JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 22.9.07
ONE WAY AND ANOTHER, it’s been a memorable week for the BBC, the UK’s battered but still beloved national broadcaster. On one hand, there was the ceremonial opening of BBC Scotland’s new headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, a facility so technically advanced, by comparison with the other UK broadcasting centres currently in use, that it seems set to represent a major new resource not only for broadcasting in Scotland, but for the BBC as a whole. The Director-General Mark Thomson announced an extra £50 million for network programme-making in Scotland; and no less a person than the Prime Minister stepped up to declare the building open, although not without delivering a pointed political reminder that the BBC is a British organisation, and that the new facilities should not be used to pursue a “Scotland only” agenda.
It all seems a million miles, in tone and gravitas, from the other major BBC story of the week, which involved the sad tale of the Blue Peter cat. For after a series of damaging summer stories about broadcasting practices that mislead viewers and falsify events, this week brought the final, crushing revelation that Britain’s once-wholesome flagship children’s show held a viewer poll to determine the name of the programme’s new kitten, and then simply ignored the result, ditching the name “Cookie” – preferred by the viewers – for the slightly more stylish “Socks”.
And although the Socks story looks like a prime specimen of broadcasting trivia, compared with the sonorous words of the Prime Minister at Pacific Quay, it strikes me that both stories reveal something of the same malaise that has been stalking the BBC for the last 15 years.
For it seems to me that both reflect a collapse of faith in the value of the material the Corporation creates and provides, and in its intrinsic worth to the British people, that has led not only to a sad decline in the quality of some of that material, but to a subtle breakdown of the real creative relationship between programme-makers and audiences. In the case of Socks the cat, this process of breakdown is both familiar and obvious. Losing confidence in their right and ability to entertain and inform audiences in an old-fashioned top-down way, BBC programme-makers – like all British broadcasters – have opted heavily for cheep-and-cheerful audience participation, and for what is known as “interactivity”. The problem is that in most cases, the editorial consequences of this move have been so poorly thought through that ethical guidelines are weak, and issues of quality have barely been addressed at all; and as a result, the audience who are supposed to be calling the shots are increasingly viewed by programme-makers as some kind of ravenous beast, which has to be placated with the appearance of democratic participation, even where none really exists.
Even more interesting, though, is the casual presumption of the Prime Minister – shared, I’m afraid, by many senior broadcasting executives – that if the BBC Scotland focusses mainly on providing strong coverage of Scotland and its affairs, then it will inevitably become parochial, inward-looking and dull. Now I don’t think I need to dwell, for readers of this newspaper, on the extent to which this assumption – like most of the BBC’s current Scottish programming – fails to grasp the sheer vibrancy of the current Scottish scene, in fields from culture to science and politics.
But in its assumption that audiences only exist in dumbed-down sectors – as if no-one in no-one in London, for example, would be capable of appreciating the issues raised by the debate about wind-farms on Lewis – this kind of talk also reflects a very similar collapse of belief in the value of the very material the BBC was designed to produce. It not only underestimates the huge outward-looking energy of what is happening on the BBC’s doorstep in Scotland, or Manchester, or Birmingham. It also simply assumes that BBC programme-makers are no longer capable of covering local events in ways that are of national interest; a prediction that is well on the way to becoming self-fulfilling, so steadily have the BBC and other broadcasters, in recent years, been disinvesting in the basic stuff of intelligent and well-trained broadcasting talent.
Well, times change; and there certainly should be more space, in the 21st century BBC, for audience involvement, response and debate. But in the swarming world of modern electronic communications, high-quality content is actually more important than ever before, in distinguishing major media organisations from the general hubbub of quack medicine, cheap porn, New Age tat and ill-informed opinion that populates the lower reaches of the web. The BBC still retains, by a hair’s breadth, its long-standing reputation for authority and quality; the Corporation is a mighty ship, and will take a very long time to break down.
But it will not finally be able to reverse its perceived decline, and to restore full public confidence in its integrity, unless it rediscovers its own faith in the rich, varied life of the nation from which it broadcasts, and in the power of gifted broadcasters to show how that life is of significance to every thinking citizen of the 21st century. “The more one is local, the more one is universal,” said the great Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay, decades ago. The BBC’s bosses in Scotland should now be pondering that thought; and bending their minds to how – with the help of their fabulous new base at Pacific Quay – they can begin to reflect the rich realities of contemporary Scottish life with so much wit and insight that the quality of their work will match anything that 21st century broadcasting has to offer; and its wider significance will soon become self-evident, even – whisper it softly – to the Prime Minister himself.
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