September 10, 2009

The Summer Silence

"If you think you can get fucking angry, I can get fucking angry."

And with that, Robert Peston mounted the table and flung his fists skyward. Buttons hung on perilously to buttonholes as his dress shirt became taut, pectorals bulging. With one flex, Peston's shirt ripped wide open, exposing the BBC Business Editor’s muscular, green-tinged flesh. Crumbling James Murdoch’s magnum of Veuve Clicquot between thumb and forefinger, the now-unrecognisable Peston leapt from table to table at the Edinburgh International Television Festival dinner, swinging from chandeliers and bellowing wildly, "Peston SMASH!"

These opening words were a genuine threat uttered by Robert Peston in a furious altercation with Rupert Murdoch’s hyperspoilt son James, after Murdoch Jr’s psychotically paranoid anti-BBC lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in which he denounced the Corporation’s ambitions as "chilling".

Much has been made of the BBC’s muted response in the following fortnight (Peston excluded) and the lack of spine or the wealth of arrogance that it implies. It took until yesterday for Director General Mark Thompson to respond to Murdoch, Thompson accusing him of being ‘desperately out of touch,’ but even then Thompson’s response was confined to an internal e-mail and, well, there are much worse things one could say about Rupert Murdoch’ offspring if you felt like it.

To top it off, Murdoch is desperately out of touch. After all, in an age where bemoaning the bureaucracy and professional compromise of the establishment is a universal hobby the BBC, the archetype of bureaucracy and compromise, frequently emerges critically unscathed. The BBC is terribly flawed and maybe the sense of greatness is gone, but there’s still that incongruity between it and the rest of television, that it really is separate, a cut above. And the best part is that while it remains a cut above, it is also universal and inclusive (to a fault).

That’s why the BBC is right to be silent, because people love the BBC and we can be quite positive about things when everyone shuts up and lets us think about them. The only thing that a Murdoch attacking a British institution is going to prompt is a tidal wave of support for the BBC from press and public.

*

As Big Brother dies, leaving only empty bottles of Malibu and Ambre-Solaire strewn about the garden, let’s not forget that it never really represented us. Everybody already disowns it like New Labour and Noel’s House Party; ‘I only really watched the first series, when it was a proper sociological experiment,’ the defense goes, and I’m inclined to believe them since the ratings certainly support that trend.

Big Brother was never us. It regularly gets thrashed in the ratings by the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, its complete reality antithesis. Antiques Roadshow is a programme which, in its latest series, chose not to air the moment when a member of the public was informed that the glass bottle he had recently paid over £1000 for at an antique sale was in fact a Tesco olive oil bottle, circa 2008. This moment was filmed and yet remained on the cutting room floor, the producers deciding that to show it would be "too cruel".

Too Cruel. What an extraordinarily odd thing to hear from a TV producer. It’s also the kind of succinct phrase that one might decide upon, if one found oneself in a position to etch a phrase on an Endemol producer’s forehead with a rusty compass.

*

The attack on the BBC and the surge of support in response has strong echoes of the American Right’s extraordinary attacks on the NHS (when it was dragged into the debate over Obama’s dastardly plan to implement free healthcare for everyone). The criticisms were ferocious and mostly erroneous, but it wasn’t right for Gordon Brown to leap into the debate. Just shut up, we know what institutions we like (which, even better, were being insulted by stuck-up ex-colonials) and we can defend them best on our own.

All in all, it would seem like we were being quite positive about British institutions at the moment. But really, it’s just the summer. Nothing’s happening, Westminster’s on holiday, nobody’s snidely talking to us and trashing every initiative in order to score political points.

And in that brief little silence, we were thoughtful and optimistic. "We need silence to touch souls," Mother Teresa once said (clearly preconceiving this article).

Yesterday David Cameron came back from his holiday and squeezed the word “cuts” into every sentence in his speech, preparing the landscape for relentlessly casting himself as the politician with cajones for the next nine months. I think the silence is over.


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