1 January 2005

Satire magazine Private Eye, amongst others, reported recently that the BBC is to consider an even more dramatic cutback than previously announced in its factual programmes department, responsible for most of the BBC’s excellent documentaries and educational programmes, most famously the Michael Palin travelogues. The reason given is allegedly that the entire genre is “meaningless”…that viewers don’t need the BBC because they are “building and sharing knowledge between and for one another”. There will be “bigger, better but fewer” factual programmes, BBC management had stated previously.

What a pile of bull the BBC is spewing! This country needs factual and educational programming more than ever these days. Without making reference to the “chav” buzzword (which has become almost mandatory to mention in anything about education these days) [the term has been around for well over a hundred years: it’s probably from the Romany word for a child, ‘chavi’, and not an acronym for anything – Ed.], standards of literacy and knowledge are dropping tremendously in this country, while at the same time participation in the political process is dropping like a lead balloon. It is seen as normal, even socially advisable, to avoid spelling correctly, and to use incorrect grammar.

More to the point, the country knows nothing of its history. Remember Santayana’s “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”? I can bet that there are hundreds, thousands, millions of – particularly younger – Britons who don’t know the story of Britain’s last 100 years; that do not know Britain had an empire, that do not know why World War I started, that do not know anything about World War II beyond that it involved Hitler. I doubt they even know about even anything in the last 30 or 20 years. They have no knowledge of the Miner’s Strikes, the Winter of Discontent (the first in-depth information I heard about the last two was in a PSHE Politics lesson in Year 11), the Falklands war, the poll tax riots… I sincerely doubt that there are many who know what went on around the Iraq war, which was only two years ago, beyond “George Bush woz wrong 2 go in2 iraq”. This country is becoming anti-intellectual, and we need documentaries and programmes about things most of us, as Britons, should know.

To place this in perspective, and indicate how we need a more intellectual culture, let me tell you a story. I met a bloke a few weeks ago, waiting at the bus stop outside my college. After a little bit of light chat, he told me he didn’t like the country any more. It was a nice place, with beautiful scenery, but the people are becoming drones, celebrity-obsessed drones, with very little on their minds besides Big Brother and whatever other trash is on. I’m afraid I have to agree, but it is hard to see how things can turn out any different considering the state of broadcast media these days. Ignore for a second that satellite TV, with its plethora of channels, that include ‘educational’ content exists; few watch these channels, most still watching the ‘standard’ terrestrial channels: BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and perhaps five.

ITV has been going downmarket more or less since the demise of Thames Television over a dozen years ago; since that day it has been consolidating and become even more ratings-driven than it was in the past: its plethora of factual programmes has been replaced ever so steadily with game shows, chat shows and general crap. Channel 4 has not plunged down so far, but is gradually drifting in that direction, its ‘alternative’ remit being eroded by a constant series of US imports and reality shows. BBC2 still shows documentaries, but mainly at prime time, up against the might of Eastenders on BBC1. Put simply, mainstream television in the UK is degenerating into nothing more than prolefeed. Nothing intellectually stimulating is on whatsoever, unless it is deliberately placed up against a guaranteed ratings winner like Eastenders, Big Brother or Corrie on “the other side”.

Despite this, it is nice to know that production has been carrying on (I’m surprised that the factual department even exists any more, though I haven’t seen many life-signs recently), but it’s sad to hear that it might not last much longer. Let’s hope, for the sake of keeping people at least marginally knowledgeable, that the BBC does not axe its enlightening documentary series that have educated and enthralled people for decades, for the sake of a few pennies. I would truly hate to see this country become the sort of summarised, say-it-in-30-seconds-or-it’s-boring sound-bite country that the USA is, in which factual programmes on the big four networks really are completely absent. Now that would be a true loss.

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Liverpool, Friday 12 April 2024