The BBC: Vital for things the private sector simply cannot do (photo: Sarah Marshall, via wikimedia commons)
Over the last four years I have had the good fortune to write on this page about a wide range of cultural matters — notably music, architecture, cinema and books — that I hoped might strike a chord with Standpoint readers. This, I am afraid, is the last such column. I’m sorry, too, that some cultural subjects have not come into this column. I have never been able to understand why it is that I adore cinema but find the theatre leaves me cold, given that the same actors and actresses perform in each. Similarly, I can appreciate the visual beauty and message of a building but more often than not I struggle with a painting: I am trying harder on that front, not least because I have never had any problem with fine photography. Dance, however, is something I know I shall never manage to understand or appreciate so long as I live. We all need to have some philistine element within us somewhere.
I did not want to leave this column, however, without looking at one of the great cultural forces of our country, and the uncertain future it faces. The appointment in May of John Whittingdale as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was at once interpreted as spelling upheaval and doom for the BBC. Mr Whittingdale is a long-standing critic of the licence fee: not so much, I think, for ideological reasons but because he recognises that technological developments in the last 25 years — satellite television, the digital revolution, the internet and high-speed broadband — make the assumptions we had about the nature of the delivery of a television service, and how it is paid for, redundant. Unlike many secretaries of state catapulted into jobs, he actually knows an enormous amount about his portfolio, having chaired the House of Commons select committee on what is now his own department for the last decade. If one looks at the reports the committee has made on this subject there are no threats to end the licence fee; but there are clear intimations that things cannot go on as they are. This may not be Armageddon for the BBC, but when the charter is renewed next year it may be on terms unlike those imposed in the past. The BBC, which already has a big commercial arm, may be called upon to develop it further, and to become used to less public money and fewer resources.
At this stage I should declare an interest. I have had the good fortune over the last few years to make numerous programmes for Radio 3, which I believe (irrespective of any involvement I have with it) to be the finest cultural radio network on the planet. In this era of internet radio one can test that for oneself. In my experience of Radio 3 it is staffed by producers of the highest calibre, with rare intellectual gifts in both speech and music programming. Making programmes with such people is an absolute delight and immensely creative. I know I am not alone in thinking these things. Any government policy that led to a diminution of Radio 3’s quality or reach would be an act of vandalism and insanity. Nothing in the private sector could match it — dip into Classic FM for ten minutes if you doubt me — and its very existence is the perfect example of what public service broadcasting should be. It fulfils the Reithian ideal of informing, educating and entertaining. The quality of this country’s civilisation would fall if anything happened to it.