Auntie matters

The BBC must fulfil its potential to inform, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

July 16, 2009

British universities are not very good at education. At their best, they give students the chance to educate themselves - which is a precious opportunity, but not what the public and politicians demand. Many universities offer professional or vocational instruction, but instruction is the enemy of education. Lives revolutionised by a love of learning, newly discovered powers of critical intelligence, creative thinking, self-discipline, enhanced values or morals do begin in college - but disappointingly rarely.

Schools are even worse. Most school-age children lack incentive and inspiration. Only the well disposed or susceptible find lessons life-changingly exciting. For most of the rest, except for those dedicated to truancy, school succeeds chiefly by keeping them off the streets. No teacher should undergo self-reproach for most young people's miserable standards of ignorance and indifference, for education is wasted on the young. Few of us are ready for it until we are so stricken with maturity that we are too old for school.

There is only one British institution that is truly well placed and well equipped to educate the nation, and that is the BBC. It has a bigger share of the airwaves and a larger presence on the web than any other British organisation. It has staggering resources that leave other broadcasters around the world breathless with envy. This wealth is available to create great works of art and to patronise scholarship and science for the benefit of the nation.

The BBC can address people of all ages. It can bombard those keen on self-improvement with the means of achieving their aim. Among adults old enough to sense their lack of education, it has privileged access and extraordinary loyalty. The BBC reaches into people's homes and cars and workplaces. It can communicate with audiences on journeys and in moments of repose. It can speak loud and clear. It can operate at all hours. It can embrace ambitious projects designed to extend listeners' minds and challenge the limits of their tastes. The only university that can begin to do any of these things on a comparable scale is The Open University, thanks to its links with broadcasting and its overwhelmingly mature student body.

Because of the BBC's educational potential, it would be an act of monstrous irresponsibility to cut its funding or dilute its charter. But at present, this potential is wretchedly underexploited. Instead of embracing the role of chief educator to the nation, the corporation revels in dumbing Britain down.

News coverage, which is still the best service the Beeb offers, is increasingly pusillanimous, parochial and ineloquent. Submissiveness to government interference over the Iraq "dodgy dossier" affair dulled its ring of truth, and the service has yet to recover.

The people who commission drama and documentaries seem utterly nerveless. Their idea of culturally challenging entertainment is endlessly rehashing Dickensian popular sentiment with Andrew Davies monopolising the screenwriting process, so every aspect of every production is drearily predictable. The rehash mentality is wasteful not only of opportunity but also of licence fee payers' money: earlier classic dramatisations of the work of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen can hardly be bettered, so why waste money on inferior remakes?

Except for the contributions of that ageing colossus, Sir David Attenborough, the great tradition of BBC documentaries on art, history and natural history is dead. Geniuses such as Jacob Bronowski, Alan Taylor and Kenneth Clark made life-changing programmes because producers dared to give them the freedom to innovate in their disciplines and stretch the audience's minds. Any academic who still tries to work in television or even radio knows how hard it is to get today's BBC to trust intellectuals to work live and unscripted, or to talk directly to the audience.

Music broadcasting has given up any pretence of broadening the mind, with every channel focused on narrow tastes. Radio, which once offered diversity, is now divided among ghettos of the like-minded. Light entertainment tacks between dreary pabulum and facile, pointless, smutty outrage of the kind for which the BBC pays millions of hard-earned licence payers' pounds to the likes of Jonathan Ross.

Whenever the corporation reaches back to the Reithian tradition - as, for instance, when its attempt to revive The Brains Trust, the celebrated radio and television discussion programme, ended in dismal failure - timidity, political correctness and defensive overscripting reveal a fatal loss of nerve.

The BBC can still retrieve its educational role. It needs genuine independence, unimpeded by government interference and the demand for boringly calibrated political even-handedness. It needs shamelessly generous funding. It needs a renewed culture of confidence echoing the days when Auntie knew best. It needs executives - the present lot should be sacked en masse - with the courage to inspire producers and performers with a combination of moral discipline and intellectual freedom. Above all, it needs to be liberated from the Government's demands for broadcasts to be competitive and commercial. Let us license some truly noble failures: only then can we hope for some glorious successes.

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