More bad news for comedy writers: this week’s announcement that the government is freezing the licence fee means more cuts on top of the massive ones of the last couple of years.
More cuts, fewer programmes. Those of us hoping the comedy department might look again to developing new writing talent can forget that for a while.
It would be easy to look at the latest move and conclude that the government, having spent years attacking the corporation and complaining about its content, is moving in for the kill.
However, Nadine Dorries is the first Culture Secretary who has actually dared to suggest there may be another option beyond abolishing the licence fee or abolishing the BBC. Previous Culture Secretaries have been happy to play the BBC card, which is to shout, bully, threaten and cut, without ever discussing alternative options.
Indeed, two days after her announcement a former holder of the post John Whittingdale piped up to attack her plan, saying the licence fee is “the least bad option.”
Whittingdale’s attack shows what I’ve suspected all along, which is the government doesn’t have a plan. Their problem is that deep down it doesn’t want to abolish the BBC. Ideally it would like the BBC to abolish itself, imploding as a result of every wound inflicted by cuts and the genuine animosity of those who do want the BBC abolished.
There’s nothing personal in the desire of Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Neil and the owners of the Daily Mail and Telegraph to kill off the BBC. They see it as unfair competition for their own media brands. They will continue to attack it not least because that plays well among their own customers.
By the way, this is not an anti-Tory rant. The BBC has reached this crisis point after four decades of political hostility, and both the Blair and Brown governments were directly involved in undermining the corporation.
It’s an incredible shame, because all it would take for the BBC to thrive again would be a little TLC from government.
Governments and journalists get the BBC wrong all the time because they think if it as a single homogenous unit. Anyone who has worked in BBC comedy knows that this is not the case.
All of my BBC experience is in four departments – comedy, radio, children’s and BBC Writersroom. Each of these departments is tiny. They involve small numbers of people producing an extraordinary volume of work, almost all of it focused on getting programmes on screen and in speakers.
The BBC always used to be ahead of the market. They invented streaming: the iPlayer was created when Netflix was still a DVD movie rental firm. They were creating websites when the internet was still two blokes in a basement typing up pages of Wikipedia. Went digital in good time and reaped the benefits. They put procedures in place with creatives and avoided strike action like that which took place in the US a decade ago.
Now you have the nonsensical situation where precious programme-making money has to be diverted to new layers of management charged with creating more efficiencies, which simply translated means “cuts”.
I’ve seen it in practice, especially since 2008, when a stupid on-air prank involving Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross led to a massive fall-out with the government. Instead of allowing the moment to pass, the government stoked the fire of Daily Mail sanctimony. It turned the whole affair into exactly the kind of instant referendum we seem to love in this country – BBC, evil or perfect?
While this did wonders for the careers of Brand and Ross, it was disastrous for us mortals at comedy’s coalface.
I was making my own BBC radio show at the time. Knee-jerk changes were introduced, and my content had to go through two newly invented hoops. My programme wasn’t contentious but in the heat of the moment nervous producers removed a couple of lines that could possibly have been taken as government criticisms. As opposed to jokes, which is what they were.
Ever since, we’ve been looking over our shoulders. Forced to comply with increasingly stringent directives that come from people who think left-wing BBC comedians sit in a room with left-wing journalists every morning to devise content across the corporation most likely to bring down the government.
You end up with ridiculous contradictions:
-The Mash Report, the only comedy show offering a regular slot to a right-of-centre voice, cancelled by Government because it’s perceived to be too left-wing.
-expensive new layers of management added to programmes with the main aim of implementing cuts (but not to the layers of management)
-The BBC revives Jim Davidson’s career after he’d been kicked off ITV for being perceived as racist, but is attacked for being obsessed with diversity.
-government calls to make the BBC totally a subscription company disenfranchise exactly the people they say they’d like to help, who can’t afford it.
The BBC is a fantastically popular brand all over the world. In the UK it’s like a member of the family – sometimes it gets on your nerves, but you love it anyway, sometimes despite yourself.
Previous attempts to kill if off have made it stronger. BBC Worldwide made pots from exports of hit shows, its successor BBC Studios has added big funds from studio hire. The company is on track to return £1.2 billion to the Corporation by the end of this financial year.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a plan that keeps the BBC alive without having to achieve this by occasionally taking the government’s foot off its windpipe.
And without politicians crying to nanny every time a comedian makes a joke about them.