Rude words, not honest opinions, are welcome at the BBC
It is more than 20 years since I noticed the small woman in Dame Edna spectacles and stiff hairstyle marching through the bowels of the old BBC building in White City, where I was being interviewed. I was new to British media, and asked who she was. “Ah,” the producer escorting me to a studio winked, “that is our biggest enemy.”
He giggled. Mary Whitehouse, tireless campaigner against the permissive society, had become a figure of fun, the killjoy every liberal loved to hate. Her letters and tirades of complaint about everyone from Alf Garnett to Dennis Potter caused titters rather than chest-beatings.
But Mary Whitehouse RIP has had the last laugh. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the BBC is now modelling itself on its old foe. The corporation sees blasphemy everywhere, and wants it censored.
Not “blasphemy” as Mrs Whitehouse would know it, admittedly. In her heyday, TV’s clean-up crusader sought to censor entertainments like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, with jokes such as “Crucifixion’s a doddle”.
Today, the BBC couldn’t give two hoots about Bible-bashing (though it would draw the line at Koran-kicking). It has no problems broadcasting programmes with language that would have Mrs Whitehouse reaching for her smelling salts. But it does want to censor a different kind of blasphemy: any opinion that opposes the liberal consensus.
This week, on the day that the BBC Trust decided that it was acceptable to allow an offensive (to many) vulgarity to be aired before the watershed, its panjandrums criticised a BBC Two documentary about welfare. The trust censured John Humphrys, who wrote and presented The Future of Welfare, for making a programme that highlighted how welfare has become a lifestyle choice for some so that thousands now feel entitled to benefits.
But even the right-on arbiters of BBC taste and decency could not accuse Humphrys’s script of bias or party-politicking. Instead, they scolded the veteran broadcaster for failing to back up with statistics an assertion that Britain has “a healthy supply of jobs”.
How dare he? The BBC moved quickly to protect its audience. Imagine if a child had heard Humphrys’s scandalous contention that welfare instils indolence. Think how shocking for an unsuspecting OAP to come across such insidious moralising aired aloud. What damage exposure to such an outrage could inflict on young minds and fragile old ones!
Thank goodness we can rely on Auntie to shield us from illiberal positions. In her capable hands, audiences can rest assured that they will be spared similar profanities about the NHS, equality legislation, environmental lobbies, gender politics, abortion – all those sacred pillars of the liberal establishment. The BBC will not permit four-letter thoughts on these subjects.
While drama series such as Holby City can feature words such as “s-------” before the 9pm watershed, it pledges never – no, not even past the watershed – to give a platform to foul prophets of traditional marriage, fracking or the pro-life cause. The BBC will give air time only to those who subscribe to correct thinking and adopt a suitably reverential manner in dealing with the hallowed issues.
The irony of a deferential BBC is only really appreciated by those who remember, or have studied, the 1960s. While Whitehouse took up her campaign, students, pop stars and film-makers were taking on the conservative consensus. The dissenters, wearing wispy beards and tie-dye T-shirts, built the momentum for a counter-culture based on free speech and free love. They changed the establishment and demoted all kinds of authority figures, from police to civil servants, parents to politicians.
More than 50 years on, the taboo-breakers have left the barricades and occupy the heart of the new establishment. They fill Westminster, staff the NHS, sit on the BBC Trust. Not surprisingly, their stature has deflated their old love of liberty. Free sex is still fine, but as for free speech…
The consensus has changed, but its safeguarding is as important today as it was back then. The BBC, as the nation’s messenger, can and does choose to megaphone some news and opinions, while ignoring or quashing others.
John Humphrys has been there long enough to know this. He knows he was venturing into an area that his employers have declared out of bounds. The same fate would await him were he to make an objective, factual programme about the multitude of problems in the NHS, or how fracking will free us from dependence on Russia and the Middle East for energy.
But were he to swear on air, or ape Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross with their off-colour jokes and innuendo, his bosses would turn a blind eye. Their defence, published this week, is that viewers now regard casual vulgarity as “acceptable”.
The trustees can claim that swearing has become routine, and listening to strangers on the bus, on the street, even (heavens above) at Waitrose, I have to agree. But the BBC cannot present itself as a mirror of our culture unless it is prepared to reflect the views as well as the words that ordinary people routinely exchange.
If the corporation can accept the language of the people, no matter how rude, it has no option but to accept their opinions, too.
I want a BBC that broadcasts programmes in which Lord Lawson decries climate change policy; Nadine Dorries MP argues to lower the limit on abortion; and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey makes his case against gay marriage. And in which no one utters a four-letter word.
Pope with a taste for self- preservation
Ever since my days editing the Catholic Herald, I’ve counted myself as a professional pope-watcher – and Pope Francis is showing himself to be something of a scene-stealer.
He’s proved himself as comfortable in front of the millions who turned out to celebrate Mass on Copacabana beach this week as he is in the intimate confines of an aircraft cabin, staging an impromptu press conference and cracking jokes with journalists.
His trip to Brazil has been a triumph and will generate goodwill towards the continent of his birth, just as John Paul II did for eastern Europe. And the Argentine pope, like the Polish pope, may prove a catalyst for popular uprisings. If I were a tin-pot despot in Latin America, I’d be on my guard.
As is, according to one source, Francis himself. Former clerical colleagues in Argentina are convinced that the Pope is not staying in a modest guesthouse in Vatican City out of humility as has been reported, but as a precaution. He is forgoing the sumptuous apartments, but also the delicious meals for which the Vatican is famous, to avoid being poisoned. Conspiracy theories abound about John Paul I’s death in his papal quarters after 33 days in office, and Francis, it seems, is taking no chances.
How much is a quick divorce worth to Nigella?
Two high-profile divorces are making waves. In one corner we have Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi. The domestic goddess and her soon-to-be ex-husband have opted for a quickie.
It’s only a month and a half since the infamous photograph of the art collector wrapping his hands around his wife’s throat – but yesterday the couple obtained their decree nisi and within weeks will be formally divorced.
The secret of such lightning speed? Nigella is forfeiting any claim to Saatchi’s estimated £130 million fortune. Wary of publicity and its impact on her children – and with £20 million or so of her own in the bank – she wants out rather than more.
Not so, perhaps, in the other corner, where we have Wendi Deng and Rupert Murdoch.
The 44-year-old Wendi has hired the toughest New York divorce lawyer in what observers believe is a sign she intends to drive a hard bargain over the tycoon’s billions. (So much for all those pre-nups and post-nups the couple allegedly signed to avoid such a scenario.)
I would be surprised if they ever get to court. What a pity. Because the last time the Murdochs took part in formal hearings, when the Commons select committee of culture media and sport interrogated Mr M over phone-hacking in his media empire, Wendi showed what a formidable opponent she can be. When someone tried to assault her husband, the Chinese-born beauty sprang, kung-fu style in a flash of silk and steely resolve, to his defence.
That sensational counter-attack was prompted by the threat of a mere cream pie; imagine what pyrotechnics the threat to her lifestyle might inspire.
Why those fee-paying French parents are hopping mad
I thoroughly enjoyed Judge Jeremy Richardson’s excoriating assessment of the “foolish, overbearing and demanding” couple who had persecuted staff at their children’s private school. The French couple apparently demanded that teachers raise their offspring’s exam grades from A to A+, and verbally abused those who failed to adequately nurture their budding Einsteins.
These pushiest of parents interfered so much that the Wimbledon school demanded that the three children be withdrawn.
The French, despite being routinely held up as preternaturally laid-back, are as competitive as the rest of us. With school fees so high, who can blame tiger maman for wanting value for money and her genes praised to the skies?