The BBC has been worrying me for a while now, like a once-treasured friend who’s getting mixed up in some bad stuff.
For Strictly Ballroom Come Celebrity RollerBlading see crack. For the Lonely Planet purchase see scratch cards. Megamillions for Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton is a maxed-out credit card.
But, now an again, there’s flashes of the old friend you remember. The Winter Olympics, Life, Doctor Who, Newswipe, Adam and Joe on 6Music.
The BBC is schizophrenic, it simply doesn’t know what it’s supposed to do any more, so it does everything. It knows it needs to lead the UK’s digital revolution, but doesn’t understand where its public sector remit ends and commercialisation begins; it knows it needs to cater for mass audiences, but doesn’t know where to draw the line; it knows it needs to maximise revenues, but doesn’t grasp that it can’t do this to the detriment of other publishing businesses.
The BBC has expanded without thought or reason. It seems unlikely that any one person can realistically control its growth or expansion into virgin territories. 20 years ago it constituted two national TV stations and four national radio stations. Now, who knows?
I’ve lost count of the radio stations, and the television stations. The website’s size is staggering and awesome. To navigate it at random must be like wandering around Television Centre’s bowels, a surprise around every door.
The Beeb’s commercial activities worry me, because they undermine its remit and provide fodder for its many enemies – ideological and commercial – to attack with. And with some justification.
Semi-automomous franchises like Top Gear bemuse me. They worry commercial outfits. It’s easy to see why.
Despite the drip-drip of attacks – from GMG, News International, Associated Press, Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – the Beeb still has a huge amount of authority and place in the affections of the British people.
That means it can wield an enormous amount of commercial power, simply because of who it is – and with great power comes great responsibility. The Beeb does not always use it wisely.
So the BBC creates enemies for itself in the search of a quick buck, or a land grab of publishing territory. This is unnecessary, but it’s also creating a great big stick for others to beat it with.
Step forward the Conservative Party, who will not blink twice at humbling the BBC in return for Rupert Murdoch’s backing for a few years; an old enemy vanquished and some press loyalty for a term or two.
Against this backdrop, the BBC has panicked. Services need to be cut and hair shirts worn. A few cosmetic changes should suffice in the run-up to an election. Sell a few bits of real estate, pension off Ross and Brand, and bin off a couple of minority radio stations.
Except, hang on, those minority radio stations are exactly what the BBC is supposed to be about. Catering for minority interests? All that Reithian gubbins?
I’ve never listened to the Asian Network, but I do listen to 6Music, and used to have it one 24/7 before Leslie Douglas did her level best to ruin it for being too interesting.
The fact that I listen to one and not the other is of no importance though, they both deserve equal consideration, because they go to the heart of what the BBC should be about.
That is not a nostalgic plea, it’s simple political expediency. For the BBC to stake a claim to £3.5bn of the public’s money every year it needs to demonstrate that it fulfils a need that cannot be satisfied by commercial broadcasters.
That is clearly not the case with BBC1, BBC3, Radio1 or, arguably, 5 Live. But it clearly is the case with 6Music. Where else can one hear alternative music of any quality?
Not from any commercial broadcasters that I can think of – they inevitably run out of cash and have to move back to the mainstream, because no local double glazing fitter in his right mind wants to advertise in between Asian Dub Foundation and Grizzly Bear.
There is an inherent risk in the BBC positioning itself as a minority pursuit, it can be pared back to arty-farty stuff with no compunction by an unfriendly government in that case – as Frank Field recently suggested. A slow death, for sure.
The Beeb must walk a fine balancing act: for every Strictly Come Dancing there must be a new Adam Curtis documentary; for every Family Guy a Mad Men; for every Newsbeat a Newswipe.
But to strip the BBC of 6Music would be to leave it fatally unbalanced, and shorn of one of the fig leaves that conceal its humiliated public sector remit.
It is a radio station of unparalleled quality in terms of many of its DJs and music. It’s one of the really good bits of that fading friend, the reason you retain a fundamental respect and love for them; the flash of brilliance set against the ugly backdrop.
Because to tolerate Horne and Corden you need an Adam and Joe.
• The image is a new version of the Berk and Hair image I did for MyToryTombstone. They adapted it for 6Music, so it seemed fitting to use it here