BBCMargaret Thatcher once famously referred to television as ‘the last bastion of restrictive practices’, chiefly in relation to the monopoly enjoyed by the BBC and ITV and the way in which their unions were prone to disrupting broadcasting, both factors being contrary to her own business model. On the negative side, there was certainly enough evidence to back up her claim in terms of how union power had regularly held television companies to ransom. At BBC TV Centre, the technician’s union was notorious for switching off the power at a fixed time during the recording of a programme if it overran, but ITV suffered even more. Twice in the space of a year – the winter of 1978 and the summer of 1979 – all ITV stations were blacked-out (the second occasion for two whole months), losing ITV an estimated £100,000 in revenue, and ITV’s planned coverage of the 1984 LA Olympics was also curtailed just days before it was scheduled to begin due to union action.

Having successfully taken on the miners and the Fleet Street printers, Mrs T turned to television in 1987 when an Aussie ally called Brue Gyngell, recently installed as head honcho of ITV’s breakfast service, TV-am, decided to utilise new technology that would result in widespread redundancies. His plans led to a strike that took normal programming off the air; with Thatcher’s approval, Gyngell fired the strikers and replaced them with non-union staff. The ill-feeling between unions and management was irreparable, but for Mrs Thatcher what had happened at TV-am was the final straw. Her solution was the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

That Thatcher should seek to redesign television in her own free-market image perhaps came as no surprise, and the initial changes the Broadcasting Act wreaked on British television came in the new nature of the ITV franchise bidding. Thatcher had a bit of ‘history’ with ITV; her enmity towards the BBC was well publicised, but the controversy arising from Thames Television’s 1988 ‘Death on The Rock’ documentary, in which it was alleged that the members of the SAS who shot dead three IRA men in Gibraltar had carried out an effective assassination, had infuriated the Prime Minister. The furore that followed the transmission of the programme may or may not have influenced her decision to end ITV’s control of commercial television; but the Broadcasting Act was the beginning of the end for the structure that had served ITV well for thirty-five years.

Previously, a company’s record both in strong regional and networked programming was taken into consideration before deciding whether or not the franchise would be renewed or revoked. Now all of that was consigned to the same broadcasting bin as 405-line TV. It was perhaps characteristic of legislation introduced by Thatcher that the main criteria for acquiring an ITV franchise was now how high the bid for it would be. ‘Choice’ was the new buzzword within British broadcasting just as it was in every other deregulated industry; the introduction of cable and satellite channels posed the first threat to ITV’s undisputed dominance of the commercial TV market, and the cut-throat climate that the altered franchise round brought about had far more scandalous losers than TV-am, which famously lost its franchise, an unforeseen consequence of the changes. The system was open to abuse.

The BBC had responded to the changes in the television landscape following the Broadcasting Act by appointing former LWT bigwig, John Birt, as Director-General in 1992. Birt had arrived at the BBC five years earlier to become Director of News & Current Affairs, and immediately ruffled the feathers of widely-respected news reporters such as Charles Wheeler and Kate Adie by insisting that those in the field should submit a written outline of their reports before getting on with their jobs. It was this emphasis on increased bureaucracy that was to characterise Birt’s stint as Director General as he appointed a glut of highly–paid ‘consultants’, overseeing and interfering with the independence of programme-makers. He also introduced classic Thatcherite notions of ‘healthy competition’ between the various BBC departments; that these departments were now forced to charge each other for their services led to many programmes being farmed-out to independent production companies as a cheaper alternative, a move that would eventually lead to the gradual redundancy of British television’s very own Theatre of Dreams, BBC TV Centre in Shepherd’s Bush.

Before Birt, the BBC had been an effective co-operative, in which everyone had worked together for the common good; under Birt’s divide-and-rule stewardship, the organisation resembled the Circumlocution Office, bogged down by meaningless management-speak buzzwords and endless ‘initiatives’ intended to inspire more efficient and cost-effective productivity. Specialist BBC departments with decades of experience and a track record of getting the job done were replaced by endless layers of committees and executives with vague job descriptions later parodied with uncomfortable accuracy in the comedy ‘W1A’. Downsizing, a fresh addition to the TV lexicon, resulted in short-term contracts for new arrivals, hardly instilling a sense of loyalty to the Corporation. Anything deemed as unprofitable or incompatible with Birt’s vision was discarded, even the much-loved and highly-regarded BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had provided numerous BBC radio and television productions with ground-breaking avant-garde soundtracks for decades, contributing to the BBC’s uniqueness and distinctive identity in the process. Birt’s skewered method of saving money was to take it from those who could make it and hand it to those who had no clue of what to do with it.

With profit now regarded as more important than quality, programming noticeably suffered from the 1990s onwards. An endless conveyor belt of cookery, makeover, quiz and game shows dominated the primetime schedules, with less money diverted into drama or documentaries. In parallel with ITV, BBC TV seemed to view the best way of dealing with the increased competition was to compete on the competition’s own terms rather than those which the BBC had established over many years.

There are some who believe the appointment of such a Thatcher-friendly figure as Birt undoubtedly helped build a few necessary bridges between the BBC and the Government, enabling the BBC to survive the persistent threats of severe alterations to its charter. But there are more who believe the changes at the BBC that Birt instigated have directly or indirectly led to the constant problems the Corporation has been riddled with ever since. The increasing willingness of the BBC to spinelessly kowtow to successive Governments holding its precious charter as an effective hostage has on one hand resulted in the scandalous dismissal of Tony Blackburn this week and on the other, the expensive and unnecessary relocation of the majority of its home-made TV output to a charmless edifice in Salford with the utterly meaningless moniker of ‘Media City UK’; this was an attempt to appear less London-centric, a move that seemed strange considering the fact that the BBC has always maintained strong regional branches around the country. Surely the nation’s premier broadcaster should have its base in the capital city? With the likes of ‘Breakfast’ now presented from an anonymous citadel that guests have to be ferried to at great expense to the licence fee-payer, a showcase programme has been reduced to resembling a regional magazine show.

Twenty-five years since the Broadcasting Act was implemented across British television, it seems the BBC, like ITV, is still attempting to emulate the competition rather than obliterate it – and failing miserably in the process.

© The Editor


RTSay the words ‘Grange Hill’ to anyone of a certain age and a flurry of names will enter their head – Tucker Jenkins, Benny Green, Trisha Yates, Gripper Stebson and poor old ‘Row-land’ will probably spring to mind before any others. Plotlines will no doubt be quickly evoked too. There was one particular plotline in the early 80s that perfectly captured the hormonal turmoil of nascent adolescence, when an absence of sexual fact is compensated for by sexual fiction, though the two have a habit of blurring in the imagination. Yes, we might remember Duane having the hots for ‘Sexy Lexy’ and even enrolling in the extracurricular computer course in order to gaze at the object of his pubescent desire for an additional hour; but it was his pal Claire Scott whose unrequited passion for a member of staff landed that oblivious teacher in hot water.

Mr Hopwood – played by the same actor (Brian Capron) who drove Gail Platt and family into the Manchester Ship Canal a couple of decades later on ‘Coronation Street’ – was unaware his doe-eyed pupil had taken her infatuation with him to another level by recounting her fantasies in the pages of her diary. When her mother broke the golden rule by dipping into it whilst cleaning Claire’s bedroom, she reported what she assumed to be evidence of a genuine affair to her husband, prompting an incensed Mr Scott to storm up to the school and grab Mr Hopwood by the shirt collars, accusing him of something that would now lead to instant dismissal on the pretext of guilty till proven innocent.

Poor, humiliated Claire confessed it was all in her head and that Mr Hopwood had never laid a finger on her; but in an age when ‘Jackie’ magazine was still turned to for advice as the only help-line for young teenage girls focusing their embryonic lust on the nearest grownup male figure outside of family, Claire Scott’s predicament was genuine. It had happened for real just ten years earlier, as sensationally exposed in typically crass fashion by the News of the World in an early example of Rupert Murdoch’s grudge match against the BBC. Claiming ‘Top of the Pops’ was a hotbed of vice and debauchery (always the paper’s favourite subjects), the revelation emerged of a teenage member of the dancing studio audience who had written in her diary of a sexual encounter with one of the show’s hosts.

The girl’s mother got her hands on the diary, took it as Gospel, approached the BBC to lodge a formal complaint (without success) and the private document of her daughter’s fantasies then mysteriously fell into the hands of the Digger, who demonstrated his trademark tact and sensitivity by publishing extracts from it. When the ‘confession’ appeared in the News of the World, his breaking of the sordid little story pushed the girl over the edge and she committed suicide; a police investigation at the time (1971) exonerated the BBC, TOTP and the unnamed ‘seducer’ – a sad chapter in the show’s history that said more about the dysfunctional nature of a mother/daughter relationship than any perceived lack of moral fibre on the part of a programme produced under characteristically stringent BBC rules and regulations.

Over forty years later, the long-forgotten mini-scandal was dredged up anew during Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into Jimmy Savile’s alleged illicit activities on BBC premises; Dame Janet claims she couldn’t fathom why there was precious little evidence of this incident residing in the BBC archives, though a broadcasting institution that routinely wiped copies of its most popular shows in the 60s and 70s was hardly likely to retain every document relating to a brief episode in which every party involved had been cleared of any wrongdoing. Naturally, when a Fleet Street hungry for any Savile story – however dubious and fantastical – heard about this, their ears pricked up, and the wicked rapist of a 15-year-old girl simply had to be Sir Jimmy. Besides, the actual TOTP presenter named by the dead girl as her seducer, Tony Blackburn, couldn’t be ‘outed’ because he had taken the precaution of a super-injunction.

Now that has expired and Mr Blackburn has been named and shamed, how does his employer of many decades respond to the public revelation of something they were well aware of whilst continuing to pay his wages? It sacks him on the spot. Remember, Blackburn was exonerated in 1971 and once again when he was interviewed as part of Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry. So, that means he has twice been found not guilty of the accusation that has now cost him his job. He wasn’t even fired by the men in charge of the station he works for, Radio 2, but the actual Director General of the BBC himself, Tony Hall. The man whose voice opened Radio 1 in September 1967 is rightly furious and the statement he has issued to the press doesn’t see him mince his words. Legal action is threatened and it would seem he has a very strong case for wrongful dismissal.

Tony Blackburn was perhaps a tad too hasty to distance himself from Jimmy Savile when all that broke out at the end of 2012 and Paul Gambaccini was equally quick to point the finger at a dead man, regarding his reputation as a respected broadcaster and prominent media gay as a sure-fire safeguard against any accusations. He paid the price for his superiority complex and now one of the lowbrow broadcasters who personified the cheery cheese of Radio 1 when Gambaccini joined the station in 1973 has also been hung out to dry by a spineless, weak-kneed BBC as it bends over backwards to ensure its charter is renewed in the face of renewed hostility from a government on Murdoch’s payroll.

What this latest headline says about the BBC, the Metropolitan Police Force, the legal system, and the state of this country in 2016 seems pretty clear. There doesn’t seem much point in spelling it out.

© The Editor