I doubt it’s occurred to Lord Hall, but it would be a banter move, as the kids say, for the BBC now to change its pronouns and begin complaining Dominic Cummings is affecting its mental health. “The accusations the BBC is too woke are triggering, especially when combined with recent micro-aggressions regarding the licence fee,” the Director General might say. “We call for the creation of a safe space within which all sides of this debate can reflect upon their privilege. In the meantime, please henceforth refer to Auntie either as Uncle, or B*C.” In this way, he would surely shut down the debate about the corporation’s future before it’s even begun.
Are the people who complain they do not see personalities or narratives on the BBC that reflect their own political views the same people who dismiss social media platforms as ‘echo chambers’? It can sometimes seem that way.
Last week Lord Hall was hauled before the DCMS Select Committee and asked to respond to charges of institutional BBC wokeness. “You’re too woke as an organisation, you’re not reflecting widely enough the cultural and thought diversity that goes on this country,” was how committee chair Julian Knight put it. Hall, surely disingenuously, claimed not to know what wokeness is, but answered the charge by talking about “diversity”, exactly the catch-all word that so maddens those opposed to the BBC’s perceived obsession with political correctness – because they see the term as a Trojan Horse, a means of smuggling identity politics into mainstream culture.
“I believe the BBC should be diverse in all that it means,” Hall said. “That means social diversity as well as diversity by where you come from, as well as diversity of BME, etcetera. I don’t know whether that’s woke or not, to be honest with you.” Well, it’s certainly a start, Tony.
Is the BBC truly woke? I’d argue it tries to be with increasing frequency but its efforts at wokeness are typically halting and toe-curling – inviting the self-confessed communist Ash Sarkar onto Question Time, for example, or making Bob Cratchit’s family mixed-race in the most recent adaptation of A Christmas Carol – and for that reason rather wonderfully, quaintly British.
All the same, it’s become fashionable when attacking the BBC for its wokeness to use as cudgels the American streaming services that cost less than the BBC licence fee. It would be easy to replace the Beeb with these services, the argument goes. It’s a ridiculous line to take.
If you think the BBC is too woke for you, just wait until you sample wokeness as beamed into your sitting room by Netflix – maker of programmes like Dear White People (“students of colour navigate the daily slights and slippery politics of life at an Ivy League college that’s not nearly as ‘post racial’ as it thinks”). This is the same streaming service that, last year, implored the world to cease using the term ‘chick-flick’ on the basis that “there’s nothing inherently gendered about liking a light-hearted film with a strong female lead and emotional arc.” And imagine the outcry if the BBC refused to make programmes in places whose abortion laws they didn’t agree with, as Netflix recently threatened to do in the state of Georgia.
Is Amazon Prime any better? Certainly, its decision to broadcast Top Gear makes accusations of overt wokeness hard, but the service is owned by liberal eminence Jeff Bezos, who is also the proprietor of the American wokerati’s broadsheet of choice, The Washington Post, the paper that described now departed ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi not as a blood-crazed psychopath bent on the destruction of Western civilisation, but as “an austere religious scholar”. One suspects the world’s richest man does not lie awake at night fretting that the sensibilities of the British working class are inadequately represented in mainstream media.
The same might be said for Bob Chapek, CEO of the Disney Corporation, which is set to launch what some are hailing as an alternative to CBeebies. It’s worth checking that critics of the Beeb – before they start paying a monthly Disney sub – understand that a Disney-owned Marvel movie currently being shot features a transgender lead, and that there will be a gay superhero in the upcoming Marvel flick The Eternals. Suddenly Horrible Histories might not seem quite so transgressive.
The point is the BBC is ours, for better or woke. Yes, it can seem absolutely infuriating but, ultimately, it must answer to the British people who pay for it. That cannot be said of the streaming services, for which the UK is just another market, and who to date have shown no inclination to begin producing Britain-centric current affairs programming in the model of, say, Question Time or the Today programme.
Yes, change at the BBC can seem maddeningly slow, because it is. The only way to hasten it is to threaten the licence fee, which one suspects is why precisely that is happening now. Ultimately, however, the threat is an empty one, as are the threats to substitute Auntie with Netflix or any other streaming service. We can shout and scream as much as we like, but it doesn’t change the reality there is no British-centric alternative to the BBC. No subscription-based broadcaster offers a range of national programming that is anything like as, er, diverse.