Only in America: The BBC would never have commissioned a series like "Homeland"
The furore about the BBC's coverage of the Queen's diamond jubilee was as dubious as every other alleged media scandal. But it unintentionally illustrated the dilemmas the corporation faces as it searches for a new director-general.
If you missed it, the Mail and Telegraph laughed to scorn the BBC's coverage of the flotilla which greeted her majesty on the Thames. Media criticism is the most dishonest form of journalism because reporters promote their employers' interests by damning their commercial rivals. The denunciations of the BBC were no exception. That said, even objective observers had to concede that the BBC gave us giggling celebrities and oafish youth show presenters, rather than reporters who could describe the pageant.
I hope that objective observers also realised that the conservative press missed the true problem. The BBC always argues that it must produce serious news, highbrow dramas and documentaries because the licence fee could not be justified if it just made trash. By the same token, it must also produce lowbrow television because the licence fee also depends on the BBC attracting a mass audience. In effect, the Mail and the Telegraph were saying that the BBC's mistake was to put the jubilee in the wrong box. It treated it as light entertainment rather than serious news.
Everything is wrong with this account because it does not explain why British television is so bad across the board. It used to be better. Until the 1990s, Britain exported quality dramas to the world and imported game show formats from America. Now Britain is the world's leading exporter of format television — the franchises for Pop Idol, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and the like — and imports quality drama from America and Europe. I prefer the term "quality" drama to "highbrow" because the high/low distinction so favoured in British broadcasting makes little sense. Are The Wire, The Sopranos, The Killing and all the other foreign dramas that have made television the most interesting medium of the age, highbrow or lowbrow? The distinction is absurd. People enjoy them because they are well-written, compelling and free of condescending assumptions about the viewers' stupidity. If you wanted a label, you could describe them as "serious populism": intelligent dramas that welcome everyone.
In a new pamphlet for the New Culture Forum, Dennis Sewell gives us one reason why British television has fallen behind. Sewell, a former BBC presenter, examines political bias, not in BBC news, which strikes me as fair and accurate, but in BBC drama and comedy.
Few can doubt that its writers must strike soft-leftish poses if they want to work. Ben Stephenson, the BBC's controller of drama commissioning, announced in 2009: "We need to foster peculiarity, idiosyncrasy, stubborn-mindedness, left-of-centre thinking." And foster them he has. Sewell notes that the enormous stable of BBC drama writers are seldom shy of hinting at, or even baldly stating, their affiliations in newspaper interviews. But: "I can recall not a single instance where one has identified him or herself as a political conservative."