The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
January 11, 2008

Radio One should not exist: it is an example of the pervasive corporatist corruption of the British state - argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple makes the case for scrapping BBC Radio One.

In a recent edition of The Guardian, Peter Tatchell, the campaigner for homosexual rights, wrote that he was horrified (or "gobsmacked", to employ the locution that he used, that so succinctly captures all the elegance and charm of contemporary British culture) to learn that 95 per cent of respondents to an on-line poll of BBC listeners thought that it was wrong of the BBC to bleep out the word "faggot" in a Christmas song relayed on Radio One. They thought that it was censorship; and the BBC thereafter abandoned its position, and played the song complete with the word.

Mr Tatchell asks whether the 95 per cent who thought it was all right to broadcast the word would have thought it right to relay over the airwaves abusive terms such as "paki", "nigger" or "yid" in song lyrics. I think he has a point; and certainly we may wonder about a Christmas song whose lyrics include such a word.

But he misses the wider point: that is to say, that Radio One should not exist, so that the question should never have arisen in the first place. Indeed, the very existence of Radio One is an example of the pervasive corporatist corruption of the British state.

Nobody who has scanned through the radio stations on his car radio could possibly be under the misapprehension that a taste for pop music is not adequately catered for by commercial broadcasters. There is an embarrassment of choice; and there is therefore absolutely no need (or excuse) for the existence of a state-promoted and publicly-funded pop music station. In fact, it represents the means by which public money is transferred, by royalties and other payments, into the pockets of people who are already enormously rich, in the same way that development aid is the means by which poor people in rich countries give money to rich people in poor countries.

The only justification for the existence of a public service broadcaster is that it broadcasts programmes that would not otherwise be produced, and that are of high artistic or intellectual worth in themselves. Of course, this means that someone, or some group of people, has to be prepared to make a judgement as to what is intrinsically of artistic or intellectual worth, irrespective (within reason) of the numbers of people who are interested in such matters. (I say within reason because it would, presumably, be possible to produce a programme comprehensible only to twenty mathematical physicists in the whole world, which would be absurd.)

The fundamental difficulty is that our cultural and political elites have lost all confidence in their own judgement as to what is of intrinsic intellectual and artistic value; the only principle in which they believe, or at least affect to believe, is that forty million Frenchmen can't be wrong. The measure of the BBC's success is therefore the size of its audiences. Hence the BBC becomes, if not democratic exactly, at least demotic, in its tone.

I have from time to time discussed this matter privately with people who work in the BBC. I have the same impression of them that I have of policemen when I speak to them individually: that they are personally of high calibre, that they want to do a good job, that they are perfectly well aware of the glaring deficiencies of the organisation in which they work, and that they have a equally clear-sighted and justified contempt for the people at the top - who themselves, of course, capitulate, Vichy-like, to the increasingly fatuous demands of politicians. Unfortunately, the surrender to circumstances extends from the top to the bottom: everyone has a living to make, a mortgage to pay.

There are some among the people to whom I have spoken, it is true, who argue that unless the BBC broadcast pop music as it does on Radio One, or popular sporting events on television, large numbers of people would never turn to the BBC at all. And since everyone is required to pay a licence fee, the service must provide something for everyone, or else it will look like a subsidy by the majority of the minority.

I can see the force of this argument; it is not wholly to be despised. However, it leads inevitably to the subsidy of what requires no subsidy.

In any case, we do not have difficulty in principle in demanding that people pay taxes to support cultural institutions that will never be used by the vast majority of the population. No one, at least as yet, has suggested that the British Library be dispersed because it will never be used by 99 per cent of the people. (But the devastating effect upon public libraries of demotic thinking, that wilfully conflates elitism and social exclusivity, is easy to see. Recently I went to a public library in a medium-sized country town and found there videos, airport novels and politically-correct propaganda - but not a single decent dictionary.)

Shorn of its need to compete with commercial broadcasters by doing what they do more efficiently, the BBC could be reduced greatly in size, and therefore in cost. If the licence fee were reduced likewise, the argument that BBC needed, in the name of equity, to attract large audiences by means of the kind of programmes that commercial stations produce anyway would be correspondingly weakened.

Of course, there are those who would say that my whole scheme of a much smaller but artistically and intellectually enhanced BBC is impracticable: that state and para-statal organisations have an inherent and unstoppable tendency to swell grotesquely, especially in our corporatist society which increasingly resembles India during the licence raj, in which the public service did not serve and private enterprise was not enterprising. For such people, only the total abolition of the BBC will do.

But, like the poor, the public service is always with us; we have to start somewhere to reform it (unless, that is, we accept the status quo), and the suppression of Radio One would be as good a place to start as any. One minor advantage would be that Mr Tatchell would have no further grounds for complaint.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

TD baldly states that "[t]he only justification for the existence of a public service broadcaster is that it broadcasts programmes that would not otherwise be produced, and that are of high artistic or intellectual worth in themselves."

As both a taxpayer and voter, I think I am entitled to differ.

