Maybe it’s best not to whip the messenger.

Posted on August 6, 2019

It’s a mark of the times, of course, but a quick glimpse at the recent entries on this blog reveals a pretty gloomy landscape. So I came to this week’s enterprise with the firm resolve to be a little jollier. I’m not playing with much of a hand.

Two mass shootings followed by Trump’s usual bone-headed response; global warming (can we please stop calling it ‘climate change’?) hovering over the homes of people in a Derbyshire village; an infant pushed from a tenth floor window in an act of random violence; Farage hailing Trump’s racism as ‘genius’ and, as I write, England’s batsmen flapping around to dismal capitulation. And all the time, having to do a double-take to realise that when we hear the words ‘the Prime Minister’, to re-register that this office is held by a narcissistic, entitled, self-publicist. Not many laughs to be had out of that lot.

Much better to sit on the bus with the rest of the pass-wielding pensioners up to the town centre.  The playwright Alan Bennett used to claim that when lost for inspiration, he would merely eavesdrop conversations on buses and in cafes. In a particularly odd episode, he tells of hearing one woman on a bus say to another, ‘Well, they’ll be no use to her anymore. Not as feet, anyway’.  I don’t know if that particular line ever found its way into his collected stage oeuvres, but it’s kept me smiling and pondering for over thirty years.

I board the 602, swipe my pass and sit down – carefully ensuring that I use neither the seats for the elderly and infirm (who? me?) nor those for wheelchairs or buggy users. Three women pensioners are deep in animated conversation. The object of their great high dudgeon is the BBC: I’m very interested.

Like many people I know, my attitude to the BBC is ambivalent. There’s great drama, some tolerable comedy and David Attenborough whispering earnestly in the company of orangutans. Then you’ve got news and current affairs. Relax. I’m not going to reopen debate about the flimsy amateurism of Panorama’s ‘investigations’  but BBC news can never win: it offends left and right in equal measure. In the fervid squabbling about Brexit, millions are convinced that it is the mouthpiece of the liberal elite – whoever they are. For many of us on the left, it has always been the mouthpiece of the establishment – whoever they are. Overall, however, it does seem to play to a middle-class, middle England consensus.

And yet – to find yourself exposed to news programmes throughout the world is to crave the urbanity and balance of an institution that can, at other times, firmly convince you that it’s the broadcasting arm of the British Stasi. Which brings us back to the pensioners on the 602.

They’re discussing Brexit. Yes, really. A minute or so into the conversation and they reach the same conclusion as Laura Kuenssberg and Michel Barnier which is….that no-one knows what’s going to happen and we’re making it up as we go along. I’m trying to look blankly ahead while hanging on every syllable. The trouble, one of them asserts to universal agreement, is that we’re being fed a pack of lies. By the BBC. You know; the villains who are taking our free licence away. And the BBC, as everyone knows, is told what to do by the government. And the government is now run by that bighead, that Boris.

Because I’m subconsciously waiting for an Alan Bennett moment I become aware, as the bus approaches the town centre, that I’m looking for something comedic in a set of exchanges that is heartfelt, sincere and is possibly being replicated on buses up and down the country at that very moment. This isn’t a source for comic invention; it’s three ordinary, pretty well-informed pensioners who think the country’s in a mess, that they’re being fed misinformation and that the government is run by a daft posh-boy. It might not be nuanced, but there’s not much I don’t agree with.

I’m not arguing that the BBC is the puppet of the state. It gives voice to oppositionists, contrarians and minority viewpoints – albeit often late at night and in tucked-away corners of the radio scheduling. It makes an effort to be diverse and it must be doing a reasonably good job because the Daily Mail absolutely hates it as an organisation. It is clearly respected on the global stage as a reliable news organisation and often gives succour to those in imperilled situations around the world who seek something like objective information – hence it is often the target of a range of of dictatorial regimes. I might well be wrong, but the irritated pensioners might have conceded some of that.

Regular readers will know that I like Shakespeare and I like Marx (both Karl and Groucho) so I’ll turn to them both to help me out. First, Karl, who tells us that the dominant ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class. The BBC, for all of its fine attempts at egalitarianism, promotes a consensual view that echoes such ideas: we often call it ‘common sense’ – but whose common sense, exactly?

And because it is a far-reaching institution, people like me and the 602 pensioners, glean a good deal of our information about current affairs from it and we shoot the messenger when that news is baffling and unsettling. In Anthony and Cleopatra a poor old go-between is sent to bring the news to Cleopatra that Anthony has married someone else. When she threatens to have him ‘whipped with wire and stewed in brine’ the unhappy post-boy complains that ‘I that bring the news, made not the match’.  As staid, middle-class and credulous as the BBC may be, and as slanted as its editorial decisions clearly are, they are, like me, trying to be jolly with no picture cards in my hand. Its opportunities for fun are limited. If it’s entertaining news we’re after, then maybe a few moments each with either Fox or the despicable Sun newspaper might convince us that looking at the BBC with a wary eye might serve us reasonably well after all.

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