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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."

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October 25th, 2012
7:10 PM
People like myself, who spent part of their life on the wrong site of the iron curtain, recognize BBC output for what it is: propaganda and indoctrination. I remember how we used to laugh when discussing the plays, films or books where the goodies were always soviet citizens and the badies the horrible capitalists. I can hardly believe this sort of thing has followed me in the 'free world'. I think there will eventually be unpleasant consequences.

August 21st, 2012
11:08 AM
'If editors could produce a left-wing Mail, they would see nothing wrong with it' Of course, there is such a title. The Daily Mirror. A paper at least as slanted as the Mail and rather more downmarket. And let's not forget the Independent, a sort of Mirror-with-pretensions.

Philip Arlington
July 25th, 2012
3:07 AM
BBC News obviously favours certain points of view - the Ever Closer Union project, high immigration etc. - that are intensely disliked by large sections of the public. That they are supported by the leaders of all three parties should be neither here nor there.

Joe Geary
July 8th, 2012
5:07 PM
I'm writing a film-script for the BBC. It’s about an evil Marxist ideologue who works for an NGO called Greenpox (played by Sean Penn) who, using EU-donated funds, bribes a corrupt African Muslim dictator to ban the use of GM crops - as evil Western Crusader technology - in his country. The result is a massive famine as the local maize crop is destroyed by blight. The day is saved by a beautiful Israeli agro-biochemist from Monsanto (the pouting Angelina Jolie), aided by a warm-hearted socially-committed Texan oil magnate (Jack Nicholson), who invents and grows a blight-proof new crop and the Africans can eat again. The film ends with Sean Penn being lynched by celebrating African farmers, the dictator repenting and converting to Christianity and Angelina Jolie ending up in bed with me. What chance have I got of the BBC commissioning it, y’all reckon?

Clap Hammer
July 8th, 2012
5:07 PM
The BBC is siddled with institutional radical leftism. In political terms, it should be advocating for the 'government of the day'. At least in terms of its world services. Instead it advocates radical leftist policies which are an affront to the vast majority of UK citizens excluding Muslims. It has never received a mandate to moralize to the UK public. It is too far 'gone' and only rubbling it to its foundations and rebuilding it will correct the situation. Pity. I used to watch it often but now do so only with my defenses up to 'ward off' political manipulation. The unholy umbilical cord to the bastion of hard radical left thought, The Guardian' propaganda rag, must be surgically cut for any 'healing' to materialize.

Roger McCarthy
July 2nd, 2012
1:07 PM
Nick, Are you aware that Homeland was originally an Israeli programme?

July 2nd, 2012
12:07 PM
Yes I'm glad people are finally waking up to the fact of what the bBC have done to their drama output. Those in charge of the Beeb want their drama to be mould-breaking etc, but they don't realise that THEY are the thought-police that need to be fought against. .. Their political views - from a narrow and almost fanatical mindset - tell them that they are the brave visionaries fighting against the stuffy establishment. These days their evidence may be the large numbers reading the Sun/Mail/etc rather than the Guardian, which is in trouble. .. But they fail to see that they are exercising stupefying control over drama. This is a very real mechanism of power for the Guardian-reading bunch who not many people read, but who seem to have a vast influence over decision makers

July 2nd, 2012
11:07 AM
It is not just a prolem with the BBC - If you look back ITV were responsible for series such as Adam Smith, Bill Brand and Sam. All popular drama series that were polemical - you may not have agree with the writer's point of view but they provoked discussion about the fundamental values of society. No broadcaster wants to engage in the debate any more - despite the fact that the events of the past few years have made the public more willing to reconsider the political consensus than they have since the 70's

Michael Sweeney
July 2nd, 2012
10:07 AM
I dislike the BBC's leftish bias, but the corporation is large and contains multitudes. Last week I enjoyed Line of Duty (a quality drama), Schama on Shakespeare (no dumbing down there) and Hollow Crown. I don't think I could do any chores these days without Radio 4 podcasts either. They do some good stuff dontcha know (Great Expectations & the recent Dickens season also springs to mind) Too much BBC criticism is reminiscent of babies and bath water. Though quite how Brigstocke, Hardy and other posh lefty comics monopolise much of their 'satire' and Roger Harribin continues to promote his miserabilist global warming theories regular disappoints.

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