Today the BBC apologised to the Queen for faking a piece of footage to demonstrate that she had walked out of photo session in America- actually she never did walk out- merely voiced an opinion calmly and stayed put. As you might expect for such a vital story, every paper in Britain will have it near its front page tommorrow (with the honourable exception of the ever virtuous Financial Times) and every paper particularly those on the right will join in attacks upon the BBC's inappropriate conduct- a case of the pot calling the Kettle black- having observed the papers in action, moral injunctions from a tabloid are as credible as injunctions to sobriety from a drunkard.
But there is a serious point underneath all of this and its one your correspondent feels minded to address- which is this. Basically the BBC made a mistake- and its mistake came out of a particular brand of journalism that is I would argue inclined towards making these kinds of mistakes. The BBC failed because for a moment the organisation went downmarket.
The BBC is under hideous pressure from all sides at the moment to perform with a budget that grows slighter by the year. For people like yours truly the BBC exists because it provides programming that noone else will provide- the jewel in the crown of Britain's culture the BBC provides programs like In Our Time on Radio 4 or David Attenborough's nature programs on the television and televises state occasions. The BBC therefore is a brand with quality- unlike its commercial British rivals like Sky a producer of mindless drivel or ITV who seems to have abandoned innovative television for programs starring Ant and Dec (and as for Channel 4, wankweek and Big Brother say all that is needed to be said).
The BBC though is under pressure from another direction- for should it succeed in producing good television made by great producers and directors- it will come into criticism for being elitest- the gaping mouths of the daily press will spurt out their vomit and accuse the corporation of tailoring to the intellectuals and not the man on the street. The BBC therefore is forced to make ever more desperate attempts to cater to the popular market- and what works for commercial television is what is assumed to work in television generally.
Hence the BBC invests money in buying soaps like Neighbours, spending millions on the lewd and crude like Jonathan Ross and on the dramatic exposes like the new series about the Queen. The Queen is one of the most written about people in the UK today- also one of the most examined- its unlikely that any substantially new things will be revealed by any new documentary to shock the countries' constitution or threaten the position of the Head of State- indeed apart from the trivial fisticuffs at a photo ceremony which turn out to be untrue its unlikely to be honest that anything will emerge- but a program with the Queen in its title, like a book with the Egyptians on it will sell well and so on it goes.
The problem with programming like this is that there really isn't much more to say about any celebrity that hasn't been said already. We have seen celebrities be rude, foolish and behave actually just like normal people would with incredible ammounts of money (code for power). We have seen them genuflect to idiots and wear clothes revealing genitalia. The grace that doth cloak a King has gone in as a tide of stories about toe sucking rain down on the British monarchy. The celebrity story is no longer useful.
But it does tie into a basic human need and desire- gossip. Human beings tend to like to gossip- we aren't always very nice when we do so- and in former ages gossip was confined to the street or the village or even the town- now though it is world and more particularly internet wide and to get a scoop one has to get closer and closer to the person concerned- finding some trivial incident to blow up into a crisis. This is what the BBC film crew and publicists no doubt were attempting to do today- they were attempting to expose the fleck of dirt on the golden wrist and get an hour's limelight on the internet for it- but of course because of the nature of this type of journalism which is very difficult to do and relies on minute editing in this case- its very possible to get things wrong.
Imagine the scene a young publicist sees some footage edited together badly and tells his boss neither of whom have spoken to the program makers that there is this episode. The Boss puts it in the publicity package and before its checked its out the door and on the tables of the press and then you have a scandal where the newspapers remind us that of course they would never do this, never have been inaccurate and that the BBC should be better than this- when all of the situation is created by the need to do things quickly and go for sensation- a need no branch of the media is immune from criticism over.
Such is the life of the BBC- torn between its Reithian aims and worldly ambitions- torn between virtue and darkness. Ultimately as a publically governed institution it cannot be as shamelessly evil say as the Sun- but as an institution which has to get viewers to survive it still must inhabit the same world as that organ of mendacity. The BBC is not perfect- and this balancing act produces days like today- but everytime you see the editors of the papers fulminate at the mouth about it (especially the Murdoch papers) then just pause for a second and think- what would the world be like without David Attenborough- and would there be fewer intrusive journalists without the BBC-
I think you'll find the answer is no.