Dear BBC…

… Well, this has all got a bit much now, hasn’t it?

Regular readers will know I’m not much* of a TV watcher so the loss of ‘Stenders or MasterChef – in respect of which the BBC set up, and then removed (it seems on the grounds of the record number received), a specific complaints page – didn’t make an awfully big dent in my life; but I am a regular, committed radio listener and the disruption to the 6Music schedules – which is still going on – does have quite a bit more of an impact on me personally. It seems to be the DJs whose presentation style is more exuberant (Craig Charles), or whose programmes are sonically different (= ‘gnarly’) (Iggy Pop, Marc Riley), who have lost their shows over the weekend and into this week, replaced by DJs whose presentational style is a little softer and, on Friday itself, by the music of modern composers (Philip Glass). While it is right to show respect – a death is always a sad occasion – I find this resort to dark, sombre tones too much. Like many others, it seems, I simply switched off.

6Music is, quite famously, ‘Radio John Peel’ with just about every programme championing some aspect of musical genres that Peel also supported. One wonders, had Peel still been alive and broadcasting (though at 81 this is perhaps a little unlikely), whether his own programme would have survived this sort of cull. Certainly in his later years the presenter of Home Front was something of a republican so the question is not entirely random. 6Music caters to a particular demographic (those less interested in mainstream music) and it’s not obvious that its regular listeners would have taken much more than a passing interest in the death of Prince Philip. Furthermore, had it wanted to do so, this demographic is also more than capable of finding appropriate sources, whether broadcast or online, from which to satisfy that interest and to pay private respect. We might wonder about the role of a rolling news channel if the scheduling of a large number of other channels is to be disrupted in the way that BBC has seen fit these last few days.

‘Damned because it did; and damned if it hadn’t’ is, I suspect, a phrase we might get to hear more often this week in relation to the BBC’s actions and certainly past next Saturday. In the midst of the culture war, and when ‘flag shagging’ has entered the popular vocabulary and sizable pictures of the Queen have started appearing on the walls of government ministers’ home broadcasts, the BBC was always going to be under a certain pressure when this sort of story occurs and it was always likely to succumb.

But there are issues here which it needs to look at. Partly, this reflects the role of TV and radio broadcasts in keeping people going in the middle of a pandemic – especially those who live alone – at a time when death has been an omnipresent concern amidst the trauma of lockdowns; and for whom this sort of disruption is an unwelcome loss of stability and important colour. It’s also, however, a question of the BBC’s obligations to its own staff. Presenters – with some historic exceptions – tend to be an uncomplaining bunch; but 6Music had, just one week before, shuffled its Saturday schedule to accommodate new young presenters who, one programme later, were experiencing either the loss of their programmes (the Blessed Madonna) or else a shifted (and extended) timeslot (Jamz Supernova). Gideon Coe, a seasoned presenter and whose programmes I enjoy, found himself in Craig Charles’s Saturday evening slot: the irony of this being his first live programme for a year (the rest – four, three-hour programmes a week – having been faithfully pre-recorded in his garden shed) could not have been lost on anyone. Tonight, he finds himself with a four-hour slot in partial replacement of Marc Riley (whose programmes are all currently pre-recorded one week in advance from his bedroom). The Covid-19 pandemic has, for radio presenters too, caused issues and difficulties amongst which the loss of live programming, when modern radio DJing is about in the moment interaction with the audience and with live acts, is clearly a painful one. Presenters – and the production teams behind them – deserve to be treated better than having their programmes junked at a moment’s notice in favour of music aimed at creating a mood. 6Music needs little encouragement to go the way of mindfulness as it is.

The other side of all this is of course the role of the public broadcaster which the BBC has in ‘bringing the nation together’. It is a mark both of the culture war in which have now been embroiled as well as the many, and very evident, fissures that the UK is now experiencing that a divided nation actually proves itself impossible to bring together over the death of a senior royal. BBC channels lost market share on Friday night while the news that Gogglebox – as I understand it, an already popular TV programme which watches people watching the telly; a sort of live action version of The Royle Family – was Friday night’s most-watched programme does not surprise: people are just not engaged by this wall-to-wall coverage. In the modern, connected world, they know where to find that content if they want it. They look to their broadcast content instead as giving them a release.

We are no longer (even if we once were) the people who can be brought together by the death of a member of the royal family and the BBC has simply got things wrong: in cancelling programmes and disrupting schedules, it seems that it is actually not so much reflecting the public mood as trying to lead it in a particular direction. Radio listeners tend to be a loyal bunch so ratings and (likely) market share losses are unlikely to last – but that’s not the point. A nation that has lost much of its deference – though we still have a long way to go with that – is no longer the nation of the forelock-tugging 1950s, however much this Brexiteer ‘Global Britain’ parliament wants it to be. I write as a parliamentary motion is just getting underway on the death of Prince Philip giving parliamentarians the opportunity to lead tributes on behalf of their mourning constituents. Despite everything else that is going on, in political as well as social life, it is the only business of the day. Looking around, I don’t actually see a nation in mourning – but I do see one whose major institutions want to portray it thus. In allowing the death of Prince Philip to dominate its scheduling, the BBC is allowing itself to be used to promote an image of a country that no longer exists and whose time is anyway long past. As someone once sang, there is no future in England’s dreaming: a long-lost (and increasingly contested) past cannot be recreated in service of a nation’s future.

All of this is, of course, likely to be being used as a dry run rehearsal for ‘the big one’. In which case, I can only wish Herself, aged 94, a (continuing) long life. Indeed, God save.

[Edited later on 12/4 to include the reference on line 3 to the story in The Guardian on the number of complaints made using the BBC form.]

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