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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