Firstly, I do not want my news and investigative journalism to be generated by producers whose mission is "to deliver the maximum number of viewers to our advertisers" (a phrase I saw used by an American news producer). I would certainly like to see some genuine conservative voices and concerns in BBC current affairs, but the fact that other channels produce news, often good, is inadequate grounds for saying the BBC shouldn't, which it seems to me this test must say.

And secondly, as a parent, I am not convinced that Cbeebies passes this test, but I am convinced that I do not want my child spouting adverts at me whenever we near a shop or fast food joint.

Posted by: Francis Norton at January 11, 2008 03:15 PM

Dr Dalrymple's support for Tatchell's objection to the word faggot in a Xmas song is absurd
There is a mention of faggots in Good king Wenceslas where a poor man exercises his right to faggotage.
Marie LLoyd used to sing about faggots and peas
What is a shame is the taking over of this fine old English word by the likes of Tatchell that has deprived us of the chance to use it in its original sense. There are plenty of synonymns for homosexualists without taking over existing words
The same is true of fag which we smokers can now only enjoy furtively outside the building. You used to be able to talk about puffing a fag but now you would get misunderstood
Dr Dalrymple also descriminates against the very Jews and West Indians he seeks to defend
Would he ban the Yiddish word faegele (little bird) ? Can he not see that rap music would be impoverished if deprived of its robust masculine approach towards women and gays? Tatchell's attempts to censor rap are close to racism

Posted by: Hilary at January 11, 2008 04:31 PM

" ... not a single decent dictionary.".

Did they have many indecent ones?

Posted by: Jean at January 11, 2008 05:37 PM

The posturing, po-faced Mr Tatchell does not necessarily have a point. Personally, I would be quite relaxed about hearing the words 'Paki', 'Yid' or 'Nigger' in a song. In fact I would find it refeshing. And I say that as a 'Paddy'.

Posted by: Pedar MacCodagh at January 12, 2008 02:25 PM

I couldn't disagree more. But then I fundamentally oppose the concept of a "public service broadcaster" as you describe it.
If you and your ilk want programmes that wouldn't otherwise be produced, put your hands in your [bleep]ing pockets.

Posted by: QuestionThat at January 13, 2008 07:24 PM

Personally I think Theodore is missing the whole point of Radio 1. Yes a certain amount of the station's time is spent playing pop, but it also caters for a far broader audience who find commerical radio too bland.

For instance Radio 1 plays more 'new' music than almost any station, which enables none commercial artists to break into the big time. It also is free of the 15 minutes in every commercials that plague most radio. The presenters also tend to be more aimiable, and far less 'corporate' than he is making out.

I don't as a rule listen to the station during the day, but on an evening it plays music almost no other station plays. If you want to reform the Beeb then you need to look at the flab. Radio 1 is the 2nd or 3rd most popular station in the country, and while it is not highbrow list radios 3 or 4, it caters for the younger audience who prefer the more 'commercial' music Theodore rails against.

Ultimately if you wish to be a snob, and be utterly highbrow, then get rid of Radio 1, but if you value a younger audience then Radio 1 is essential for stations like Radio 2 (who rely on the older audience for their share). Without Radio 1 new music would be without a home, and the youth of Britain would be left without a home on BBC radio.

Posted by: Rachel at January 13, 2008 09:48 PM

Most of the population pay (or have paid on their behalf) the licence fee and deserve to benefit. The BBC is unique in that it is advertising free. It is true commercial radio also caters to mainstream taste, but it is interrupted every few minutes by tedious ads. Not so many years ago, when I was a teenager, listening to Steve Lamacq or Jo Whiley was my highlight of the evening. I heard the new, sometimes unsigned, bands that I was breathlessly charting in the NME and Melody Maker. No commercial stations played them. I have since graduated to radio 2 and 4... but viva radio 1!

Posted by: Isabella at January 14, 2008 09:39 PM

Some of these comments are astonishing. Francis Norton does not want his child "spouting adverts at me whenever we near a shop or fast food joint" so demands that the rest of us pay for an advert-free radio station. Hilary fails to recognise that the word 'faggot' in the song is distinct in meaning from the kindling or the meatball, and that Tatchell (idiot though he be) would be unlikely to protest against Good King Wencelas or Marie Lloyd. Rachel wants to use taxpayers' money as venture capital for "none commercial artists". Isabella's argument is entirely circular; we're paying for Radio 1 so we must get Radio 1. Yes, commercial radio has adverts; if you don't want them, pay to fund the station yourself.

Posted by: Ian Bennett at January 16, 2008 12:05 PM

Ian Bennett makes some good points regarding the other contributions on this board , some of which border on the facetious .

To answer Jean's question , she should perhaps try "The Latin Sexual Vocabulary" by J.N.Adams - fairly indecent I can assure her .

Posted by: Alan Healy at January 18, 2008 04:23 AM

With regards to the people who so love the Beeb, and don't want their viewing or listening to be contaminated with advertisements, there's a simple solution. Pay for what you want, when you want it. We're warned that analogue broadcasts are eventually going to be phased out. Also, many people now do much of their listening and viewing online. One would imagine that in an age where we're told constantly (by the BBC among others) of how the information revolution is making possible what was formerly impossible, pay-per-view and pay-per-listen should be a piece of cake.

