There are lies and conventions we experience every day, and we tend to accept them. I have told this, and similar, stories on this blog so many times I may well be struggling to find a new way to get it off my chest. That is rarely the case, I can assure you. I suppose I had better cut to the chase.
This time, my problem is with the impartiality imposed on the BBC. “Oh wow”, I hear you say. “That is so relevant to my life, here in Czechia”. Granted. However, I write in the UK, and that is the filter through which I see the world. Like my recent posts on British politics and my rather UK-centric view of the political world, please feel free to sit this one out and join us next time. Excellent; off we go.
The issue at the heart of this rant is the notion that the BBC are required, by law, to implement a certain complicated policy at every hour of every day on every one of their myriad platforms. That’s around eight TV channels, plus some duplicates for the digital vs analogue change-over; plus at least ten national radio stations, at least eight national regional radio stations (different language versions for each of the polyglot Nations), and then forty local radio stations. And then there’s the website.
That is a lot of output; a lot of oversight. The policy is called Undue Prominence, and it is as follows: “No undue prominence may be given in any programme to a commercial product or service.” It goes on a bit longer than that, but that’s the main thrust for now. The idea that they give for it is that “no impression be created of external commercial influence on the editorial process”, which is fine.
In practice, that means that “Branded products should not…be referred to…by brand name, or shown in close-up or from an angle which displays the branding to best advantage, or for any significant length of time.” That is, a normal programme is not an advert, and can’t give the impression of being one. I get that. If I’m watching Doctor Who, I don’t want to be distracted by which pop they like best.
The problem which arises is that there are some products which we refer to by their brand names, and we have forgotten the generic names of the products all together. I struggle to recall the term “Vacuum Cleaner”, for instance, having always used the word “Hoover”. That would not be allowed by Ofcom, the communications regulator. They would fine me, or at the very least tell me off.
Did you notice that I said that this was a form of impartiality imposed on the BBC? Excellent. It is actually imposed on all broadcasters in the UK. The problem is that the rest of the broadcasters can sell advertising on their networks, and they do. The problem is that the non-BBC broadcasters have it in for the publicly funded BBC, and want to damage it beyond repair, in order to boost themselves.
This is underhand, yet understandable. The BBC earns its money from the licence fee, effectively a tax paid by all UK households. It is subsidised by a variety of sources, including selling merchandise to the world (Doctor Who again), government grants, and selling its TV programmes; all of its TV programmes, to anyone and everyone, all over the world. You may well have seen some of them.
The other broadcasters do not have decades of literally the best quality TV to sell on, so they rely on ad sales. They do not have their own world class production facilities, paid for with taxes, unlike the BBC, so they have to commission independent production companies any time they want to make stuff. And hire facilities, staff. They are earth-shatteringly jealous of the BBC, and for good reason.
All in all, the eyes of the majority of the broadcasters in the UK are all, always, trained on the BBC, looking for anything which can be described as a mistake, and can therefore be used as a stick with which to beat the BBC, and to have its budgets cut, and have its sainted position as the second best thing the UK has ever done – behind the NHS – dismantled at once. The BBC is a cornered animal.
An example of this comes from a few years ago, when superb competitive cookery competition The Great British Bake Off was described as having shown undue prominence to a brand of fancypants refrigerators, Smeg. They were torn through the newspapers for several days, and the production company seemed quite embarrassed. A year or so later, the programme moved to a rival network.
A recent furore regarded the BBC being attacked for the salaries of its on air talent, some of whom are paid a lot of money. Only those being paid directly by the BBC – so not through an independent production company, or through BBC worldwide, both of which carry its very highest paid talent – and paid more than the prime minister – in the region of £150,000 – are outed for what they earn.
This has led to the world seeing – a – BBC staff are paid less than their direct counterparts at other networks, and – b – the highest paid staff at the BBC are predominantly white and men. People of equal experience and ability are routinely paid less than their colleagues. I hate the gender and race (and class, while we’re at it) pay gaps, but I even more so when they are being used as a blunt stick.
The BBC is one of the finest institutions this country has, but it is far from perfect. Time and time again we have seen that it needs to get its house in order or it will fail due to its own inadequacies. Therefore, we need the bright light of transparency to guide it through. However, the changes it needs to make cannot be done while its competitors are throwing bricks at its head. That’s not fair.
One last note, and the idea upon which this whole post was formed. I was watching another BBC competitive cooking series, Great British Menu. The theme for this year’s menu is both summer and Wimbledon. Many of the chefs chose to use what they called “Summer Cup” in their dishes. I found myself asking again and again “What the fuck is summer cup?” It’s Pimm’s, but they can’t say that.