Click, and off it goes into the electronic void. For the third time this year I have registered an official complaint with the British Broadcasting Corporation. Many weeks of evasion and delay lie ahead, and they will almost certainly end in defeat, though I am right and they are wrong. This time it was about factual inaccuracy, or truth if you want to be grand about it—as I do, a bit. My last complaint (I won this bout) was about showing unverified propaganda footage from Syria without attributing it to its source. Normally, nowadays, my complaints are about shameless bias, especially in favor of drug legalization, a curious preoccupation of the BBC. I know I am almost certainly wasting my time, but I cannot stop. Only twice in several years of entirely justified, well researched complaining have I ever scored anything remotely resembling justice.
This may help to illustrate the relationship many thinking British men and women have with their national broadcaster. We are perpetually angry with it, because it is not what we thought it was or what we wish it would be, or what it officially claims that it is.
This is incomprehensible to most Americans, who are as disturbed by the idea of a national broadcaster, financed by a sort of tax, as they are about our supposedly established state Church of England and our National Health Service. How can we tolerate these grotesque interferences in our liberties, and still call ourselves a free country?
To which I can only reply that the human mind is not wholly rational, and you will just have to believe that we do this, whether it makes sense to you or not.
To me the BBC is still utterly linked with good things of home and hearth. Till I die I will not be able to hear anyone say that the time is “a quarter to two” without being plunged into a Proustian reverie. For on many impossibly secure and happy weekday childhood afternoons this was the beginning of the following sequence: a mellow chime, an upper-middle-class female voice asking, “Are you sitting comfortably?,” followed by a short pause and the words, “Then I’ll begin.” After which she read a story. It was a program called Listen with Mother. And so I did. My memory supplies the pictures to go with this, a sunny sitting-room with chintz-covered chairs, in which I am sitting, thumb quite possibly in mouth, at my mother’s feet. Outside are many miles of suburban or rural peace spreading away in all directions.
Or then, a little later in my childhood, it is a stormy night in a draughty Victorian house on the edge of the wilds of Dartmoor. I am rapt by the fireside. A character called “Uncle Mac” is reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, this time in a lamplit room, so it must have been the evening. To this day I look back on this moment with wonder. Nothing in the world today matches this mixture of high-mindedness, unblushing public Christianity, and romance. The book has remained in my head ever since, so that I am astonished that so few others are familiar with its disturbing story.
Then there is the picture of my father listening, with bloodshot intensity, presumably after a hard night in the naval officers’ wardroom at Devonport, as a middle-class male voice much like his own repeatedly speaks the words “Suez Canal” and “President Nasser” from a brown Bakelite wireless perched next to his shaving mirror. It was, though neither of us knew it, the end of the world in which we then lived. The voice might as well have said, “The Empire in which you believed, and the Royal Navy in which you served, are henceforth things of the past, which will linger on only as ghosts of their former selves.”
A little later I can see in a large, summery room, with the curtains drifting in the late afternoon breeze, the BBC TV news urgently informing my childish mind of crises in Cyprus and Katanga, and exotic names I still recall: Archbishop Makarios, Moise Tshombe, Patrice Lumumba, Dag Hammarskjold.
And then it changes its tone. Every week seems to feature an “advanced” drama about divorce, homosexuality, abortion, or all three at once. Satire, so-called, spreads its spiky wings. Even my mother’s favorite radio serial, Mrs. Dale’s Diary, the musings of a doctor’s wife, fills up with “progressive” themes. The words “call-girl” and “Profumo” become familiar, as a pinstriped England writhes in embarrassment (and secret laughter) over the sexual athletics of a Conservative politician.
And yet the voice that pronounces these new things is still more or less the same—calm, educated, unashamedly middle-class, and predominantly English, like Britain itself (though other accents are from time to time permitted, every year a little more). Other parts of the BBC begin to broadcast the revolutionary new music of guitar and drum, which the Corporation initially resisted but was forced to broadcast by the success of offshore pirate stations that quickly established large young audiences. Television, after a brief period of cultural glory during which it discovered serious history and drama, eventually realizes that nobody can make it respect the ideas it borrows from literature, the cinema and the stage, and begins to alter these things to fit what it assumes is the tiny attention span of viewers, so that it becomes almost unwatchable for any literate or knowledgeable person.
But a single reasonably reliable broadcast voice remains in what is now called BBC Radio 4 (formerly, rather comfortingly, called the Home Service). This station is the inheritor of those phlegmatic, terribly moving wartime news bulletins which are occasionally brought out of the archives. My favorite of these is the announcement of a rare British military victory over the Germans at El Alamein in November 1942: “Here is the news—and cracking good news it is too!”
They wouldn’t say that now. In fact I remember, as it became clear that British arms had secured the victory in the strange war over the Falkland Islands in 1982, being disappointed by the absence of any note of triumph.
There it is again, the gap between the expectation and the fact. It used to be said of the BBC World Service, which I have conjured out of the ether with fiddly short-wave radios in Baghdad, Samarkand, Prague, Weimar, and Karaganda, that it was “The Truth, Read by Gentlemen,” and that is certainly the way it felt to me in the last years of the Cold War, as I listened to its wavering signal in the small hours in some Communist hotel. Every word, it was clear, had been carefully checked and had to be carefully spoken. But that has gone, too. The lovely old jaunty signature tune “Lilliburlero” has been wholly abandoned. No Oxford-educated voice anymore announces, “This is London.” Instead there is a chatty, informal rolling news service, presented by chatty, informal, multicultural people, and what feels like an active desire to sound as unBritish as possible. It is now “the World’s Radio Station,” though whether the World feels that way about it, I do not know. I suspect the effect is much like that of the new globalized London, with its scowling armed police and scruffy multitudes, on a tourist who has gone there in the hope of seeing English gentlemen in bowler hats, bobbies on bicycles, and quiet pubs serving warm flat beer. Why come here? You can get hamburgers, robocops, and Budweiser at home.
And yet, in small corners of the BBC, as in small corners of London, some traces of what was there before can, with sweet persistence, still be seen. Every so often, there is a brief flash of what the BBC used to be, in a voice, in an especially scrupulous and understated piece of journalism, or in a serious season of Shakespeare. And so we do not quite give up on it. We may shout at our radio sets. We may make complaints. We may angrily turn it off, but we once glimpsed that astonishing thing, a serious and reasonably fair national broadcaster, and so we cannot quite give up hope that it might one day be restored. I suspect that this cherished but unrealistic belief will not endure much longer. I just wish that those in charge of the BBC understood the risks they are courting by treating their audience with contempt, and realized what a howling wilderness of shouting and crudity will come into being when the BBC finally dies.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.