Proposed restructuring at the BBC could be a fantastic opportunity for the cultural community of Wessex. Alternatively, the opportunity could, as usual, be strangled at birth.
There is no denying that Wessex is poorly served by current arrangements. In contrast to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is no dedicated structure ensuring that our regional identity is reflected in BBC output. We are poorly served by national services, which are heavily London-focussed. We are equally poorly served by local services, which are fragmented, lacking the critical mass to develop programmes appropriate to an audience of regional scale. Wessex is partitioned between three BBC ‘regions’ – South, South-West and West – and there is no evidence of any will to co-operate in presenting themes of Wessex-wide importance. On the contrary, we found when launching The Case for Wessex at Wantage in 2003 that news coverage was restricted to BBC South, in whose area Wantage lies. Management decisions based upon the BBC’s territorial demarcation therefore ensured that the majority of Wessex was not informed of matters objectively of equal significance to all three ‘regions’. Highly localised fragmentation within England is accelerating, resulting in a loss of regional perspective, while in the other home nations identity is being consolidated. One only has to compare the continuity of the Welsh region with the break-up of the Western region (which pre-war had a station in Southampton) to see that this is so.
The quality of existing regional programming falls far short of what we could reasonably expect. Our culture – notably our dialect and literature but also history and music – lacks the serious treatment that its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receive. News programming is facile; there is no regional equivalent of Newsnight, able to question local and national politicians searchingly about the neglect of our region’s interests, such as in relation to housing, transport and the environment. It’s no defence to say that the public is largely bored with regional programming: such audience reaction simply proves the point about quality.
Last month, Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust told listeners to the Today programme that the BBC should aim to offer distinctiveness and to offer something to every audience. Does that include Wessex? And if not, why not? We are hungry for something of better quality than the purely local can provide, yet which is not submerged in national programming trying to appeal uniformly to an English or British audience. Even national programming appears unbalanced in some respects in favour of other regions. There is, for example, no television or radio soap opera set in Wessex, but a disproportionate number set ‘up north’. Are our lives really that uninteresting?
National coverage of cutbacks has bewailed the planned closure of London’s ‘iconic’ Television Centre. Good riddance to that. It’s just not acceptable that 74% of the BBC’s budget is spent in the capital. The proportion is declining, but nowhere near fast enough. A strategy to reduce property costs must include de-concentrating resources out of London to lower-cost cities. Cost-cutting must not be an excuse for running-down regional production centres; quite the opposite. The BBC must serve the whole of Britain, not just London, and this applies as much to its own organisation as to its output. Bristol, for example, has achieved an enviable reputation for its environmental programmes, one that could and should be developed further.
It’s puzzling that national news coverage relies so heavily on reporters sent out on location from London. Proper use should be made of reporters employed at the regional centres. This would not only be more cost-effective but would provide the opportunity to hear more regional accents. The Wessex accent must be the least well-aired on television; if so, this implies discrimination that ought to be challenged very firmly indeed.
All this assumes, however, that the BBC is actually capable of reforming itself. Viewers annoyed by the incessant self-advertising now filling space between programmes may prefer to regard it as in the final throes of institutional narcissism. Because its senior management is in fact accountable to no-one, any cutbacks now being made will fall on smaller, more creative fry. And that will be the way until accountability is injected.
The BBC is the classic quango, placed at arm’s length as a safeguard of political independence, yet dependent on State funding for its survival. The law says one thing, the money says another. And in between is management, largely left to its own instincts.
Maybe we should start again. A Wessex Broadcasting Corporation could be built to a very different design. Perhaps something like the National Trust, whose governance is a mixture of nomination by expert bodies and election by the membership. If anyone in power had ever seriously wanted an independent BBC, the Board of Governors would have been elected by the licence-payers, a ballot form coming with each licence renewal. The newly elected Board itself could then have set the next year’s licence fee. The challenge now is to get the publicly accountable public broadcaster we should have had all along.