So, Noel Edmonds – television game show host, helicopter pilot, spiritualist and anti-wind energy campaigner – wants to get his hands on the BBC. The broadcaster, he says, is hopelessly un-business-like, making a hash of the digital revolution, a corpse “sleepwalking towards total disaster”. The metaphors are mangled, but we get the idea: it should be put up for sale forthwith so that an unnamed group of jet-setting business folk – including Edmonds himself, one presumes – can buy it and run it “efficiently”. Like the Royal Bank of Scotland or G4S’s Olympic endeavour, perhaps.
When confronted by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, Edmonds refused to say much about what a BBC owned by his wealthy friends would actually look and sound like. But it’s fun to speculate. In place of Paxman on Newsnight, Radio 3’s live concerts, television dramas such as Sherlock Holmes, or David Attenborough documentaries, we’d possibly “enjoy” an endless vista of four-hour House Parties, Mr Blobby chat shows, dangerous stunts, and populist rants about bin collections or health-and-safety-gone-mad.
We know that Gaelic and Welsh-speakers will be told to get lost, because Edmonds has announced that services for them are a waste of money. The World Service would have to pack its bags, too: it has hundreds of millions of listeners around the world, and is probably a more effective ambassador for Britain than anything else we’ve produced, but Edmonds sounds as if he doesn’t know where to find it on his radio dial.
So if he got his way then, I’d imagine that a globally respected and much-admired broadcaster would be asset-stripped and reduced to a kind of sub-Alan Partridge English-only subscription-service for the “hardworking families” who according to George Osborne and Grant Shapps like nothing but a bit of beer and bingo.
But let’s take this seriously. For what Edmonds offers is merely the most inarticulate version of an attitude to the BBC taking root on the free-market right. Edmonds calls his idea “Project Reith”. The implication is that by reversing what he calls its “expansionist policy” he would somehow be returning the BBC to the original vision of its founding father, John Reith. Like most commercial lobbyists, Edmonds assumes that under Reith the BBC offered little more than a core service of uplifting talks and news, interlaced with undemanding and unpretentious entertainment.
That’s nonsense, even leaving aside the inconvenient fact that it was the first director-general himself who, right from the beginning in 1922, pushed hardest for the right of broadcasters to cover Parliament (another BBC service Edmonds thinks pointless), and that it was he who initiated the BBC’s overseas broadcasting in the 1930s.
The crucial point is this: Reith implanted into the very DNA of the BBC the idea that the sheer range and variety of programmes mattered – as did people’s equal access to this range and variety. The BBC, he wrote, should offer “the best in every department in human knowledge, endeavour and achievement”. But, he added, this should be broadcast to “the greatest number of homes” – the aim being “the maximum benefit to the maximum number”.
One of Reith’s deputies, Arthur Burrows, spoke movingly of a mission to help keep us all “of open mind”; for Reith this meant people learning that “others have different tastes and ideas”. Both men shared a vision, Victorian and paternalistic yes, but also wonderfully optimistic – about the ability of us all to change, to find a balanced life of pleasure and enlightenment.
I don’t think that Edmonds and his industrialists would have the faintest interest in our potential for change, in the possibility of broadcasting containing the unfamiliar and the risky. We know this because there’s a long history of commercial broadcasters calculating that it’s simply more lucrative to tap into known and quantifiable markets of listeners than to try to offer something new or something for everyone.
Which means, alas, the same old stuff recycled ad nauseam. Indeed, why not? From their point of view it’s logical. And when Edmonds talks of the BBC’s need for a sharper business sense, it is precisely this that he means: offering what number-crunchers will have calculated we already apparently like – nothing more and nothing less.
Frankly, the BBC doesn’t need this injection of entrepreneurial wisdom anyway. Since the 1990s, it’s been at the forefront of digital developments. It was the BBC that judged before its commercial rivals that the future lay with the internet, and invested the kind of resources that have made BBC Online a global player. It’s the BBC that is now engaged in a plan to make its entire back-catalogue of programmes available to us at the click of a button. The BBC takes the kind of interest in the long-term that would frighten a wealthy industrialist to death. Meanwhile, we resolutely continue to watch its TV programmes and listen to its radio services in our millions.
Which means only one conclusion. Edmonds and his fellow-travellers on the right don’t really dislike the BBC because it is failing. They dislike it because it works. Under this government, alas, that’s exactly what makes it vulnerable. So as well as laughing at Edmond’s scheme, we need to keep a close eye on where it goes next.