The BBC at 100

I wrote this for a TLS feature in which various contributors discussed what the BBC means to them:

The BBC makes no ideological sense in a post-Thatcherite world. Public goods have come to be seen as the servant of indiv­idual, rational consumers, who are meant to know what they like before they have seen or heard it. And what does British mean, anyway, in an era of devolution and digital fragmentation? A nation is an imagined and often imaginary community. Viewers in Lerwick or St Helier have always watched television with a different eye and ear to those in London, except during those years when they couldn’t watch it at all, because the transmitters did not reach them. And we are forced, by law, to pay for it all! In The Kingdom by the Sea Paul Theroux includes our willingness to pay the licence fee in a long list of what makes the British crazy, alongside their habit of wallpapering ceilings and putting little knitted bobble hats on soft-boiled eggs to keep them warm. That book was published in 1983, before the BBC’s free-market critics had gathered in force.

What can one say in the BBC’s defence? Only that the things that are truly precious in life can’t be fully audited or rationalized. I value it because it tells me that I am more than just a consumer, more than just part of a statistical aggregate of viewers or listeners. I am one member of a diasporic national community, loosely assembled in 20 million living rooms. That community is hard to put one’s finger on and easy to destroy. But precisely because it demands so little of those who belong to it, it can create a sense of commonality among people with little else in common.

Defenders of the BBC tend to shout about its news coverage, its flagship documentaries or its prestige dramas. I prefer to think of those programmes that just tick along in the background – The Sky at NightGardeners’ WorldFarming TodayChoral Evensong, two-minute snatches of birdsong on Radio 4, documentaries about Hebridean islands on BBC Alba. Or of those radio presenters who got me through lockdown by talking away reassuringly in the corner of the room. Watching TV and listening to the radio are everyday, low-intensity and often private acts. It is easy for us to forget what a vital part of our lives they are, and how much the BBC would be missed if it were gone.