‘We need the BBC more than ever’
OPINION: Piers Plowright warns people in power don't like the Beeb, but they must be stopped from taking it away
20 February, 2020 — By Piers Plowright
In two years and eight months the BBC will be 100 years old. Let’s hope.
Because once again the wolves are circling. They always have been. People in power don’t like the Beeb.
From Stanley Baldwin’s tussle with it over the 1926 General Strike to the present Bozza and Dom show, almost every British prime minister has wanted to destroy or control it.
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the Left or Right: Churchill, Wilson, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, and now this lot.
The BBC, which aims to be an impartial broadcaster of truth – an impossible task, by the way – is bound to be clobbered.
I worked for “Auntie” – the source of that affectionate nickname is still disputed – for 30 of its 98 years so, of course, I’m biased. But I think there are strong reasons for all of us to celebrate and want to preserve the institution and its independence.
Let’s, at the risk of getting sentimental, go back a bit.
You need to know a bit of history and the context before discussing the present utterly changed world of alternative facts and fake news and the revolution in the way the media are received.
When the British Broadcasting Company – it became a corporation five years later – was founded in October 1922, it was led by a stern, granite-jawed, Scottish low churchman, John Reith.
A man of narrow views and strong prejudices, he had many faults but kow-towing to power was not one of them.
And he proclaimed the high moral principles that, I believe, still animate the corporation today.
Walk into the 1932 flagship building, Broadcasting House, and the symbols are there: over the door, Eric Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel – the magician and his messenger; in the entrance hall, another Gill statue, the sower casting his seed across the world; and above him, the quotation from St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians that begins “Whatsoever things are true…” and goes on to add honesty, justice, purity, loveliness, and good report to the list of desirables for the good life.
The properties of good broadcasting, too, Lord Reith thought, using the Latin word for “whatsoever” – “quaecumque”, as the BBC’s motto. An impossible ambition? Well, I looked at it every morning from 1968 to 1998 and – perhaps subconsciously – adopted it.
As did those robber barons (departmental heads) and pub-frequenting poets and newspeople who filled the corridors and offices of this building as well as those of its powerful sisters and brothers in Shepherd’s Bush, and regional and local centres across Britain.
Under this banner, the Three Commandments of informing, educating, and entertaining, were established.
As a child (born 1937) the BBC was my soundtrack, a source of reliable news in the Second World War, of comedy, light and classical music, discussion, drama, talks, that carried me through adolescence and the Cold War, into the Swinging Sixties and beyond, forming my taste and shaping my imagination as much as books, the theatre and the cinema.
By then TV had supplied the pictures and, at its best, illuminated the world in an extraordinary way.
Both media continue to do so, for a tiny annual sum of money, and, so far, uncensored by government or commercial pressure.
And just consider what you’re getting for your money: In Our Time and the breadth of programming that Radio 4 broadcasts daily, the Proms and all the cultural riches of Radio 3, BBC Four’s astonishing music and arts documentaries, a round-the-clock news service, unrivalled anywhere in the world, powerful radio and TV drama from the classics to the best of contemporary writing.
Plus soap operas – I ran one, Waggoners’ Walk on Radio 2 – that can mix drama and social, medical, and practical information in equal measure: the evergreen Archers, don’t forget, began as dramatised advice for farmers.
But this richness is perhaps the Beeb’s problem. It can be quoted with pride or used as a whipping boy. You can’t please everybody all the time.
Nor should you.
Against a wall outside New Broadcasting House stands Martin Jennings’ impressive more-than-life-size statue of George Orwell.
He worked briefly, if not entirely happily, for the BBC, but he knew its value.
Next to the statue the sculptor has carved this quote from the great defender of free speech: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Take note, all those who would abolish or weaken this “Temple of the Arts and Muses”. We need it more than ever.
Piers Plowright lives in Hampstead and was a BBC radio producer from 1968 to 1998