For the sake of transparency, let me explain where I stand on the single most important matter of the day: I really can’t abide Gary Lineker.
I also, for that matter, abhor Claudia Winkleman, and Graham Norton is the reason I avoid sharp objects at weekends. Chris Evans gives me heat rash and Strictly Come Dancing induces all kinds of migraines.
Baking shows bore me and I’m not remotely interested in the latest ‘gripping’ thriller set in some idyllic Icelandic fishing port, even if Sir David Jason is the local herring inspector and directs a particularly fulfilling moustache in the direction of the always wonderful Olivia Colman.
Mine is not, I suspect, an uncommon reaction to so much of the BBC’s output. Most people share opinions somewhat similar, probably differing only in the matter of a few nouns. I happen to dislike ‘light entertainment’, whereas you might dislike factual programming, period dramas, or have a quite understandable Huw Edwards complex. That’s how it should be. We are creatures with critical instincts. We have our clear likes and petty dislikes, and it’s these that make us so uniquely interesting.
Because we suffer a surfeit of opinion, it’s easy to mistake our likes and dislikes for something more profound. Take, for instance, the continuing brouhaha about Gary Lineker’s pay. There are a few reasons why you would object to Gary Lineker earning somewhere between £1,750,000 and £1,799,999 (sob!) for hosting Match of the Day.
You might (quite reasonably) be jealous. That’s normal. Carry on as you were – but remember I was here first.
You might simply dislike Lineker enough to resent that he earns any wage doing anything in the public eye. That too is normal, though a quick chat with your local shrink might be advisable.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
If, however, you resent Lineker’s salary because you think he’s not ‘value for money’, then you begin to marshal evidence to make a more interesting and nuanced argument about continued mismanagement at the BBC.
You might point out the huge pay discrepancies between genders and question why the dull-as-a-darn-in-your-sock Lineker earns so much more than the always excellent Emily Maitlis. (Incidentally, equality is the issue but the point isn’t about female stars being underpaid but, rather, male stars being grossly overpaid).You might also contend that it’s a flagrant waste of the public’s money to hire Lineker (as well as anybody else paid a fortune to read from an autocue) and that it would be reasonable to assume that the licence fee could be reduced or the money put to better use. This is a reasonable argument to make and we can have that debate if you wish.
Yet if you object to Lineker because you object to the BBC itself, then you’re entering a different territory and you should rid yourself of the notion that this has anything to do with personalities or programming. This becomes an argument about the nature of markets as well as the role of the state in our lives. Forget your misgivings about Gary Lineker’s strange facial hair. This is a debate about those fundamental issues that would shape our culture at the beginning of the twenty first century.
These distinctions seem obvious when listed like this but it’s remarkable how often they are conflated at the nation’s bus stops or across the aisle of commuter trains…
Oh, I’m not paying my license fee to send Gary Lineker on another holiday! Not when he gets all that crisp money… It’s about time we scrapped the BBC and taught these celebrities how hard it is to earn an honest living…
The confusion is understandable because the confusion is there by design. It’s easier to make a case for obliterating the BBC if we couch that argument in words like ‘Claire’ and ‘Balding’. Indeed, one might suspect that the BBC was forced to reveal the pay of their ‘stars’ in order to produce this very visceral reaction in a public battered by austerity. Even its staunchest defenders have to acknowledge that the BBC is something of an anachronism in a pay-as-you-go world. It is also increasingly unreasonable to argue that every household should pay £145.50 a year for something that increasing numbers of us are forgoing in favour of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Youtube, Twitch or Vimeo. The challenge the BBC faces (and should have been addressing for some considerable time) is to prove that they provide the British public with a vital service that we’d never get any other way. And it should, really, be an easy argument to make.
The fact that the BBC fails so spectacularly to justify itself suggests that it requires a different mindset and, perhaps even, different language. The phrase “license fee” remains problematic when describing money invested into public broadcasting. The fact that it is a discreet “fee” rather than an abstract amount folded into general taxation means that it stands out as an example of waste compared to the similar amount you probably pay, say, for government administration. It doesn’t really convey what a public broadcaster represents in the culture of a nation.
Now, of course, you might not believe that culture is important. Culture, you might argue, would continue without the BBC, just like we had culture before the BBC was formed in 1922. Some would even dispute the very word “culture” as something slightly precious above and beyond the worlds of writing, film, music, and art.
Well, these are good points but we might wonder what our society would look like if we didn’t protect that thing we conveniently call “culture”. There is an increasingly prevalent view that “if I don’t use it then I’m not paying for it” and it is a view that would move us away from a world in which common ideas, tunes, and stories hold us together and towards a world in which we are disconnected from another and keep to our separate villages. Arguably, this is already happening with the internet and there’s very little that can be done to prevent this.
The BBC, perhaps, offers a last meaningful chance to retain some core set of ideas. Culture doesn’t just entertain and delight. It underpins the intellectual life of a nation and therefore provides the basis of our economic success. It even helps define us as a nation and if “nationhood” is important to you then you should perhaps be invested in a system that enhances our cultural identity in the face of overwhelming force of Americanisation.
In this, the BBC provides a service in many people’s lives and is often the last line of defence between having a meaningful culture and having none. Viewed from a prosperous middle class where culture is diverse and convenient, the BBC might seem like an indulgence you can do without. Yet not everybody has easy access to theaters, libraries, museums, art galleries, as well as colleges or workshops. In many respects, the BBC has replaced the public library as the primary means of educating and informing the public. It provides a news service that covers the entire country rather than the entirely London-centric output of the cable or satellite networks. Properly immune to market forces, the BBC can also devote resources to regional projects that would otherwise be lost in the grab for big audience share. This cannot be stressed enough. The free market would never give us what the BBC gives us now.
Not that the BBC does a particularly good job of making this argument itself. The good it does is all too often obscured by the swollen bureaucracy of insipid ideas and dull customs. For every innovation there is another bumbling ex-pro covering Wimbledon or some jaded stick-it-on-the-red-button Glastonbury coverage. More crucially, the BBC forgets its basic remit. By attempting to compete in an increasingly competitive market, it sustains a corporate mentality of obscene wages as well as the shameful discrepancy of pay between genders. Rather than setting an example as a lean, modern, and creative broadcaster, the BBC persists with a system that sometimes resembles the worst kind of insular cultures of the 1970s. It has proved incapable of modernising its output, pursuing a policy that retains highly paid “stars” over a more dynamic flow of fresh talent that would be willing to do the same work at a fraction of the price.
The BBC needs to remember that it is unique. It has the stature and presence to ensure that whoever it promotes becomes the new stars that shape not just television but culture in the UK. For every Lineker there are hundreds of trainee sports journalists working in regional newsrooms who deserve a chance. For every Graham Norton there’s a thousand comedians struggling on the club circuit.
The BBC needs to save the money, invest in the future, and get back to serving the nation and stop expecting the nation to serve it.