It was National Poetry Day on Thursday 8th October and my Twitter feed filled up quickly with a wide variety of contributions. There were examples of slam poetry and sonnets, or whatever you could cram into 140 characters. There were also several links to websites and blogs that convinced me that poetry was never dead as some doomsayers keep on claiming; it was simply taking a breather.
It also showed me that culture comes in different guises and shapes. A message that our current culture secretary, John Whittingdale, ought to heed. This is the person whose job is to decide upon the future of our British Broadcasting Corporation. He is the government minister in charge of a panel that will work on the renewal of the BBC’s royal charter. The problem here is that Mr Whittingdale has very fixed ideas about our publicly-funded broadcaster.
One of the criticisms hurled at the Beeb is that it has become a ratings-chasing machine in the last few years. It is not true, in my opinion. The BBC has to compete in a commercial market with money from the public purse. In order to justify this spending it has to be seen to cater to all tastes and that is hard to do. That is exactly what programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and the Great British Bake-Off offer. I might not be a fan of either, especially the former, but when I hear of millions of people tuning in on a weeknight to watch three people compete for the top prize in a cake-baking competition, my Cuban-made, London-moulded heart skips a beat with excitement.
At the centre of this discussion is the very visible pachyderm in the lounge: culture and our definition(s) of it. Sometimes it seems to me that we cannot agree on the brow position and whether it should be really high or very low. For centuries it was the elite, both political and social who decided what was considered culture and was not. But the last sixty-odd years have democratised culture somewhat. Radio, television, pop and rock and roll, the VCR and then the DVD, the internet, the Walkman and then the smartphone have levelled the playing field. Youth tribes are not as sharply divided as they were forty years ago. The person who listens to classical music is also likely to listen to A Tribe Called Quest. Even our Chancellor, George Osborne, wants to get in on the act, declaring a hitherto-hidden love for the music of NWA.
|NWA: waxing lyrical for the pleasure of her Majesty's Chancellor|
Because of this diversification it is futile to ask the BBC to be more “highbrow” when it comes to culture. “Auntie” is already highbrow enough but even this very definition of “highbrow” contradicts the nature of a broadcaster whose licence fee is paid by most members of British society, from a librarian to a Tesco shelf-stacker. What if the latter likes Puccini and the former Akram Khan? Should they both not be served equally?
It is clear to me that what is at stake in the BBC’s royal charter renewal is not its role in British life but on what side of the political spectrum the corporation is. The Beeb has always been seen as too left-wing even if it gave Cameron and co. an easy ride in the lead-up to the general election. Its independence is a thorn on the side for those in government who would like to see it working, Murdoch-style, for the Tories. I have my own gripes with the BBC: too much money is wasted on “consultants” and “middle-managers” (or "bureaucrats" as I prefer to call them), it lacks a dedicated arts channel like Sky Arts and exposure to its daytime television programming might make a very ill person want to get back to work the next day even if they are on a full-body cast and have spent the night before retching their guts out. However, despite these petty grievances, every month I pay my licence fee with pleasure, knowing that there are not that many broadcasters that boast shows such as Have I Got News for You, Jools Holland and Never Mind the Buzzcocks and countless well-researched and expertly-presented nature and travel documentaries.
On National Poetry Day it was BBC Radio Four Twitter feed that gave me some of the better laughs. The biggest winner, I imagine, was culture, neither highbrow nor lowbrow, but rich.
Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 14th October at 6pm (GMT)