Driving back from picking up my car this afternoon, I turned on the radio, more in hope than expectation. I do not listen to the music channels (the channels that play current music lost their attraction when I reached the age of thirty, and if I’m going to listen to oldies, I’d rather listen to my own selection than someone else’s). So I have a grand total of three analogue channels to which I can listen: Talk Sport and BBC channels 4 and 5-Live. My expectations were low from bitter experience. And sure enough, I experienced that small thrill of pleasure that comes from having one’s worst expectations confirmed, followed by the more sustained depression of realising that yet again there was no intelligent discussion going on anywhere in British radio.
The reason for this intellectual vacuum? For the last four days, it has been the British Open golf tournament at St Andrews. At other points in the summer it might be Wimbledon or the Cheltenham Gold Cup or Royal Ascot week or the Ashes series. And for nine months of the year, it is football - International football, Premiership football, Championship football, League One football…. Thank God we don’t have a European or World football championship, or an Olympic Games or World Athletics Championship this summer, or the misery would be complete, as it is most years.
I like sport. I enjoy participating, and I enjoy watching from time-to-time. I take it as axiomatic that participation in sport is good for one. But it takes a particularly empty life to want to listen to hours and hours of commentary. Yet more often than not when driving, I find that there is no alternative.
How have we come to a world in which there are only three spoken language channels in a sea of mass musical mediocrity? And how, when the spoken word is so scarce and therefore (one would think) so valuable, do we end up with two of the three channels covering exactly the same event time after time?
The only way that one can tell the difference between Talk Sport and 5-live nowadays is the accents. One might generalise that Talk Sport is chewing gum for the working class brain, whereas 5-live is chewing gum for the middle class brain. That makes Talk Sport vastly superior in my estimation. There is a long history of the working classes attending football matches and debating the results endlessly, as their principal diversion from an otherwise grim and arduous life. The same goes for the racing, where a weekly flutter not only introduced some much-needed excitement, but also offered that small glimmer of hope that there was a way out of that life.
That can’t be said for the middle classes. They may work equally hard, but it’s not back-breaking toil. They have an education. They have the ability and opportunity to think. So what does the BBC give them? Wall-to-wall sport. The fact that it’s sometimes “posh” sports like cricket or golf, or that the presenters have fruitier accents does not make it any more justifiable.
So turn over to Radio 4, you will say. I do. But when I get there, more often than not it’s either drama or discussion about the Arts. They’ve even started doing some music slots, presumably because a ratio of 1-2% talk channels to 98-99% music channels is weighted too heavily in favour of talk, in their opinion. Of course, they talk about the music a bit as well, so that’s alright. Is there anything more mind-numbing than analysis of the arts? As (I think) Lawrence Durrell said, “Art is for arting, as fart is for farting”. The fastest way to lose one’s appreciation of a piece of art is to try to analyse it. Follow that path too often, and it will lead you up your own fundament, into a world where the works of Schoenberg, Webern, Rothko or Pollock are not simply pointless abstract nonsense.
The world is not short of things to discover and explain. There are millions of interesting places in the world, knowledge of which would shed a little light on our own existence and our relation to others. There are more stories from history and legend than one person could listen to in a lifetime, each of which has something to teach us. There are amazing discoveries being made in science and technology every day. The politics, society, culture, beliefs (and so on) of other peoples around the world are constantly evolving. Ideas are being shaped and formed every day in thousands of universities, think-tanks, organisations and even around the breakfast table. Businesses rise and fall as they succeed or fail in adapting to the times. Our politicians try to surf the ever-changing wave of events, and try to fit those events within their view of the world. Our environment and ecosystem is in constant flux, both internally and in its relation to humanity. Psychologists and philosophers are continually trying to scratch the surface of the human mind and how it experiences the world around it. And what do the BBC give us? Football and drama.
