The perennial debate over the relevance of the BBC has been given an unfortunate lease of life by the recently announced departure of Lewis Goodall in the footsteps of Emily Maitlis to rival broadcaster Global. The BBC’s loss is undoubtedly Global’s gain. Both Goodall and Maitlis are extraordinarily talented figures, adept at mixing effective broadcasting styles with an intuitive sense of where exactly the story lies, and a knack for skewering the hypocrisy of politicians and the greed of corporate leaders.
But will they succeed in their shiny new studios? No, in all probability. Think of Andrew Marr, whose departure from the BBC arguably diminished rather than enhanced his career. In the same vein, Andrew Neil – a controversial but certainly authoritative presenter – has gained little from leaving the confines of the organisation that is so reviled for its apparent irrelevance.
The legion of BBC figures who have been attracted by generous compensation by rival organisations have been largely disappointed; their ambition unrewarded, their self-interestedness rebuffed. When Andrew Marr’s new LBC show pushed promises of his ‘own voice’, no one seemed to care. They weren’t interested in combative monologues or resentful debates with Susan from Greenwich. And they weren’t interested in Andrew Marr being ‘freed’, like some rabid dog let loose from captivity.
Rivals have struggled to recreate BBC success in specific formats precisely because the corporation made every aspect of these figures
Rivals have struggled to recreate BBC success in specific formats precisely because the corporation made every aspect of these figures. Emily Maitlis, a highly impressive broadcaster, is not just the person, the face or the voice: she was built by the producers and researchers and even the audience that grew up around the landmarks of her television and radio content.
Thus, commentators may proclaim that the migration of high-profile talent signals the BBC’s irrelevance. “How can it survive in a world of Netflix and Amazon Prime?” they ask. And it is hard to dispute that the corporation faces challenges. Those who deny this fact too often invoke what is faintly akin to a political equivalent of Newton’s Third Law: the left hates them, the right hates them, so they must be getting something right! This line of analysis has always seemed a little tenuous. The fact is that the BBC has survived sustained, heated criticism for the last thirty years, at least in part, by adapting its content to suit successive administrations. Certainly, it has produced bold and incisive journalism, but it has also towed the government line most notably on foreign policy.
Yet the BBC’s mutability is what allows it to endure. What may appear its weakness is precisely its strength. It cannot be neatly categorised as right or left wing because it isn’t an organisation, exactly, but a process. It is a process which has produced some of the world’s best producers, directors and actors. Across Prime, Hulu and DisneyPlus – the best shows are manned with BBC talent. And to think that critics deem it irrelevant! To seriously claim that it needs to catch up with modernity, when it has shaped our culture, our perceptions, our dialogue, our values, in such profound ways!
I do think that the BBC has profoundly influenced our cultural identity, and that the talent it produces continues to shape the cutting edge of arts across the globe
To think of ‘Britain’; to think of our history, is to rekindle historical moments which have been covered disproportionately by BBC journalists and made, in the most explicit sense, by BBC producers. Anyway, who seriously thinks that traditions make Britain what it is; does sarcasm count? If asked to name the Burkean force that binds the living and the dead, I can think of no better candidate than the tapestry of the arts which has been forged in the corporation’s creative furnace.
I admit that this may seem somewhat hyperbolic. But I do think that the BBC has profoundly influenced our cultural identity, and that the talent it produces continues to shape the cutting edge of arts across the globe. Even domestically, it is the closest thing there is to a democratic monarchy. It is traditional, hierarchical, and yet built on a deeply collectivist funding model that everyone pays for everything rather than only for what they need. The corporation is rigid and conventional, but its most memorable and change-making output is radical and anarchic. It is precisely within the confines of its rules, its complaints procedures, and its onerous bureaucracy, that the arts have flourished.
We should not be worried that Emily Maitlis and Lewis Goodall are being poached by rival broadcasters. To put it crudely, Lewis Goodall grew up in Birmingham, but he was made in the BBC. Rival studios gleam with the promise of innovation, but they lack a certain quality, a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that the corporation provides. I’m not sure if there’s a word for this quality, although ‘quality’ isn’t far off.
If, though, the BBC does crumble, it won’t be because Emily Maitlis no longer graces Newsnight, but because of the ideological war which is being waged against it. The recent decision by the Culture Secretary to eventually scrap the license fee reflects the long-held resentment that swathes of the Conservative party have historically held towards the corporation.
The BBC is arguably the most trusted organisation in the world, and it is certainly a boon for British soft power, but when push comes to shove this government isn’t interested in soft power: it’s interested in undermining an organisation which repudiates the narrative they want to tell about our own history. Our cultural identity doesn’t come from authority, but from artists pushing against rules and conventions. It doesn’t come from the supremacy of unbridled capitalism but from collective effort and collective memories. For that reason, the BBC is in danger not because it is irrelevant, but precisely because it is more relevant than ever. That is the real story and a far bigger problem for the corporation’s survival.