Tag Archives: bbc

Save the BBC from “friends” like 38 Degrees

Yesterday 38 Degrees was forced to remove a petition calling for the resignation of Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC’s political editor following revelations that it was being used as a focal point for sexist abuse. Before then however, 38 Degrees and the wider clicktivist left had received criticism for undermining the BBC in its current mortal combat with the government and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.

The focus of this ire is aimed at the BBC’s coverage of the resignation of Steven Doughty MP from the shadow cabinet, in which he was given the opportunity to resign live on-air. What’s fascinating about this particular issue is to question what any truly independent media agency would have done in the BBC and Kuenssberg’s shoes. The implication seems to be that she should have downplayed its significance and denied him a platform. If either of those things had happened, how would Kuenssberg have been able to defend it? I have my concerns about the nature of the BBC’s news coverage, which tends to lean towards giving members of the political establishment a relatively uncritical platform while undermining wider voices, but that tends to work as much in Labour’s favour as it does the Tories, and in this particular case it doesn’t apply at all.

But the purpose of this article is not to focus on Laura Kuenssberg’s woes but the relatively happier worlds of Telly Tubby Land and the Night Garden. While 38 Degrees were busily doing damage control on their Kuenssberg petition, they were also putting up another petition claiming that the government were proposing to cut funding for CBBC and CBeebies. An email was sent out titled “No more CBeebies?” which continued with:

But children’s TV as we know it is under threat. It’s being reported that the government plans to take money away from the BBC’s children’s programmes. [1] They want to give money-making channels a chance to compete for children’s shows.

Sounds horrifying, right? However, note the 1 in square brackets, as it’s pretty relevant. If you scroll down, you find that that [1] refers to an article in the Telegraph, which doesn’t quite say the same thing. That article is headlined “BBC in row with John Whittingdale over ‘top-slicing’ licence fee to fund kids’ TV“. It is indeed about top-slicing and the funding of commercial children’s television. Crucially however, nowhere does it say that the government is calling for funding of CBBC and CBeebies to be targeted for this top-slicing. To be clear: there is no reason whatsoever to believe that CBBC and CBeebies is under threat.

Now, you could give 38 Degrees the benefit of the doubt here. After all, that loss of BBC revenue has to come from somewhere, right? However, were you to reach this conclusion, I think you’d have to be blithely ignorant of a very important point: the chief target of Whittingdale’s concerns expressed in public thus far have all been the more profitable aspects of the BBC’s output. That comprises quite a bit of BBC TV – after all, they do have a very profitable worldwide arm. Sherlock, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Poldark, Radio One, sport, even news – these have all been cited not only as not worthy of government subsidy, but as actively undermining UK commercial television as a result. What is not under threat are the bits of the BBC that perform a clear public good but aren’t necessarily commercial, such as its output for children.

Believe it or not, Whittingdale is not stupid. He’s very aware that the BBC is extremely popular. Alongside the NHS, it’s one of those national institutions that the overwhelming majority of the British public want to preseve. Scrapping or privatising it could quite possibly lead to the ending of this government, and Whittingdale is not likely to put that at risk. That’s precisely why he is talking about restricting the profitable end of the BBC’s output, arguing with at least some justification that a lot of them would continue to get made if commissioned commercially and without the dead hand of the BBC hanging over Sky and ITV. And that’s precisely why he’s started talking up the possibility of taking a chunk of the license fee to pay for children’s television.

However well meaning, the 38 Degrees petition is a gift to Whittingdale. If his SpAds have any sense they will be jumping at the chance to get the message out to the 120,000 signatories that they will indeed protect CBBC from any cuts – or at least say that it will be up to the BBC to decide whether to keep Match of the Day or Peppa Pig. All he wants to do is increase spending on commercial children’s television. Anyone old enough to remember the quality of output of children’s television on ITV before the Tories destroyed that cherished national institution at the end of the 80s (or, ahem, watches some of the better shows the Cartoon Network in the US churns out) can tell you that commercial children’s TV has the potential to be every bit as good as what the BBC comes up with. More Press Gang and The Wind In The Willows in exchange for a bit less trash on BBC? What’s there to object to?

Of course the debate around top-slicing is a lot more nuanced and subtle than “SAVE THE TELLYTUBBIES!!11!” or even “SAVE SHERLOCK!” – which is precisely why Whittingdale wants to shift the debate in that direction. By giving Whittingdale such an open goal, 38 Degrees are only helping him. Fundamentally, this debate is just as much about the BBC’s independence as it is about its level of funding and with a Culture Secretary looking to actively undermine it, we need to be extra vigilant about what he decides to target. Having 38 Degrees chalk this one up as a “win” in a couple of weeks is only going to make that public scrutiny harder.