Who was it that decided that sport made good radio? (And who passed the law that made it mandatory to discuss football for three hours from seven o’clock each evening?) Can you think of anything that is more visual than sport? Even the commentators know it. You can tell when the action is flagging, or the commentators can’t bring themselves to tell us yet again that “X has passed to Y who has been robbed by Z”, because they lapse into conversations around the sport. The nadir was reached for me last winter, when the most exciting game the BBC could find to commentate on was MK Dons versus some other no-hoper team. It only took a few minutes for the commentators to get bored, tell the audience that the quality of football was poor, and move onto a debate about whether MK Dons were the true descentants of Wimbledon football club. How many of the listeners cared? You could tell that the commentators didn’t. And how much of a surprise was it to the producers that chose to focus on that game, that two of the teams near the bottom of the lowest F.A. league were producing football of quality so poor that it wasn’t worth describing?
On a short drive like today, it’s not that bad. For 10 minutes, you can sit in silence or put up with the inanities. But I occasionally have to make three- or four-hour drives to distant parts of the country. That is when the banality really gets to you. I should be making more such journeys, but I just can’t stand it. It is so bad, that I can almost credit the BBC with providing an important service to the environment. The boredom of driving long-distance has got so bad, that I am determined wherever possible (and often despite significant inconvenience) to take the train. (And the trains are so badly run, that one is inclined not to travel at all, thereby reducing carbon emissions even further.)
Perhaps that is the secret plan. Radio is filled with tripe to drive us out of our cars. And BBC1 is dominated by garbage because they want to drive people away from the TV into doing something more productive with their time. The shows are designed to be so mind-numbingly boring that they drive the more intelligent away, while hypnotising those whose brains were not capable of more constructive endeavour. It’s the new opium for the masses.
Which is where I finally come to the subject of this diatribe. The BBC may be doing us a social service by mass-producing rubbish for the intellectually incontinent. But it’s bloody expensive rubbish. If all we need is programs that don’t tickle a single neuron, I’ll do it for a fraction of the price.
I take it as a reasonable rule that taxes should pay for those things society needs, but which the market does not deliver adequately. The licence fee is a tax, plain and simple. I don’t have the option to choose someone else’s product and not pay for theirs. If I want to use the TV, I must pay my licence fee. That is a tax. So it should pay for things that the market won’t give us.
Most of what the BBC now produce is done better by the market. ITV produces better soaps and light entertainment than BBC1. There are dozens of popular music channels that cover the ground that Radio 1 and Radio 2 try to occupy. Classic FM does what Radio 3 does, but with a lighter touch. And Talk Sport is a more authentic “sports and current-affairs” channel than 5-live. They may claim to be “News and sport”, but in reality they are “Football and gossip”.
Some parts of the BBC’s production would not be produced by the market. BBC2 is an excellent breeding ground for adventurous comedy and drama, and Newsnight is unique in the depth of cover it brings to its current affairs analysis. And Radio 4, though it may need tweaking to ween itself off drama and expand its horizons, produces some thoughtful programs that no commercial producer would dare attempt. The World Service is essentially British. And the BBC News service provides a different (if not necessarily more authentic) view of the world from the commercial news services.
The rest is just guff. The executives and producers justify their inferior mass-market products by saying that everyone is a licence-fee payer, so they should produce something for everyone. Well, I pay my national taxes. I don’t expect them to spend as much of the health budget on the young and fit as the old and frail. I don’t expect them to continue to try to educate me at the expense of the budget for educating the young. And I pay my local taxes, and I’m quite happy to pay more than those who use many more of the services than I do. Because that’s the point of taxes. You don’t expect to get out of them what you put in. They don’t pay for what people want. They pay for what people need.
So the simple approach to Charter Renewal that politicians, civil servants and BBC executives should but will certainly not adopt, is to make the mass-market parts of the BBC (BBC1 and most of the radio channels) pay for themselves (whether through subscription, pay-per-view or advertising, I don’t care), and retain a much smaller and cheaper state-funded BBC based around BBC2 and Radio 4, tasked with the undemocratic job of producing high-quality, diverse, educational, public-service broadcasting.