in 1934

Coming out in the corporation’s corner at an opportune moment is the well-intentioned book The War Against The BBC, recently published by Penguin. It takes on the institution’s detractors. One of the two co-authors is Patrick Barwise, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at London Business School. In assembling a suitable case in the present the text relies heavily on the past. The glorious triumphs from the broadcaster’s golden years are as evident as the contemporary equivalents are absent. Both Strictly and Bake-Off recur as proof of its commercial and creative success but, arguably, these could have been produced by other broadcasters. Fleabag, Killing Eve and Normal People would not necessarily have been made elsewhere, or at least not as well. The corporation’s news outlet is flagged as being without equal: 

The BBC has almost never been accused of inaccurate reporting. The same is obviously not true of online media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which are exploited by a range of state and non-state players for large-scale disinformation. But, to a lesser extent, it is almost not true of the right-wing tabloid newspapers that are among the BBC’s most persistent enemies. 

The mounting number of disenchanted viewers are more savvy than their social betters on the left give them credit for. They see shortcomings to rival that of inaccuracy; a selective approach to reporting; political bias; prioritising stories that chime with a “woke” agenda; censoring and silencing views in keeping with the increasing influence of cancel culture. One instance is the way in which the BBC kowtowed to the Black Lives Matter movement. When 36 police officers were injured during last summer’s carnage, it reported on “largely peaceful protests”.

If John Reith’s original credo is central to the defence of the corporation in The War Against The BBC, so is his brand of paternalism. We are led to believe the Brexit-voting barbarians are at the gates of provincial postcodes, beyond the townhouses and regency squares of central London where the wealthy, liberal arbiters of taste and culture reside or socialise. 

In Reith’s day it was commercial television that threatened the moral, ethical and intellectual standards; now it’s think-tanks

In Reith’s day it was commercial television that threatened the moral, ethical and intellectual standards; now it’s think-tanks scattered around the Westminster village, along with a dominant right-wing press that entertains the blinkered masses, while leaving them ill-educated and ill-informed. In correcting the tabloids on salient points relating to BBC funding and accusations of “waste” — did I mention June Sarpong getting 75 grand for a three-day-week non-job? — the book itself takes a tabloid approach to exposing the figures that challenge the BBC, citing “dark money” and vested interests. 

Questions over impartiality have been evident throughout the history of the broadcaster. The diversity issue it needs to straddle is more recent, but no less problematic. The BBC has to be seen to tackle diminishing occurrences that might be classified as discrimination, while acknowledging a rising number of grievances that are false. Too many ludicrous examples to cite, but how about the black staff that compared having a white manager to being slaves on a plantation? 

Some views expressed in The War Against The BBC sound as risible as such grievances: 

We are currently living through a period of widespread nationalism, including in Britain, with words like “traitor”, “treason” and “anti-British” regularly rumbling out of the mouths of the hard right. These are the same people who would love to see the BBC crumble. 

This is as mythical as the claim that there is no “silent majority” and that the political agenda is decided by the right-wing press. The more prevalent mindset is that which dominates on social media, in the corporate world, in education, the civil service, the wider public sector and the BBC itself, where words like “racist”, “bigot” and “fascist” rumble from the mouths of those without justifiable cause or evidence, destroying careers and lives in the process.

Stylistically, the voice that’s absent from The War Against The BBC is that of its other author. Peter York is well placed to inform the viewer who the BBC is as an occasional on-screen style pundit. In his day job as Peter Wallis, management consultant, he is well placed to inform the BBC who its viewers are. In his GQ essay he pursues a similar line on the corporation, pitching “well-informed people” against a crude cabal of an “illiberal metropolitan elite” and council-home dwellers with regional accents. Class bookends the essay. 

York recalls the impact of David Bowie, androgynous and playing gay, on Top Of The Pops in 1972; how this made adolescent working-class outsiders believe they could be contenders. He offers the example of a teenage Gary Kemp, back there in a King’s Cross council flat before Spandau Ballet took him onto Top Of The Pops. York claims the modern equivalent would be similarly affected and inspired by a BBC event. Which of course is not the case in the age of the internet. Broadcasting has changed. The working class has changed. The paternalism and provincialism that pervades a London-based media class has not.

Although too stale, pale and male to be on screen I can’t commit to a call for the end of the BBC

David Bowie and the BBC were catalysts for my own Kempian experience, in a home where books were of as little interest as the BBC beyond Top Of The Pops. ITV was the channel of choice. In 1975, I watched the Bowie documentary Cracked Actor. It was produced and directed by one Alan Yentob, the outsider who would come to epitomise the self-entitlement and profligacy of the BBC in the view of the press. This overshadows achievements that made him an example of the kind of BBC creative who, in the words of Huw Weldon, makes “the good popular and the popular good”. When I finally moved beyond Top Of The Pops as a viewer, it was Yentob’s arts output that I was informed, educated and entertained by, particularly the Arena films. Here was a seed that brought in a good harvest. 

In this last decade I myself got to present two films for BBC 4 on the theme of social class — a subject that I continue to exhaust in print — one of which was The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House. There was talk of a series on the National Trust; my name was mentioned to front it. I recall Peter York telling me that in the past they would have wanted someone with his accent for the job, and now it was someone with mine, as though the age of egalitarianism trailed under the tenure of Carleton Greene was upon us. 

It wasn’t. I remained the exception not the rule. These days neither of us is wanted. At the Edinburgh Television Festival a couple of years ago it was decreed the BBC no longer needed documentaries in which the presenter was “white, middle-aged and male, standing on a hill”. During my brief spell in front of the camera I was often standing in a sink estate, but I got the message: hideously white.

Although too stale, pale and male to be on screen or behind the scenes, and fully understanding the arguments behind the “Defund The BBC” hashtag, I can’t commit to a call for the end of the BBC, or its licence fee. For now, at least. Just as there is an ever-increasing number of viewers sick of the diversity agenda, there is an ever-diminishing number of BBC producers that feel the same. Collectively, we are a portion of that 7 per cent of Britons still oddly fond of the BBC, naively hoping that under the aegis of a new director-general it may tread that path of virtue and wisdom. Particularly the wisdom part. 

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