I once, a long time ago, met the man who was responsible for running BBC’s daytime TV output, and as it was about the time of the New Year, I asked him what sort of a Christmas he had had. I meant Christmas in a social sense, but he took it professionally.
“It was nearly a disaster,” he said. “We decided to put out one of the old Maigret programmes as a tribute to the late Rupert Davies, and so quite logically we chose one called ‘Maigret’s Christmas’ and put it out on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, nobody at the BBC bothered to view it in advance. If we had done, we would have found out that in this particular episode Maigret goes away for Christmas and leaves his underlings to get on with it - in other words there’s no Maigret in it. To put it another way, we put out, as a tribute to Rupert Davies, a programme in which Rupert Davies didn’t even appear. Major error. Luckily, no-one seems to have noticed or caused a fuss, and we certainly weren’t going to draw attention to it.”
This little story is typical of the BBC in two ways at least. One is that the BBC makes an idiot of itself far more often than we think. The other is that it rarely owns up and never apologises. It must be something in the BBC culture, some Reithian self-righteousness which has outlasted Reithian rectitude, and which causes the BBC to pretend that all is well even when things are crumbling. Saintly behaviour may not come naturally to the BBC but sanctimoniousness does.
Would you like another example?
The late Basil Boothroyd once told me how excited he was at having his first radio script accepted, by the World Service, and how it all went a bit wrong.
“I went up to London to record it in advance - it was just a straight ten minute talk - and was told that it would be going out very early, some time like 5.30 am, when listeners in the Middle East or somewhere were all up and about. So when the great day came for my first ever broadcast, I got up in what seemed like the middle of the night and made myself a cup of tea and settled down with the World Service. A presenter said that there would now be a short talk by Basil Boothroyd. There was a long silence. Then the presenter said, ‘Well, I’m afraid Mr Boothroyd is unable to come to the microphone....'
“I shot to my feet and yelled, ‘Oh, no I’m not!’ but it was no use. I waited in vain for the sound of my voice. Do you know what had happened ? The bloody BBC had lost the tape of my talk. What made it even worse was that they made it sound as if it was MY fault. They made it sound as if I couldn’t get to the microphone because I was drunk! They didn’t even have the decency to own up .....”
Anyone who ever listened regularly to Radio 4’s Feedback will know the sound of BBC people not owning up. The admirable presenter Chris Dunkley regularly had producers on the programme who had been accused by listeners, quite often fairly, of getting things wrong, and I can remember only one of them ever readily saying, 'Yes, sorry, I made a boo boo'. The worst example I can remember was the appearance by Will Wyatt, who had agreed to try to defend the sickening performance by BBC radio after Princess Diana’s death, when they had cancelled almost every programme for a week in order to wallow in mawkishness. It was so hard to defend that Will Wyatt could hardly manage a coherent sentence in an effort to avoid saying sorry. I still have it on tape and play it to myself occasionally when there is no other good comedy on air.
But his evasiveness was typical of the BBC attitude to apologies. Almost everyone who appeared on Feedback was so fearful, so full of excuses, so sullenly defiant, that you got the feeling they knew they would lose their job if they owned up to anything. As it turned out, it was Chris Dunkley who lost his job. The head of Radio 4, James Boyle, who upholds the BBC’s proud tradition of never admitting he is wrong about anything even when he is blatantly wrong, decided to get rid of Chris Dunkley to give Feedback a new look.
A new look, forsooth! The frightened people who run Radio 4 don’t want a new look. All that Radio 4 wants is someone who won’t give them a hard time and who won’t go on sticking up for the listeners against the BBC. If James Boyle was serious about giving Radio 4 a new look, he would be writing to Alastair Cooke and saying, " Dear Mr Cooke, we have decided that Letter From America might benefit from a change of image, and we think that a new presenter would do the trick. PS But thanks for everything..."
You won’t believe this, but what sparked off my little furious foray into the BBC’s tendency never to explain, never to apologise, was my spotting that the current Radio Times has made a horrendous mistake this week. They have printed the same page twice. But if my previous experience in pointing mistakes out to the Radio Times is any guide, they won’t even be thinking of apologising for this major cock-up.
More juicy details tomorrow.
Independent Jan 27 1999