The BBC needs a new cheerleader

I’ll catalogue the failings of the BBC all day long but only on the basis that it’s still better than any alternative, says David Butcher

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The BBC needs a new cheerleader
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David Butcher

It’s a four-day-a-week job and pays £110,000. The last incumbent (Chris Patten) described it as “ten times harder than I expected”. The Prime Minister would reportedly prefer a woman. Applications in writing, please, for the post of Chair of the BBC Trust – the BBC’s public figurehead and guardian angel of the licence fee.

No takers? Feels like a poisoned chalice? Well yes, but you’d be doing everyone a favour, because the BBC currently looks like the world’s biggest rudderless ship. As it pitches towards the rocks, or at best a dangerous lee shore, nobody seems prepared to come to its aid.

What it needs right now is not just a skipper but a cheerleader, someone who can trumpet why it matters. And all of us – everyone who enjoys a BBC series, listens to one of its radio stations or relies on its news coverage – need to give some thought to how we’d feel if that wobbling ship went down. 

Consider the forces ranged against the BBC. There are its media rivals for a start: the big beasts of Sky and ITV would love to see the Corporation down-sized or reduced to a highbrow subscription service. Pretty much every national newspaper has a good commercial or political reason to knock it – hence the drumbeat of negative stories in the press. Plus, politicians of all parties resent the BBC’s power and many loathe its public funding, too. With
an election next year, the bullying season has begun as parties jockey for advantage.

So that’s money, influence and politics lined up against the BBC so far – it’s not looking good...

This may all seem obvious: of course everyone has it in for the BBC – haven’t they always? But can you remember any period when it has been quite so embattled? 

One crisis follows another, a steady flow of scandal. £100m blown on a failed digital initiative. Departing bosses getting eye-watering payoffs. Former stars turning out to have been sexual predators. Soon we’ll be getting the traditional Daily Mail stories about legions of BBC staff staying at lavish hotels over the World Cup. It all blends into a general sense of a dissolute, corrupt corporation we might be better off without. 

Well, we wouldn’t. I’ll catalogue the failings of the BBC all day long but only on the basis that it’s still better than any alternative. If you doubt that, spend a week in a hotel room in any other country. I guarantee the only decent stuff on TV will be buy-ins from the BBC. If you’re in America, you’ll be hoping to see shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but you’ll quickly realise the other 98 per cent of US telly is horrible dross littered with ads that make you despair for humanity.

Clearly, nobody now would start with a blank sheet of paper and invent a media behemoth funded by its own tax. But we don’t have a blank sheet of paper. We have the BBC. And it gives us – for all of 40p a day – things like Happy Valley and Rev and The Great British Bake Off and Today and Doctor Who and Frozen Planet and Match of the Day and the Proms and Horrible Histories and an endless list of other goodies that are yawningly more creative and interesting than what you’ll find on the glorious free-market level playing field of other countries’ telly. (For comparison, a full-service Sky package, with sport and movies, costs over £2 per day).

So let’s not mess it up, shall we? What Churchill said about democracy holds true for television: the BBC is... the worst form of broadcasting system, except for all the other forms. Whoever takes over at the BBC Trust will need to remember that – and start shaking the pompoms. 

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