Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

She has her faults, but Auntie is still best in the world

Tony Hall
Tony Hall

Unlike the America that even the most humble of Stateside dwellers seem to assume has been blessed by God (I recently overheard two teenage girls in a Topshop changing room arguing about the coolness of their heritage.

 "It says America on my passport," said one. "Let's see you pull off the greatest nationality on earth on yours.") British people tend to regard humility and "groundedness" a more dignified asset than self-aggrandisement.

There are different reasons we generally bridle at braggers; an age-old discomfort for vulgar peacockery, guilt over where assumptions of our own superiority have taken us in centuries past. But there are also exceptions, where our own achievements are so unarguably outstanding that even the most cynical are relaxed about admitting world-leading status. The 2012 Olympics, including the opening ceremony, made us feel good. William Shakespeare does a neat job. And the BBC is not called "the envy of the world" for nothing.

The BBC swore in a new Director General this week and Tony Hall wasn't short of guidance from insiders and outsiders about what his priorities should be. He was told to sort out managers' fat cat salaries in a time of huge redundancies, slashed programme budgets and lowered standards of living for many of those paying the licence fee. Quite right.

He was advised to shine his investigative torch into the offices where reams of middle managers – often moved into management because they've proved useless at making programmes – are hiding, hoping not to attract attention. Spot on.

He was asked to prove that the BBC is still worth its unique funding arrangement as a public broadcaster and to discourage what some regard as a vain obsession with itself. What rubbish.

The BBC justifies its funding, as well as its constant navel-gazing – whose output should programme-makers be concentrating on, if not that of the global, internationally feted machine they work for? – every day of the week. If I had Tony Hall's ear for five minutes the first thing I'd tell him is to break from his cowardly, obsequious predecessor Mark Thompson's tradition for apologising any time the corporation made a mistake, often selling hard-working producers and journalists down the river while he did it, and start blowing the BBC's trumpet. There is no broadcaster like it anywhere in the world, and no £145 a year better spent by all of us with a TV or radio.

Of course, there are wobbles – no multi-person body is infallible, as even the Vatican would admit – and its toadying coverage of royal stories is squeamishly awful. But the BBC remains the most trusted news source on the planet, partly because, unlike most news harbingers, it still checks its facts before it jumps up and down – Savile and Lord McAlpine being recent exceptions.

Not everything it makes is worth a sideways glance, but as well as obvious victories like Sherlock, Doctor Who, The Thick Of it and David Attenborough's steady stream, it also delivers daily curious gems like BBC4's Carved with Love: The Genius of British Woodwork, Radio 4's In Our Time and Radio 3's recent nine-hour Bach marathon, not to mention endless fascinating website features on delicious subjects like the history of neon in Poland, places with inexplicable acoustics, and the rise of online dating for people with sexual infections (cutely headed 'Incurable Romantics').

We have much to apologise for and be angry about in the UK, but the BBC is one of our greatest triumphs. Tony Hall should start his tenure yelling about its brilliance from the roof of Broadcasting House.

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