The BBC could sell a decoding unit (the audio version of a set-top box), and a Sky-type listening card. Then you'd just pay for what you fancy --- and if you don't fancy anything (or aren't bothered about the BBC), then you don't HAVE to pay! No more state-backed extortion to pay for the state broadcasting corporation. Imagine that!

Plus, there would be no charges of being "demotic" or "snobbish": nobody would be subsidising the tastes of others --- if you want to hear the latest up-coming bands, or have a thing for world music, or contemporary classical music, you can pay for these things. If you're happy to make do with the commercial stations, then you're not FORCED to pay for stuff you don't want.

The post by "Rachel" is asinine. The idea that "new music", "none commercial artists" and their audiences would suffer dreadfully without the BBC is just plain wrong. The US doesn't have a state broadcast system: has this meant that the US produces no interesting or non-commercial new music? Or that those in the US who wish to tune into such music cannot do so? And I'd dispute that Radio 1's "new music" is really innovative at all these days: indeed, the term's been all but a misnomer for years, the degree of innovation being inversely proportional to the number of bands and labels out there --- we've forty-odd years of rock and pop, and, like all fashions, it has ended up repeating itself. In fact, Radio 1 is less adventurous than Radio 3, when it comes to non-commercial music. And as for the presenters, I suppose it's a matter of taste: the John Peels and Andy Kershaws have always been the exception rather than the rule --- and their modern successors are largely either crass and boorish or dull, sycophantic ciphers.

"Rachel" then goes on to say Radio 1 "caters for the younger audience who prefer the more 'commercial' music Theodore rails against." Well read again what "Theodore" said --- "Nobody who has scanned through the radio stations on his car radio could possibly be under the misapprehension that a taste for pop music is not adequately catered for by commercial broadcasters" --- scads of stations play the pap Radio 1 blows out during the day.

...And the last paragraph was a hoot:

"Ultimately if you wish to be a snob, and be utterly highbrow, then get rid of Radio 1, but if you value a younger audience then Radio 1 is essential for stations like Radio 2 (who rely on the older audience for their share). Without Radio 1 new music would be without a home, and the youth of Britain would be left without a home on BBC radio."

If you "value a younger audience", then do you try to give them something challenging to stimulate them, or just gas them with 24-hour tax-funded musical pabulum? The baffling statement that Radio 1 "is essential for stations like Radio 2" merely begs the question of whether we need Radio 2 any more than we need Radio 1. And I just loved that final flourish: "the youth of Britain would be left without a home on BBC radio". Citizens, spare a thought for the would-be homeless youth of BBC radio!

As for the comment by "Isabella" that Radio 1 played the bands that she'd been "breathlessly charting" in the music press, that's all very nice, but why do you think other people should pay for *your* "highlight of the evening"? Were the plug pulled on Radio 1 (a forlorn hope, no doubt), would teenagers sit at home in gloomy silence? Do teenagers do this in the US? ...And you can always sample the music of bands you're interested in --- any decent record shop will let you hear before you buy. Why should others who loathe your tastes be forced to cough up to cater to them?

And lastly, let's have an end to all this tosh about the BBC being "advertising free". It's endlessly blowing its own trumpet, pushing its increasingly naff output. Adverts for soap powder or whatever aren't any less irritating.

I'd also question Dalrymple's notion that the BBC, being part of the public service, will always be with us, and thus that the best we can hope for is to reform it. He doubtless yearns for its transformation into an aesthete's Shangri-La. Fat chance.

Posted by: P. Hayman at February 15, 2008 03:19 PM

Doesn't everyone just download music from the Internet these days?

Posted by: Roly at April 17, 2008 11:44 AM

Well said P hayman!

Here in Australia we have the ABC, a poor relation of the BBC. it isn't funded by a licence fee, but by direct government funding, so we don't really notice that we are paying for it. of course it is biased towards the left in its politics and biiased towards the right in its cultural concerns.

The ABC runs a clasical music network which is really the equivalent of ClassicFM, not Radio 3. However, we have a chain of subcriber radio stations which specialise in clasiical music, and are superior to the ABC in many ways. What's better is that these subscriber stations are available to all, even if you don't pay the subcription.

All us cultured types love Government broadcasting because it allows access to highbrow programmes. And Government broadcasters have become institutions that are well respected. As good conservatives we should be loathe to pull down the institutions. However, we should also look at other models that improve them. Therefore, the Beeb, which makes a stack of money from selling programmes tothe world, would probably be improved if it were to ditch the licence fee and obtain its money from the paying public. It would make a fortune if it continued to eschew direct advertising, but instead charged on a pay-per-view basis. We now have the compute technology to make this possibele. it is already used with cable TV. Alternatively, the Beeb could charge a subscription fee and restrict supply to those who pay that fee. By using such funding strategies you could maintain the best of the beeb whilst ensuring that the public isn't required to subdidise soething it doesn't want.

Posted by: Peter Laverick at April 23, 2008 09:59 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement