Monday, September 21, 2009

Twists And Turns

At the end of last month, in the wake of the Edinburgh International Television Festival, I had planned to comment on James Murdoch’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture. But after watching the footage I was reminded of an edition of The News Quiz where, commenting on Jeffrey Archer’s release from jail, when one panellist suggested they didn’t give him the oxygen of publicity, the much missed Linda Smith responded with: “I’m not that happy with him having the oxygen of oxygen, actually.”

In fact there was only so much of Murdoch’s speech I could stomach before I switched to reading the remainder on an available pdf document. Listening to his demented ravings, I kept being distracted by deciding this would be the exact result if Victor Frankenstein had simply grafted a mouth onto a massive cock. When it eventually came, his attack on the BBC was so utterly predictable. Of course he would sound off at the public’s hard earned money going to the Corporation rather than lining the pockets of British Sky Broadcasting, of which he is a non-executive chairman, or News Corporation, where he is the Chairman and Chief Executive.

It was odd reading the speech because, unless I’m missing something, most of the charges that he was apparently levelling at the BBC could just as easily be laid at Sky’s doorstep. Since its launch in 1989, Sky has grown into the big bully of the television schoolyard, picking on all newcomers, and aggrieved that the BBC, still remaining the Head Boy, stands up to it. With the newspaper business heading into the crapper, one of Murdoch’s bugbears was the dominance of BBC news and in particular the BBC News website:

Most importantly, in this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important in our democracy.

Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.

Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.

We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.

Where do we start, other than to wonder why he didn’t precede this proclamation by driving around the stage on one of those little clown cars with a squeaky horn and doors that fall off? Free news? Not really. With the BBC funded by the licence fee, we are all paying for its digital presence. Because the citizens are putting up the cash, how does that make it “state-sponsored”? Don’t you think the succession of politicians taken to task by the likes of Robin Day, John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman would beg to differ?

Because the BBC is not out there struggling in the commercial sector where advertising revenues have been drastically reduced, it does appear to be a threat to those companies trying to keep their heads above water and ride out the current recession. Perhaps if, from behind the podium, the Murcock had mentioned that News Corporation recently posted losses of £2 billion the reasons behind his argument might have become more transparent.

Struggling to make enough money from their websites, News Corporation is already considering charging people to peruse the newspapers online. Obviously this is going to be an uphill struggle when they have a competitor that already provides an online news service for “free”. But at least by pillorying the BBC in advance, it means that Murcock has someone already in place to blame for the potential outcry that arises when a fee system is eventually implemented.

Yes, the BBC’s internet presence does have a somewhat unfair advantage insomuch that in the twelve months to the end of March 2008 their web operations could go a staggering 48% over budget and the useless pissants responsible for flushing away that £36 million excess weren’t taken out and repeatedly pummelled around the face and neck with rusty claw hammers. What did they do, hire merchant bankers?

Though the BBC news website covers most major events it isn’t all encompassing. Like the regular bulletins on the television channels, they present the major points of a breaking story but, like all television news, never have the space to cover it with the same depth as good old fashioned print journalism. But then do the majority of people want to know more than just the main bullet points anymore? As we go from Blogger to facebook to Twitter, it wouldn’t surprise me if we reach a point where the news is just reduced to a brief headline accompanied by one of the many smiley face variants to denote whether it’s good news or bad. LOL.

Not to bang on about it, but I have to say that I was particularly unimpressed by the BBC’s coverage, or lack thereof, of the passing of Troy Kennedy Martin last week. Granted, he was from the old school of writers who preferred to let the scripts speak for themselves, as opposed to the current breed of media whores, pushing their faces into the camera at every opportunity to peddle the latest piece of crap shat out of their computer, but given the quality of his body of work you would think we was worth a brief mention.

There was a very brief tribute on Tuesday’s edition of Radio 4’s Front Row that consisted of a conversation with Jonathan Powell, the producer of The Old Men at the Zoo who, in his later role as the BBC’s new Head of Drama, commissioned Edge of Darkness. When an obituary eventually turned up on the BBC News website, it looked like an afterthought from some office junior who had skimmed through his IMDb credits, omitting the blindingly obvious one. (Still, it was a mild improvement on the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain blog announcement that managed to confuse his solo credit for The Italian Job with the 2003 remake).

When it came to the BBC news programmes themselves, there was nothing. Maybe within the Corporation someone with authority still held a grudge from the time when John Birt, having taken over as Director General, convened a think-tank of writers to discuss what they felt was wrong with the current state of BBC drama, and Kennedy Martin gleefully called him a Leninist and declared:

You've replaced a rigid and uncreative bureaucracy with an even more rigid and even less creative bureaucracy.

Or it could have been that, one year on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global economy still in tatters, not to mention all the other heinous shit going on, they simply couldn’t spare the coverage. That said, in the days that followed both the BBC news and website did find time and space to commemorate the deaths of not only Brian Barron, the former BBC foreign correspondent, but Titus, the silverback gorilla from the jungles of Rwanda who appeared in Life on Earth. As Adrian Mead says, if you’re getting into the screenwriting business simply for the fame and glory, forget about it.

Even if Murcock’s mad ravings were quickly dismissed, many in the industry agreed that the BBC does need to scale back and trim some of its fat. After the Conservatives called for a freeze of the licence fee earlier in the year, just last week Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who was once a BBC reporter before entering politics, decided that in fact the fee needed to be reduced. Reducing presenters’ fees, if not reducing the number of presenters would be a start. But well before Bradshaw’s announcement, The Times had already weighed in, gleefully deciding that the BBC needed to cut back on buying US shows.

Given that earlier in the year Jay Hunt, the new BBC1 Controller, announced that she won’t be actively shopping for any new American series, all that remains are the slim pickings that appear sporadically on the other three channels. Even though BBC3 recently started showing the trashy Harper’s Island, the CBS drama is limited to only thirteen episodes, The Times decided that Heroes, Mad Men and The Wire were the shows that would have to go.

If you want to discuss the current state of journalism, the article, written by the newspaper’s own media editor, was published the same day that BBC2 broadcast the final episode of The Wire’s fifth and final season. So, if anyone is expecting more they’re going to be sadly disappointed. To compound matters, a few days later, after Tina Fey won the Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series Emmy for her portrayal of Governor Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, the newspaper reported:

Ms Fey’s career was on the decline until her relentless mocking of Sarah Palin’s stumbling performance during the US presidential campaign became cult viewing and gave her the crown as Queen of Comedy.

So at least we can assume that Sky hasn’t poached 30 Rock from Five just yet. Given the subject matter it would be a crying shame if BBC4 lost Mad Men and it went to a commercial channel that broke up the narrative with ad breaks. As for Heroes going, that would be no great loss. It was bad enough that the once promising series went rapidly downhill after the first year, but having the BBC to shell out £400,000 an episode for the second season only rubbed salt into the wound. A full series of that regrettable nonsense would pay for a good high–end UK drama serial with enough left over for dinner for twenty–nine at the Bellagio Hotel.

If there aren’t any decent new UK dramas, the BBC could always look to Europe. Twenty odd years ago we had Das Boot followed by Edgar Reitz’s Heimat and its sequels. Recently BBC4 has shown ten episodes of the Swedish detective drama Wallander, with the final three episodes tentatively scheduled for the Christmas period so as to add to the festive cheer. In the meantime, BBC4 used the gap in its schedule to broadcast the second series of the marvellous French drama Spiral (or Engrenages if you want to be really picky about it).

It has been a long time coming – the first series was first shown in 2006, with a repeat last year – but two episodes in the new series is proving to be well worth the wait. Following the efforts of the Parisian police detectives, public prosecutors and investigating magistrates in a way that isn’t particularly the greatest advertisement for the French judicial system, one can’t help be reminded of aspects of The Wire. The fact that it comes from the cheese–eating surrender monkeys that revere Jerry Lewis makes it all the more remarkable.


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