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November 03, 2008

Canny old Auntie pursuing the longish game - says Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North considers the Brand-Ross affair - and argues that the BBC's highest echelons have shown how committed they are to the behaviour of its stars.

Has the BBC got a death wish? Or is it the canniest old survivor on the block? I'll go for the latter, with a qualification. The bright sparks at the Corporation know the game's up. They read no serious analysis which suggests that the state-funded monolith has a long future. But they see no need to manage a decline. Rather, they fancy going down in blaze of glory. Besides, it is at least possible that boldness on all fronts will stave off the evil day when the milch cow collapses.

Since Beyond the Fringe, the BBC has sought to poke the bourgeois and watch it harrumph. The state broadcaster has had two guiding criteria. Is it catering to every demographic in every medium? And is it being a civilised influence, in the very particular sense of upsetting the Daily Mail?

The twin missions make obvious sense. Come licence renewal time, the political class understands the BBC's game, and largely shares it. With the exception of the Tory party when it briefly pandered to the wounded lower middle class under Mrs Thatcher, metropolitan England has stuck with seeing the cosmopolitan as the only game in town.

It is useless for Stephen Glover to dress this up as a desperate relativism, as he did in the Mail. It is much more deliberate than merely a sort of post modern drift. It is no use Gordon Brown suggesting that Ross and Brand ought to see themselves as role models. That is as silly as imagining that Lenny Bruce or Peter Cook ought to have fretted over being a good influence.

It is completely useless to suppose that broadcasters could become a civilising influence. If they were more civilised, they'd lose any influence of any kind over the masses.

Modern street culture is cruder and ruder than it has ever been. It is impossible to portray or reflect or appeal to it without that plain and ghastly fact coming through. Terence Blacker in the Independent is wrong to say there is a mismatch between the real world and the media world in this respect. It is true that we fetishise niceness with our political correctness. But the underlying reality is a dramatic coarsening of nearly everyone's tongue.

Now it is of course possible that the BBC should remember its improving mission, and be satisfied with small, aspirational audiences. That seems to be the main call of Alexander Chancellor on the Guardian's Comment Is Free and Charles Moore on the Today Programme.

I rather approve of it. There should be no compulsion to contribute to nastiness. Nastiness, smuttiness and the many other delights of the clever ungoverned tongue ought to be available to paying adult audiences in darkened rooms late at night, as they were historically. This is perhaps an argument for subscription TV. But a BBC with smaller audiences will die even quicker than it is bound to.
Meantime, it would be silly to predict that the BBC will much draw in its horns. Its staff mostly love its new vulgarity and so do the demographic the smut is aimed at. The BBC will think that retreating from this stuff is cowardly and - oddly - uncivilised.

Seen in this light, the BBC's response to this drama reminds of how arrogant and clever the corporation is. It has sent its biggest star into very temporary exile and more to punish us than him. They want to remind us how much we enjoyed most of what he did, including (for a sizeable minority) his worst excesses.

And by tipping out only a middle-rank editorial executive, the Corporation's highest echelons show how committed they are to the behaviour of its very young rising stars. They have made the minimum sacrifice whilst declaring that for everyone else, it's business as much like usual as possible.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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