Sometimes I wonder if 38 Degrees and the myriad of other clicktivist websites have a secret agenda to actually undermine the left and progressive politics in the UK. The reality is much more banal: it exists simply to continue existing, and with that in mind will always look out for whatever simplistic and populist angle it can find on public policy and use it to increase its email database and thus revenue. I’ve spoken to enough people behind it, and experienced working up close with them enough to know that if that means they end up becoming reactionary or wildly missing their target, that’s a price they’re quite happy to pay.

That’s why they actively undermined the campaign against disability cuts during the last government, and that’s why they focused their “Save the NHS” campaign on big, high profile moments that they knew they had no chance of winning (such as their attempts to stop the second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill) at the expense of less high profile moments which required more sophisticated lobbying. Far better to fail big than to win quietly, and far better to help the government by over-simplifying a complex debate than to make their life difficult by adopting a more sophisticated position and risk losing subscribers in the process.

Why we should take accusations of “militant secularism” seriously.

I’ve just been fuming listening to a ridiculous interview with John Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield and Alan Beith MP by Evan Davies on the Today programme. It wasn’t the interviewees who infuriated me, although Alan Beith’s argument that disestablishing the Church of England would lead to an aversion culture akin to “elf’n’safety” did come pretty close. What I found infuriating was the normally sensible Evan Davies’ repeated use of the phrase “militant secularism”.

I seem to remember being here before. Back in 2007, at the height of the rise of the so-called New Atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there was a similar counter push to present this new wave of assertiveness as sinister and extreme. I got particularly annoyed by a “balanced” (in the worst sense of the word) article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian which leant people claiming that “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube” a wholly uncritical platform.

With the tube bombing now a more distant memory no-one has quite gone as far as Colin Slee, the now dead former Dean as Southwark, did in that article. Nonetheless, over the past week or so we have seen a whole slew of attacks, partially provoked by the National Secular Society’s court action against Bideford Town Council and the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s MORI poll suggesting that many people who define themselves as Christian don’t actually agree with basic Christian tenets (only 28% of people who self-defined as Christian said they believed in the teachings of Christianity).

It would be far too generous to credit Baroness Warsi with coining the term “militant secularism” – nonetheless, alongside “secular fundamentalism”, it was a term she used in her recent speech at the Vatican.

For someone as absurd as her (remember this is the woman who made a direct appeal to get BNP voters to support her when she was a Conservative Party candidate) to make such a statement is one thing; for the BBC to use it as if it is a legitimate term is something else entirely. Because the implication takes us right back to Colin Slee and his quite offensive notion of equating vocally expressing a desire to see Church and State kept separate with a desire to wound and murder.

Although I actually got on better with Dawkins’ The God Delusion than I was expecting, I don’t actually agree with him on a number of issues. I think he goes too far when he claims that raising a child as a Christian is a form of “child abuse” (I appreciate the point he is making about the important of allowing children to make their own minds up, and there are certainly disreputable practices worthy of condemnation, but you could the same thing about any parent passing on their beliefs to their impressionable offspring as child abuse – and yet it is an inevitable aspect of raising a child). I’m not a fan of the National Secular Society either, which tends to take things too far, and unlike Clive Bone I doubt I would have been sufficiently outraged by the idea of prayers happening at the start of town council meetings to take the matter to court. But none of these people can be described as extremist, militant or fundamentalist in any way which reflects the meaning of these words. At worst you could call them perhaps strident (although they are typically softly spoken), imposing or intolerant – and even then it is hard to see how they could be described as particularly more strident than, say a Giles Fraser, let alone a George Carey.

They are people with a point of view who express it. Not only are they not bombing tube carriages, but they rarely even employ the tactics of public demonstration – which would make them rather less strident than the majority of politicians (of all colours), trade unions or democracy campaigners (guilty).

In fact, the only palpable quality that these people have which warrants a term like “militant” is that their views provoke a fury in their opponents in such a way that in almost every other sphere we would consider extraordinary. It is akin to the heightened atmosphere that I lived through during the AV referendum campaign, except that it isn’t time limited in the way that was. That in itself is a subject worthy of further investigation, but in short, it suggests that opponents of secularists are playing the man not the ball. Nor is it limited to the religious. Plenty of non-religious people appear to be sufficiently provoked by Richard Dawkins’ voice alone to use similar terminology. Nonetheless, the implication of using such terminology for such unextreme views is, as it always has been, to keep the holders of those views in their place and to warn off others who might share them from expressing them. It is a framing device designed to chill debate.

