The BBC and its poetry

Defending itself from cuts is not enough. The BBC must forge a new identity based on collaboration, pluralism and the creativity of a global audience. 

Nick Fraser
21 August 2015

A still from India's Daughter (2015). Credit: dir. Leslee Udwin

Here’s a radical thought from a wayward summer’s reading. Near the end of a great French novel, the romantic, imprisoned hero comes to a momentous conclusion. ‘The best thing about being condemned to death,’ he says, ‘is that you remember all the poetry you have forgotten.’ 

I feel this about where the BBC has currently got to. Like individuals, institutions can be destroyed in many ways, and they can of course destroy themselves – often without anyone realizing this is happening. There are crimes without perpetrators: not every death neatly follows the time-honoured plotlines of Cluedo. From where I sit, however, many of the best features of the BBC appear endangered. I feel that the poetry is needed before it’s too late.

By poetry, I don’t mean British Standard Ritual – Royalism, Great Sports, Arts, Sciences, etc – though that’s what we tend to evoke when talking about the historic BBC. I mean the myriad ways in which the BBC, usually without being aware of it, has transformed the lives of others. Let me give two examples from my own past year. 

I work at showing documentaries from all over the world on the domestic BBC. But I also help make documentaries from all over the world available, via BBC World News, BBC Arabic and BBC Persian, along with public broadcasters all over the world, from Bhutan and Palestine to Bangladesh, to a global audience. These aren’t new films, but they are still resonant. This week I watched Rough Aunties, a film originally made by the astounding Kim Londinotto for Channel Four about the efforts of a group of Durban women to rescue children from abusers. It’s a wonderful film, tender and heart-breaking. No-one watching it can remain immune to the claims of shared humanity – and I mean this literally. So here’s a collaboration between the BBC and other broadcasters, and one resulting in many millions of viewers.

And now please think of India’s Daughter, banned by the government in India but shown this year by the BBC and many partners on Women’s Day. I don’t think the question of how it is that women are daily abused, not just in India, has elsewhere received such an airing, among millions and millions of viewers and tweeters.

I can understand why politicians, feeling beaten up by interviewers or nagged at by commercial rivals, feel frustrated with the BBC, but I don’t think they understand what the BBC gives the world. Try to think how we might start again with Charter Renewal, as it’s euphemistically called. How can we alternatively attempt to address what has become the Question of the BBC? We might say that Britain was lucky to be in possession of something as unusual as the BBC – an institution capable of embodying so many hopes and dreams as well as bringing together a fractured past and an unknowable, troubled present and future. 

Let’s acknowledge that there are many things wrong with this institution – of course there are – but we would also acknowledge that these can be fixed. We’d say that they must be fixed, and the BBC alone can fix them. 

But the BBC must stay big and ambitious – not just on sufferance, but encouraged to do so. Its future shouldn’t be seen to depend on the views of domestic rivals. George Osborne said the BBC had become ‘a bit imperial’ in its scope and ambitions. But this betrays a misunderstanding of the circumstances of contemporary media. By today’s standards the BBC isn’t that big, and anyhow the economy of world media isn’t evolving in a dog-eat-dog, zero sum way, with winners replacing losers. Anyone still in doubt about the global capability of British media should look at The Mail Online, or indeed at how The Guardian has morphed into a world version of its old, Manchester-based self. 

World audiences are no longer there to be conquered or colonized. We need to win them every day. And, self-evidently, there’s a huge common project that needs addressing. How is the world to be supplied not just with ‘information’ – a word somewhat devalued, as the Chancellor would agree, much like ‘neoliberalism’ – but with the capability to make sense of things. We’d all agree about the existence of an understanding deficit. Understanding is what the BBC helps us with – not alone to be sure, but as one among other sources of illumination. 

Every democracy requires the wherewithal to talk about itself and see itself. This isn’t a marginal activity. Far from it. Societies that lack the opportunity to hold themselves to account are seriously impaired. And the number of societies capable of doing this isn’t increasing. Did we, ten years ago, really think Russia would be where it is? How about Italy? And Greece? Could we have envisaged an American media scene dominated by Fox News? And can we imagine a world surviving where such current phenomena as global mayhem, inequality or warming cannot be discussed by the widest possible audience?

But let me get back to the BBC and its poetry. Much of the disapprobation directed towards the BBC derives from its presumed arrogance. While sensing that within the BBC the days of arrogance are past, I’d like to see a more magpie-like Beeb, accommodating more voices and more genuinely pluralist. 

The BBC has talked about partnerships for many years. Too often, however, this has meant grand deals with presumed equals, or indeed devices for extracting money while giving little in return, at which the Corporation has proved expert. The BBC now needs to open itself up to genuine collaboration. It is still far too difficult to work with non-profit foundations, or private backers, let alone such massive new configurations as Google or Amazon. Nervousness is palpable when it comes to sharing editorial aims, or indeed accepting that the BBC shouldn’t claim a monopoly on the truth. A truly open BBC will be more welcoming to outside influences and views. It must be freed to strike up partnerships where it wishes. Why couldn’t the BBC do a deal to share limelight with TED? What would be so wrong about a BBC/Netflix venture? Can we not envision large-scale educational projects in conjunction not just with the Wellcome Foundation (with whom the BBC has long been in conversation) but places such as Open Society or Ford?

None of this should be presented as a means of reacquiring money lost to the BBC by cuts. It is what the BBC needs to be free to do. Of course it will take some time to achieve – because it implies a profound modification of the way in which the BBC likes to work. And of course the BBC cannot abandon its domestic audiences, and those who will still, in any settlement, find themselves constrained to pay for it. With its poetry, however, it must now be freed to go out into the world in search of a new self. 

The worst outcome of the cuts forced on the BBC would be a planned shrinkage and a return to old, pre-global ways. Rather than retreat, surely the BBC needs to play globally on the biggest stage. And surely we all need to want to see the BBC doing this.

This is a personal view and does not represent BBC policy.

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