Saturday, February 27, 2010

The first cut is the deepest


A critic writing a savage review of a concert is considered to be doing his job, not being anti-classical music. But a commentator writing critically of the BBC's output is considered to be an anti-BBC heretic. Which suggests parallels between the BBC and the established Church. Both have been flattered for decades by unquestioning believers. Both are now in terminal decline. And the loss of both will be a great tragedy.

A regular reader from the States writes asking for comment on the latest reports of cuts at the BBC, a subject I have hesitated to cover for the reasons set out above. But, using the justification so often cited by the BBC - 'it's what the audience wants', here goes.

There is currently so much bad news about the BBC it is difficult to know where to start. Within the last few days two major stories have broken. First came a damning report from the National Audit Office on the £100 million overspend on the rebuilding of Broadcasting House, which included £25,000 for a two minute flight by a remote control toy helicopter to record the work for posterity. The National Audit Office report concluded that the renovation project suffered from 'weak governance', which prompted a BBC trustee to admit license payers had been 'let down', surely the understatement of the year? Close on the heels of this fiasco came a leak reported in the Times of possible £600 million cuts, including the closing of two national radio stations.

The National Union of Journalists said yesterday it had "received a detailed briefing" from the BBC about the cuts which confirmed "media reports as largely correct". The need for multi-milion pound cost savings must be read in conjunction with disclosures about executive salaries and expenses, including BBC Radio 3 controller Roger Wright spending £7000 on taxi fares and £4 on Underground (subway) transport over a 12 month period.

An addiction to taxi rides summarises today's BBC. A recent Freedom of Information disclosure reveals that in 12 months the BBC spent £13.8 million on taxi fares, of which £4.5 million was on 'taxis for staff on routine BBC business where permitted by BBC expenses policy'. After costs for guests and other non-BBC personnel are removed I calculate the average annual spend on taxis by each of the BBC's 23,000 employees as £370.

Although BBC Music Magazine is reported to be a candidate for disposal there is no indication yet as to whether the cuts will affect Radio 3. In fact there is an argument that the network could benefit as the leaked report contains the usual corporate crapola about focussing on '... inspiring music ... and events of universal resonance'. An end of term spirit prevails at Radio 3 with staff rushing round the world in a desperate attempt to spend before the gravy train is derailed. If the music is from Uganda and there is a choice between working from a studio in London or sending the presenter to Uganda (by taxi?) there is absolutely no contest.

If all this makes sad reading, it makes even sadder writing for someone who joined the BBC from university and later had the privilege of learning at Pierre Boulez's feet in the Roundhouse. In 1996 the late and much missed Humphrey Carpenter wrote in his history of the network:
To lose Radio 3's direct dissemination of the arts, its constant promotion and relays of live music around the country, and its discussions of vital issues in intellectual life, would be a real blow to Britain.
Repeated own goals by BBC senior management are being exploited by the anti-BBC media and have handed almost certain victory to those who stand to gain from the weakening of the Corporation, notably Rupert Murdoch and the Conservative Party. Cuts at the BBC seem inevitable. The tragedy is they will not be caused by market pressures. They will be caused by what the National Audit Office disguised under the euphemism of 'weak governance', but which is better described in the words used here recently in a not unrelated context - attaining wealth and power.

* It may not always be apparent, but I try to make every post 'add value'. So here are some suggestions on taking this thread further. The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the Third Programme and Radio Three by Humphrey Carpenter is essential reading; not just as a history of the network but also as an insight into the tensions that underlie public service arts broadcasting. It is long out of print, but cheap copies are available for those who move quickly.

* Also still available is one of the great aural documents created by BBC Radio 3. I heard the terminally ill Bruno Maderna conduct Mahler's valedictory Ninth Symphony at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1972 and it was undoubtedly one of the most devastating musical experiences of my life. The BBC recording of Maderna's searing interpretation of the symphony with the same orchestra at the Festival Hall a year earlier is still available on the CD seen below. If you only buy three Mahler discs this anniversary year this must be one of them. Another is Jascha Horenstein's Fourth Symphony: the third (well Fifth actually) will be the subject of a future post, although I am sure regular readers will guess who the conductor is. But hurry for that Maderna CD, because, like a lot of things mentioned in this post, I suspect it will not be around for much longer. And it is a short path from Bruno Maderna to the days when the BBC Symphony Orchestra excelled in more than Martinů.


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5 comments:

Pliable said...

There is a lot of debate elsewhere about audience noises during concerts.

I listened to the Bruno Maderna Mahler 9 as I wrote this post. Noises of the 'Hi Mum, I'm at the BBC Proms and that's me coughing' nature are very notably absent.

BBC output quality is not the only thing to have declined in the last thirty-nine years.

You read it here first -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2007/05/bach-and-art-of-noise.html

vp said...

[A] commentator writing critically of the BBC's output is considered to be an anti-BBC heretic. Which suggests parallels between the BBC and the established Church. Both have been flattered for decades by unquestioning believers. Both are now in terminal decline. And the loss of both will be a great tragedy

I love your post, but this comparison between the Church of England and the BBC is rather strained. Certainly the "loss" of the Church of England's established status would be a blessing rather than a tragedy. It's very hard to see what the Church gains out of the current constitutional arrangements: the Prime Minister chooses its bishops, Parliament has the right to meddle in its regulations and it has to pay for the maintainence of a host of dilapidated buildings. The obvious contrast with the BBC is that it doesn't get any taxpayer money.

Pliable said...

VP, you make a good point - my analogy is not clear and was not intended to be limited to the 'established' status of the Anglican communion.

The analogy was intended to apply more generally to established Christian churches around the world, including the Catholic Church, which features in the Albigensian Crusade article linked to in the body of the text.

Apologies if my search for a punchy opening paragraph unfairly singled out the Church of England. That was not what was intended.

Pliable said...

Blogging can be extremely trying. It can also be extremely rewarding -

'It's important, so we demand improvement

Pliable gets it exactly right:'


http://renewablemusic.blogspot.com/2010/02/its-important-so-we-demand-improvement.html

Thank you Daniel.

Trans-itions Photography said...

It will be a year since Gill Owen died on 12 June can't reach you via BBC any more

I have an exhibition of paintings poetry pictures and art boxes dedicated to her at the Rose and Crown, Charlbury, Oxon
which ends then

Please tell your contacts about the party we are having on that day

We will be in the pub from 9 p.m.

there is accommodation at the Bell Hotel

having a picnic by the graveside from 6.p.m.

It will be very informal

a time to reminisce
a time to remember a beautiful soul

perhaps to meet with old friends

Cheers