That’s entirely fair enough in public square, so long as people don’t mind having their bluff called. But, like I say, it is another thing when a public service broadcaster decides to pitch in for one side. When they do so, they cross the line from referee to player. The meaning of words matter. The BBC ought to be more careful.


Two things I should add to this post. On a happy note, Evan Davis responded to it on Twitter, saying:

On a more sour note, the Sunday Telegraph have today done a hatchet job on Richard Dawkins and attacked him for, um, being the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of slave owners. I suggest you ignore the article itself and just read Dawkins’ own account of the interview.

Games Britannia and the great global gaming myth [UPDATED]

Benjamin Woolley’s BBC4 series Games Britannia has been a tantalising documentary thus far. For a political gamer such as myself, much of the first two episodes have been meat and drink. I have to admit to not knowing that Snakes and Ladders was adapted from an Indian game called Moksha Patamu which was all about karma and enlightenment and many of his insights are truly fascinating. To the surprise of no-one who reads this blog, I was delighted that it went into so much depth about how Monopoly formed from Elizabeth Magie’s Landlord’s Game, itself designed to educate the public about the need for land value taxation.

But after its section on Monopoly, this week’s episode started to lose its momentum. Cluedo rightly got name checked, but it quickly moved onto a narrative that I just don’t think is accurate. That is, that all the British games companies got bought up by Hasbro, the British games industry died a death and that only British games of note since the 1950s are a game called Kensington and the infamous War On Terror.

The most aggregious aspect of this narrative is that it completely ignores Games Workshop, now a publicly listed company and one which owns a shop in every major British city and town (as well as numerous outlets worldwide). Like a lot of gamers of a certain age, GW is something I feel quite ambivalent about as it seems to be more about making money than producing good games. But its empire, while not as vast as Hasbro’s, is undeniable, and now includes a significant number of computer games, novels and licensed boardgames (ironically, the best GW games aren’t actually published by them these days).

Quite why this company has managed to grip the imaginations of so many (mostly) adolescent boys for two generations is surely worthy of exploration. Yet the best Woolley could do was interview co-founder Steve Jackson (presumably we’ll be hearing more from Steve in the third episode which focuses on computer games and he gets to wax lyrical about Lara Croft – d’oh! Got mixed up between Steve and Ian Livingstone there) and show some old footage from a Games Day in 1982. This is a global leader and deserved better treatment, but it seemed to be a victim of a pre-formatted narrative.

The other aspect only touched upon, is the renaissance of boardgames over the past decade. Not in the UK, and not in the US, but in Germany. This gives a lie to the other part of Woolley’s narrative that simply doesn’t add up: games aren’t all US brands marketed around the world in the year 2009. In Germany, games like Settlers of Catan are huge – as big as Scrabble and Monopoly – and home grown. During the height of Lords of the Rings mania in the early noughties, you could find copies of the Lord of the Rings boardgame in every bookshop. Desgined by a German, Reiner Knizia, he is one of the world’s most successful game designers. And he is English by adoptive country. Surely the man deserved some credit. With no disrespect to the War on Terror guys meant at all, he is certainly a more important figure than them.

Reiner Knizia aside, the whole phenomena of why Germany has become such a focus of innovation is surely worth some study, as is their choice of subject matter. Unlike the US and UK tendency towards militaristic games, the Germans focus on concepts such as trade and economic development. And unlike Monopoly, which takes hours to play and leaves people out of the game twiddling their thumbs (if they haven’t already overturned the board in a fit of rage), German games are much more inclusive and concise. If you are going to do a documentary about the faltering fortunes of the British games industry in the 21st century, it seems ludicrous not to contrast it with the very different direction of the industry in our main 21st century adversary.

Germans don’t get completely ignored; the programme includes library footage of the massive Essen Games Fair in 2008 and Woolley does at least mention that a lot of games are designed by Germans these days. But this is a major and misleading gap in the narrative, and a very frustrating one. It is one thing to make a documentary about Britain’s gaming history; another to wallow in Anglo-Savon chauvanism. Will tomorrow’s episode rectify this? If it is to be all about computer games, I somehow doubt it.

UPDATE: Having seen the third and final part of Games Britannia, I stand a tiny bit corrected. This episode opens with the founding of Games Workshop, although it doesn’t explore anything that happened after 1976. It was a fascinating episode, rightly celebrating the UK computer game industry, and well worth watching. I still maintain however that there is an important gap in the narrative.