Tuesday, 13 November 2007


Cutbacks at the BBC? It’s a pity. Iconic factual programmes like ‘Rough Justice’ chopped to save money. The cultural flagship of Radio Drama squeezed so hard they might as well call it ‘unrehearsed readings’. Globally respected Newsrooms decimated. Why?

Of course it’s not the fault of the Corporation which now faces a fiercely competitive media environment. You see, over the last few years, the media itself, which is to say film, TV, the web and everything that goes on these platforms like drama and documentaries, news and information, gaming and sports has become huge. There is so much money to be made that everyone’s piling in for a slice of the pie. How could the BBC not fail in one of the world’s most flourishing industries? Er, let me read that again …

Okay, so maybe it was because of the disappointing license-fee settlement and the costs of digitising the nation. The story is that the corporation was hit by a less-than-expected income at a time of extraordinary expense. Our sympathy with this version of events is diminished a tad when we see the vast sums still sloshing into the pockets of Management Consultants, IT systems, relocation expenses, the cost of building buildings and then wondering what to do with the buildings that used to do the job quite adequately, startling increases of executive salaries and the hurling of cash at certain celebrity presenters that are of lottery-win proportions. So yes, cut-backs are in order but the BBC doesn’t exist to provide accommodation for an army of executives and IT experts or to feather the nests of a few (admittedly very professional) stars, it’s there to make programmes.

But let’s put that to one side and accept that the corporation is a bit strapped for cash at the moment. So do we put that violin to our chin or back in its case? Consider this: now more than at any other time is it possible for the BBC to generate revenue apart from the license fee. They ought to be swimming in it.

So why aren’t they?

Perhaps the answer lies in evolution.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote: “Although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe … an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.”

Revisiting the original theory, evolutionists are now beginning wonder if there is some merit to the concept of group evolution. The idea is that a lack of integrity (my words) and a propensity to shaft your colleagues in order to scratch your undignified way to the top might benefit you, but a group in which that sort of behaviour outweighs its morally-centred contrary will fail against groups that are, well, more proportionately altruistic.

If that sounds a little theoretical, let’s take some practical instances. In principle it works like this: a decision is made not on the basis of what’s good for the tribe (as Darwin would have it) or those it serves or with whom it trades – which in turn benefits the tribe. It is made on the basis of what’s good for me even at the expense of the needs of the tribe. So you sack that producer because he threatens your position, never mind how good he is. You don’t appoint that editor even though they’re good at their job because they know you’re no good at yours. As Producer you insisted on a scene in an episode which the writer resisted. The editor didn't like it either though he/she isn't telling the writer that. You now realise that it's a bad scene and the writer was right but you still insist on keeping it because worse than a duff scene is allowing the writer to think that he/she might be right. You know your series editor is an idiot but he/she is a friend of the executive producer and that already jeopardises your position so you keep shtum and watch the damage unfold. And so on and so on. The fact is that you are not providing the very best for your audience and, sooner or later, they'll abandon you. That they can now do so is what is meant by a 'fiercely competitive environment'. You now devote most of your creative energy trying to think of excuses (license fee disappointment, extraordinary expenses) hoping that your pleas won't be drowned out by the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

In drama, this takes on a more insidious level of degeneration. Since the classical narrative, based on the classical character, is one of transformation from the small to the large, the mean to the generous, the vicious to the virtuous, when you have small, mean and vicious people sitting around trying to reflect this 'journey', the result is a general sense of vacuity. They simply don't understand it. So they nick from the pattern-book of other shows, these days largely American shows, and reach for adaptations because somewhere along the line there was an original author who did understand these things. But the hollowness at the heart of their output begins to grate. They turn to 'issues' instead, lifting stories from the Sunday Supplements. It gets even thinner. Finally, in desperation, they cast pretty people in the central roles and do deals with celebrity magazines. It sells mags but it ain't drama anymore and after a while the audience drifts off in search of something more real.

In the world of factual programme-making, there has been quite a fuss in recent weeks over faked footage. Daft as it might seem when the proverbial hits the fan, if the only consideration was my job, my position, my promotion, my prospects, then the clouding of judgement and it's consequent idiocy is at least logical. The phone-in scandal? Where was the voice that questioned the breach of trust, loyalty, audience-care? Silenced by the clamouring voices of ambition, short-term gain and personal success at the expense of anything and anyone.

But let's step back for a second or two and ask ourselves if this description of avarice and paranoia truly describes what we know as the BBC. Are there people, as described, knifing their way relentlessly up the hierarchy, establishing little fiefdoms of absolute rule at the expense of real talent, real creativity, a real attempt to give the audience what it needs? Where, to put it another way, does the BBC as a whole fall in the spectrum of altruism/selfishness? A helpful method of analysing any tribe in these terms is simply to observe its performance against its rivals. In other words you only have to ask: how are we doing? Flourishing or failing? Do the facts speak for themselves?

Okay, this is not to be taken too seriously and certainly not all the ills of the Beeb can be ascribed to this process. But the contention here is that it’s a factor. And if we truly care about our old corporation, then we should take a good look at the ethos by which it runs - not just its stated Reithian objectives, but the prevailing atmosphere. What really drives it? A desire to do something well for the benefit of everyone inside and outside the corporation or mere personal ambition?

It may not be the only question but we think it’s a good one.

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