Tomorrow morning I can listen to the opening of the Today programme without the slightest tension. I might even turn over and have a little lie-in. I leave the BBC much as I arrived more than three years ago, with puzzled affection and goodwill for this institution, with its contradictory principles of public service and showbiz, its peculiar mix of selflessness and solipsism. I shall miss my clever, curious, committed colleagues and, as the autumn mornings grow dark, listen with enhanced respect for their craft.
The new director-general Tim Davie once cheered me up during a bad week by explaining that there were three stages of a high-profile job: coping, delivery and legacy. Good luck to him getting to the second stage. Rather like governments, the BBC always seems to be moving from crisis to crisis. But they pass. The man from whom he takes over, Tony Hall, is right to talk of the BBC’s global reputation. It is easy to defend the public good of Reithian news of record.
As for the entertainment, if it is appealing enough, the public will surely pay a voluntary subscription for it. The BBC should be nurturer or curator of talent, not have a monopoly on it. I understand the principle of universality, but we cannot pretend that the BBC is the NHS of broadcast. There are alternative sources of entertainment and scope for partnerships. The best television drama this summer has been Mrs America, a US production shown on the BBC. “Just be good” is my favourite maxim.
Impartiality is still at the heart of the BBC. It is not hard when you know the rules, but respect for the rules is weakening. The BBC bends over backwards to root out unconscious as well as conscious bias, but it is awkward when its journalists’ masks slip on Twitter. Does the celebrity conferred on news broadcasters require constant burnishing on social media?
The BBC is not just a broadcaster but also an attentive employer in the age of the employee activist. The result is a sense of entitlement among younger employees: they expect to have their view of the world on air. In its drive to reflect a new world, the BBC sometimes overlooks an older one. It can treat social conservatism with polite incomprehension. As for faith, that is best watered down into community homilies.
These cultural and philosophical sensibilities are choppy waters. The row over the lyrics of “Rule Britannia” leaves the BBC trying to patch up irreconcilable positions. Many of its staff feel passionately one way, many of its audiences another.
It is not difficult to spot the cultural givens within the BBC. The righteousness of regulation is one. This is the perspective of a highly regulated body. I am afraid my old newspaper heart responds to an older battle cry: publish and be damned.
There are flickers of other unconscious institutional bias. It is hardly challenged that state funding is good — and more funding better. In the Covid era this, of course, is now also the position of the Conservative government.
Uncomfortable truths are tricky. The BBC rightly looked into who was most at risk from Covid-19, including key workers and those of black and ethnic minority heritage. However, I noticed that when I first raised data showing that obesity was a major cause of death from the disease, there was a kindly reluctance to pursue the story.
Naturally, if some subjects are of special interest, others are of none. I staged an outside broadcast at a county show one summer to discuss Brexit, the future of food, national self-sufficiency, GM crops, biodiversity, biosecurity and rural crime. A former editor of the programme questioned whether any of this counted as “news”. It is news where I live, in Norfolk.
There is much diversity of thought among BBC journalists — especially on the Today programme — but the BBC must fight to overcome a cultural like-mindedness. This is one reason why the distinctiveness of individual programmes matters. I believe, to borrow from Paul Nurse, head of the Francis Crick Institute, who invoked memories of Dunkirk in the fight against Covid-19, in the power of little boats. One thing we have learnt from the pandemic is that localism works. The BBC is moving to more centralised commissioning of coverage. It makes sense for efficiency and for monolithic impact — the viewer is going to see that story on health funding whether they like it or not — but not necessarily for cognitive diversity.
Editing Today is a terrific job, so why give it up? First, I thought it might crack the government boycott of the Today programme. Naturally it made no difference. It was “events”, in this case coronavirus, that changed the dynamic and brought the ministers back. Beware the futile gesture.
Second, I realised I was not the right person to sell the centralised news vision to my team. Former newspaper editors are too used to having things their own way to be popular on committees. Third, jobs at the BBC needed to go to save money and I had enough other plans to give up mine.
This will be the fourth consecutive job that I have left voluntarily while still enjoying it. Each time — and even after a rough old sacking five jobs ago — things have turned out for the best. Barbara Amiel, the columnist wife of the former Telegraph proprietor Conrad Black, told me that she believed in keeping a suitcase in the hall, an ancestral response to persecution, and a contemporary one to her changing fortunes (her husband was convicted of fraud in the US and pardoned by Donald Trump last year). Nothing so dramatic for me, but I reckon keeping a foot in the doorway prevents complacency or self-delusion.
There are some interesting possibilities. After the past six months, I feel a kind of economic patriotism and want to play some small part in rebuilding our battered economy, working with companies on their comeback plans. Alongside that, and outside the theatrical rules of engagement of a news programme, I shall try to find new ways of discussing what it means to govern. I have been asked to chair the liberal conservative think-tank Bright Blue, which seeks policy solutions as well as analysing the problems. I hope we can find the creative thinking that the news cycle makes almost impossible for politicians. Then there is a looming deadline on a short book on the contemplative life of monasteries.
FT Weekend Digital Festival
Join the FT for 3 days of digital debate and entertainment, and your ultimate guide to our changed new world
That last took me to Salzburg and, I am afraid, I exhibit unconscious bias on quarantine. The sybaritic Mediterranean countries strike me as plausibly infectious. But Switzerland? Austria? I felt especially sympathetic towards Salzburg, where I spent a few days researching this month. The gate at Nonnberg Abbey — familiar to a million The Sound of Music viewers — was strangely deserted. The Salzburg festival was not. For a little while, the joys of civilisation returned as the Russian-born pianist Igor Levit, who now lives in Germany, presented sonatas by Beethoven. We were masked and socially distanced, but allowed to remove masks once Levit began, as if Beethoven had mastery over the virus. This produced a novel response: a cough-free audience. Why was it necessary to cough before the pandemic? Afterwards, as the crowd spilled out, it felt as if Covid-19 were some waning phantasmagoria. The owner of the bar to which we walked said it was wonderful to see the British back. A week later, Austria was out of bounds for UK tourists.
I turn up to a new office on Monday and must scrub up after months of lockdown. A friend who works for a large retailer said that its biggest sales have been pyjamas, flip flops and false eyelashes. I queried the false eyelashes. She said: “Instagram”.
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published