Every time I see Frank Field in the news he’s making another pronouncement on some aspect of the state and how it requires a radical overhaul.
This has generally extended to the welfare state, with particular emphasis on social security and pensions.
But Frank has recently branched out by claiming that the BBC should be scaled back to being a minority public service broadcaster with two TV channels (BBC2 and BBC4) and two radio channels (Radio 3 and Radio 4).
Field was, for a very short time, social security minister in the Tony Blair government, having been priased for his radical forward thinking on the welfare state.
That was until everyone realised that just about the only person who agreed with Frank Field was Frank Field. It has to be said, he was remarkably prescient on a number of issues, probably too much for his own good.
Double F was swiftly sent back to the Wirral, where he has spent the last ten years arguing that everything should be scrapped, scaled down or broken up – cropping up with a new headline every couple of years when he’s got another headline-grabbing report out.
Here’s Frank on the BBC in his report, called Auntie’s Dying: Long Live Public Service Broadcasting.
“The BBC cannot continue to impose a version of the poll tax on every TV household.
“They are chasing viewers by producing rubbish programmes which, frankly, would make the founders of the BBC turn in their graves.
On a pedantic note, the licence fee isn’t a poll tax. Just to be straight on this, you don’t need to pay the TV licence if you don’t want to. Ergo not a poll tax.
Field argues that the public-fund nature of the licence fee compels the BBC to produce populist programmes that mirror commercial TV’s offerings.
He believes that diverting the licence fee to other content producers, who bid for the right, is a better idea – and one that is more likely to preserve public sector broadcasting in the long run.
The cultural value of the BBC is clearly a subjective one, but Field seems to have applied his own personal philosophy to everything in life. Who’s he to say which channels and stations are worthy and which aren’t? His continued references to the Proms highlight a peculiarly fusty idea of what’s of value and what isn’t.
I actually agree with Field that the BBC is going about things completely the wrong way by chasing viewers, and the continued existence of BBC3 – surely due to be renamed PramFaceTV* anytime soon – is baffling to me.
The problem is, and always will be, differing idea of what constitutes good public service broadcasting. Field has his own idea, I have mine, everyone else in the country will have theirs.
His paper recommends asking everyone what they understand by public sector broadcasting.
Frankly, I’m with Sid Vicious on this one – these are the very people who lap up the dross from commercial broadcasters at the moment. I dread to think what would be on the Beeb if it were decided by Joe Public.
Field would dispose of BBC management and an independent body would decide which broadcasters got their hands on the licence fee cash. I don’t see how this could really be much different from the current situation, where a largely unaccountable elite decides what gets made.
Field has earned a reputation for thinking the unthinkable, but it’s rarely pointed out that many ideas previously thought beyond the pale are unthinkable because they’re fucking ridiculous.
There’s certainly a debate to be had over the ways the digital revolution is changing the broadcasting landscape, and the way the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters are funded has resulted only in a fudge thus far.
The commercialisation of some of the Beeb’s output is also problematic, as is the reach and scope of bbc.co.uk – but I’d rather have the BBC in the muddled state it’s in at the moment than a neutered niche broadcaster envisaged by Field.
Despite its intention to save public sector broadcasting, I rather fear Field’s paper will be more grist to the mill for the Beeb’s many and varied enemies – generally ranged across the right-wing and generally for economic or political purposes.
They’ll be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of getting rid of a mortal enemy and competitor, plus all that lovely licence fee cash.
The BBC needs to be at the centre of British broadcasting, reaching out to as many people as it can while remaining true to its core commitments. I don’t think it currently does, but it only needs a little tweaking.
Under Field’s disastrous vision the Beeb would be cowed, a little-viewed curio amongst a sea of digital shite. His suggestions would be the first shots in the eventual destruction of public-service broadcasting.
I’ve always found it odd that while the rest of the world looks at the BBC in envy and admiration, in Britain we spend all of our time trying to destroy it.
*It was the BBC itself, lest we forget, that actually had the temerity to call a programme about teenage mothers Pramface Mansion.