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Perhaps this blog thing really works. Last week I did some filming for the Politics Show on the basis of a ‘blogversation’ with Tim Montgomerie from Conservative Home and this morning I am woken by a call from Radio Wales asking me to do a piece about Brand and Ross (the subject of yesterday’s posting). This gave me a chance to set the row over obscene ‘phone messages in the wider context of the debate over public service broadcasting.

Over the years, especially when Government has been looking at the BBC Charter and the license fee arrangements, I have been ‘consulted’ by members of the BBC’s expansive public affairs team. I have also attended several splendid lunches ostensibly held so the DG of the BBC can hear the insights of assembled opinion formers. It took me some time to realise these events aren’t about listening at all – they are an opportunity for BBC executives to do their well rehearsed big sell of the Corporation.

I got to understand this when, a few years ago, I approached a couple of these events with a strong opinion of my own. As I expounded my ideas about the future of public service broadcasting I sensed from the shuffling feet and glazed eyes that my insights were about as welcome and respected as those of the man in the huge overcoat who once sat next to me on a bus and claimed to be able to control the weather with his feet.

But on Radio Wales this morning I had a captive audience. Having mentioned in passing my thesis that the economic downturn will see greater intolerance towards bad behaviour by the rich and privileged, and recognising also the specific stupidity and bad taste of the Andrew Sachs episode (as too in fairness have Brand and Ross) I went on to say that the case of public service broadcasting needed to rest on two pillars: quality and public value.

They may not be to my taste, but arguably quality is not the problem with Brand and Ross. What they do, they do well, commanding impressive listening and viewing figures and a loyal following, particularly among the young, a group that has many other options for its entertainment than the BBC But it is much harder to make the public value case for their broadcasting.

The unwelcome question I asked across the salmon mousse at all those audiences with BBC executives was ‘can everyone who works for the Corporation explain the public service purpose of what they do?’ This is easy enough for the likes of David Attenborough and Andrew Marr. Which is why they are the ones at the lunches and who get wheeled out at Charter renewal time. As someone once said the BBC can be relied upon to get ‘old time religion’ when its future is up for grabs (the someone in person being Mark Thompson, then head of C4) but what does the public service obligation mean for Bruce Forsyth, Gary Lineker, or the producers of Spooks?

The answer might be subtle. It may rely a great deal on the credible argument that quality programming is itself in the public interest (especially now we live in a world when the economics of content production are becoming tougher and tougher) but in the end BBC producers and presenters have to show that they have ambitions and sensibilities beyond those who provide the content for commercial broadcasters.

That the BBC can cause a row like this is, in itself, an important sign of its importance as a public institution. Had Brand’s show been on Bravo or Virgin, and had it not been that we, as licence fee payers, felt that we had been compelled to pay for it, there would have been much less of a row. But this was exactly the problem with the climate in which Ross and Brand’s stuff was allowed to go out. The values of Brand’s programme seemed indistinguishable from those which might animate a cheap and nasty satellite channel.

A few years ago this idea that everyone be able to explain why working for the BBC (and being paid for by the citizen) made them different fell on deaf ears. Perhaps now it should be taken more seriously. Especially at a time when the BBC is fighting an aggressive campaign against the idea that its riches should be spread around the other ailing sectors of public service broadcasting.  

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