Spot the difference
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Date: 09 March , 2005

'Both face uncertain futures, but have stays of execution for the time being. And both face threats of disestablishment.'


Steve Tomkins looks at the differences between the BBC and the C of E, and finds that they have a lot in common.

One of the less celebrated but nonetheless wearing trials of modern life is acronyms: ISPs and NGOs, NSPCC and HSBC (does that even stand for anything?), PIN and BNP, KFC and JFK. Ugly, unwieldy and confusing. Don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s got into trouble in conversations about someone’s boyfriend getting into TV.

Our ancestors didn’t need them - they gave things names instead. I suppose we like them because they save time, but what do I actually do with the 15 seconds a day they gain for me?

Two acronyms it seems increasingly easy to confuse are the BBC and C of E. They are both venerable British (and international) institutions, once at the heart of our society, their role now increasingly challenged by rivals. Both are accused of dumbing down in the face of falling numbers.

Both face uncertain futures, but have stays of execution for the time being. And both face threats of disestablishment - why, some say, should they have their hands on public money and political power as if they were the official organs of the people, when they are now just one among many?

The Hutton report threw the BBC into turmoil with its faultfinding, bringing a change of leadership, followed by budget cuts and job losses, and a government review of its funding and job description. The Windsor report found fault with the Anglican church (or some of it) from inside, leading to the North Americans being suspended on full pay for three years while everyone thinks about whether they can compromise their standards for the sake of unity. The BBC has ten years to get its own standards in order.

The fundamental problem, for both mother church and Auntie, is coping with the changing shape of the modern world.

For Auntie, it’s the advent of satellite, cable and digital stations. First, have these wooed away her faithful viewers. This has forced her to try to win back their hearts and eyes with ratings-grabbing trash. Then they demand to know why she gets the licence fee when she’s no different from them.

The answer of the BBC makeover set out in Tessa Jowell’s green paper and Mark Thompson’s creative review’ is reassuringly sane. The licence fee is safe for 10 years - short enough to banish complacency, long enough to allow it to take risks. And the BBC is to try to observe an armistice in the ratings wars, concentrating on quality television instead of undemanding junk food for the senses for (and by) numbers.

Glad tidings of great joy. I know some people resent paying the licence fee - the same people, I presume, who want less tax and a better health service, and always reply to ‘Lose weight eating chocolate’ adverts. Personally the thought of adverts for quarterpounders with cheese in the Today programme makes me want to cry into my bran flakes. More importantly, for kids to be able watch TV without their favourite cartoon characters telling them to eat overpriced 90% sugar spacerabbits is surely the cornerstone of a civilised society.

This is why the BBC must also be allowed to forget about ratings. To get public money for making TV, you must make TV that serves the public. You have to inform, challenge, educate and enlighten as well as entertain. To measure the quality of TV by ratings is like saying that crisps are better food than cucumbers, because they sell more.

Unfortunately, in order to stand by this principle, the BBC will have to ignore the pressure from huge sections of the media, who accuse it of dumbing down out of one side of their mouths, while deriding its falling ratings out of the other. And stuffing a Quarterpounder with cheese through the middle, no doubt. Good luck, Aunty, and God bless.

The C of E’s difficulties seem more intractable, but are also difficulties with the modern world. One the one hand there are the modern ideas of many western Anglicans, that gay relationships can be healthy and holy and blessed by God, which many others find impossible to accept.

On the other hand there is the fact that the church has moved south - there are now six times as many Anglican churchgoers in Nigeria as in England - which means that the idea of the liberal western minority imposing their broad-mindedness on conservative Africans is deeply questionable.

The solution of a three-year break to think things through before making any decision is a deeply Anglican one, but also deeply sensible. It is fair on the North Americans, giving them a breathing space before they face discipline for following their liberal consciences. And it is fair on the conservative majority of the church too. Good luck, ABC, and God bless.


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