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Editorial: The BBC's ‘left-wing’ comedy purge is political myth-making

IT IS the best of broadcasters, it is the worst of broadcasters. The BBC is so much part of our national fabric — so tightly woven into the nation’s political, cultural and social life — that it has become almost impossible for those of us brought up in the ideological shadow it casts to take an objective view.

But the recent mood music to emanate from the newly appointed director general — broadcast via the Establishment-minded megaphone that is the Daily Telegraph — gives us an opportunity to stand back and see what has become of this venerable prop of the bourgeois system.

The latest sounds-off suggest that “left-wing” comedy broadcast by the BBC is under threat. 

This is odd. There have been times when the BBC satire was genuinely oppositional. That Was The Week That Was broke new ground in the 1960s; there was decent stuff like Spitting Image in the 1980s and there was a time when the News Quiz interrogated politics with wit and analytical precision. Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy were not the only stand-ups who stood in solidarity with workers, anti-war and anti-racist campaigners.

There is precious little of this stuff nowadays. Much of BBC comedy, even its comedy series, is a pretentious serving of self-indulgence mixed in with liberal platitudes and presented by a phalanx of producers and performers with material that too rarely resonates with life as it is lived by millions.

This very discontinuity gives some credibility to a campaign that presents contemporary politics as episodes in a “culture war.”

Some of the dimmer-witted Tory MPs take this stuff seriously and there are enough whackos on social media to give this contrived “culture war” controversy some traction.

And this is echoed by commentators who see “cultural” differences in the working class as more the drivers of politics than the realities of capitalist exploitation.

Even in its “left-wing” guise this is so transparently a confection serving the status quo that it is surprising that anybody takes it seriously.

There will be some skirmishing round this issue and we can expect both a highly rehearsed conservative assault on the BBC and an equally contrived liberal defence.

This adds to the tried, tested and traditional pitch of the BBC as being “above politics.” The more perceptive of our ruling class understand very well that the credibility of the nation’s state broadcaster depends on its polished patina of independence.

The BBC has an international reputation for the quality of its cultural product and even the decades of privatisation, outsourcing and funding constraints have not diminished by much this tribute to the creative energy, skills and talent of the many thousands of people who work to produce and broadcast its output.

The more specifically ideological content of its talks and news is no less conditioned by this culture of high production values and there is not a state broadcaster in the world that can rival the BBC for its sophistication in patrolling the perimeters of permitted thought.

This is the role of the BBC — to reflect the nation’s culture, politics and social life without allowing either a comprehensive picture of reality to intrude or allowing a systematic critique of the economic and political foundations of society.

The BBC role in shaping a national narrative was on full view during the Corbyn years. It so suffused its output with a distorted reflection of reality that challenges to its credibility themselves became credible to a critical minority.

This latest offensive and its equally contrived response is an attempt to reconstruct the BBC myth.


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