Ben Lowry: The BBC is key to Britishness and it would be madness to mess with it

It would be a cultural disaster if the BBC became a splintered or low-cost operation. Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
It would be a cultural disaster if the BBC became a splintered or low-cost operation. Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
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The big news about the BBC charter renewal is not that the salaries of those contributors who earn more than £150,000 will be published.

It is the way in which the BBC has survived the renewal largely unscathed.

Mercifully, David Cameron’s government pulled back earlier this year from radical reform of the Beeb.

Being anti BBC is almost an article of faith among people who consider themselves to be ‘right wing’.

If you argue passionately for welfare reform, as I did on Talkback yesterday (in light of an Irish News report that Disability Living Allowance now costs Northern Ireland £1 billion a year, a topic we at the News Letter have often covered), then people can assume you have a host of other views that supposedly chime with such a position, one of which is hostility to the BBC.

But a key tenet of conservatism is preserving the best traditions in any society. It is no exaggeration to say that the BBC has since its inception been an institution that helps bind the UK together.

It would be a cultural disaster if the BBC became a splintered or low-cost operation.

Auntie Beeb’s essential component is quality. Everything is done well, from children’s programmes to comedies to documentaries to drama to pop to sport.

There are times when it falls down in one or other of those spheres, but over the longer term its average output is of the highest order.

Even when the BBC does popular and supposedly low-brow stuff – which it must do, given that it is the national broadcaster – it serves ‘popular’ framed in quality.

BBC national television news, as an example, manages to stay serious and never to talk to the viewer like a child (as some of its commercial rivals have done at points over the decades) but nonetheless pull in huge audiences.

Critics talk about the licence fee as if it is a burden but it is a small tax. A fee loophole under which I was for a while a beneficiary, having no TV but watching the occasional programme retrospectively on iPlayer, was rightly closed on September 1.

The BBC is known and respected in every nation on Earth.

Consider how America, the richest and most dynamic society in history, has no broadcaster in the same orbit as the BBC.

Most of us could easily think of ways in which we have found the BBC to offer a unique service – it depends on your tastes. In my case it is current affairs, so I remember driving from London to Scotland, leaving at 4pm one autumnal Sunday, and turning on Radio 4 with the intention of flicking over to a music station. As I pulled into Stranraer I was listening to the midnight news, still tuned to 4, because one good programme after another had been programmed.

Or dashing to Cairnryan after the Scottish referendum, I remember driving out of range of the BBC radio discussion on the result and wanting to stop the car so I could continue listening but being unable to do so and catch the ferry. I thought then: how could the Scots almost have voted to lose this?

Or a 2009 documentary, that travelled to Moscow and Sweden, on the mysterious seizure of the MV Arctic Sea off Africa. Barely any other media outlet in the world would fund such reportage.

Or Jim Fitzpatrick’s Panorama on the trail of Sean Quinn, travelling to Ukraine.

Or sleeping once on a large roof in Mali, I remember men listening to BBC World Service in Arabic. I was slightly annoyed that I could not understand my own country’s radio broadcasts, but proud that such a service existed. I bet the average Sinn Fein member would feel some such warmth on hearing the BBC from afar.

Insofar as there is a British identity, the BBC is at the core of it. It is foolish that some Tories, of all people, would want to mess with such a thing.

The Beeb is criticised for bias, and no doubt there is an element of groupthink, but I almost never listen to Today or Newsnight or Question Time and detect bias.

BBC Northern Ireland manages to tread a political tightrope. I say that with a memory of its news coverage stretching back to the end of the 1970s, and not because it generously gives airtime to my own blunt opinions.

I do feel BBC NI needs to balance the many documentaries it has done into state Troubles failures (the occasional documentary on the disappeared is not enough). But we could all find quibbles.

The BBC’s strengths incomparably outweigh its weaknesses.

The world would be a less civilised place without it.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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