Saturday, 20 March 2010

'This Week' and what it says about the BBC

For odd ball political junkies like myself, the BBC's 'This Week' is part of a staple weekly diet. What I find curious about This Week, though, is how it has come to project some of the BBC's most deep seated insecurities.

This is probably best manifested in the programs god forsaken obsession with visual metaphors. The latest edition provides a perfect example (the first 90 seconds really have to be seen to be believed). It opens with Andrew Neil introducing the show with the loose conceit of being, for some reason, James Bond. Some accompanying Mission Impossible music is played, interspersed with some piss poor 'technological looking' graphics. Then there's John Pienaar who gives us an interminable round up of the week through the prism of jogging puns. This is usually complimented at some point by a celebrity, wheeled out by their agent to talk about a cause they care about. Usually they admit to "not knowing much about politics really", but that they really think we should care more about the elderly, or something. At this point Neil usually engages in some limp banter to fill the gaps.

All this sits in bizzare juxtaposition with the show at its best, which is essentially when they actually get round to detailed discussion with the shows regular pundits (essentially establishment figures) Michael Portillo and Dianae Abbott or a guest of some intellectual weight, on the weeks' political goings on and their wider implications. It can be genuinely engaging and informative.

Why, then, does the program so regularly feel the need to dumb itself down? I think it is basically because it's obsessed with retaining the attention of 'young people (TM)' and/or the politically disaffected. But this is bizzare. The show goes out at 11.35pm, straight after Question Time. Most of the people watching are already engaged to some degree. Perhaps I'm being a snob, and it's just an attempt to unbutton politics in a way I complained needed to be done here. But it still doesn't make sense if you think about it. Does anyone need to have the weeks political events elaborated on by Quentin Letts in an astranaut suit, talking about how the governments recent housing initiative was "brought back down to earth"? Is anyones understanding of the world lubricated by listening to Craig David talk about the merits of personality politics? "Oh I was going to switch this off and take no particular interest in public life, but look, Toby Anstis really seems to care about local planning regulation".

All this points to some fundamental anxieties at the Beeb. It is increasingly operating under the same logic as commercial competitors. This is that peoples attention spans are essentially incredibly thin and can only be retained by novelty, or failing that, celebrities; basically, the lowest common denominator. Be that true or not, it is not the BBC's job to perpetuate this - they have the budget, the mandate and the position within public life to be able to offer something different. This in a way cuts to the heart of the BBC's current existential dilemna. To what extent does it chase ratings in an 'inclusive' way that justifies a universal license fee ("A BBC for everyone" etc.), or is it's chief function to provide what other channels cannot?

This Week shows us that the the Corporation is not particularly confident in its own skin, that it thinks itself too high brow. If it's historical mantra is to "inform, educate and entertain", it is increasingly jettisoning the first two in pursuit of a narrow vision of the latter. Obviously it's important that the BBC 'does' low-brow at some point in its schedule, but should this really extend to late night political discussion shows? Likewise, Question Time is becoming increasingly devoid of public intellectuals or commentators, instead favouring bland 'talent' (think Adam Rickett!) who usually have very little to say. You can even see it running through programs like Match of the Day 2, with its growing tendency to throw in some wacky illustrative graphics - no, calm down, just show us the football!

The BBC's role is to be a standard bearer for quality. It may think by making essentially serious programs more zany that it will fend off accusations of elitism, but by so prolifically lowering itself to its rivals level it trivialises both its subject matter and, in turn, itself. It's like a close friend who constantly competes for your attention by randomly throwing in slang words and wearing a cap backwards. Just be yourself, mate!