The Breakfast Table

Re: Remember the Caring

It certainly would be a lot easier for the Labour government if Pinochet would, as we say, slip away quietly while he’s still in the hospital. As you point out, the Labour folks are starting to look more and more like the Keystone Kops. It’s gotten even worse this afternoon–the Evening Standard is reporting that Carlos Menem, the Argentinian president, is taking back a piece that appeared in the Sun today, under his byline, in which he said he was sorry for the Falklands War. Now he’s saying he never said anything like that. Labor seems implicated in that one, too, because apparently the party had something to do with getting him to write the piece in the first place.

Have you noticed, by the way, how Peter Mandelson always takes the blame for everything? In his previous job, in which he was essentially the party’s top spin doctor, he was called the Prince of Darkness, and his reputation has followed him right into his new job as Labor Secretary. (People in the British government switch jobs every time the Cabinet gets reshuffled by the Prime Minister, so you can get someone who was doing defense one day having to do employment the next day.) This week, he’s spoken out of turn on the Pinochet issue; lambasted a bunch of factory workers for being too unproductive; and now, according to the Guardian, has unpatriotically supported the incipient sale of one of Britain’s top soccer teams, Manchester United, to Rupert Murdoch. (At least that’s what the headline says: the story says he doesn’t think there are any legal impediments to the sale and can’t block it). The truth behind all this is that Tony Blair himself is still so popular and so unassailable that the papers (and the Tories) have to attack other people in his place.

Britons do make an awful fuss about the BBC, don’t they? It’s a strange entity, an anachronistic throwback to an earlier age, struggling to modernize at a time when it’s just a dinosaur. As a national corporation, the BBC is financed almost entirely by an annual tax of about $150 on each family’s television set, and thus is more or less owned by the ratepayers (if you have a televison but never watch the BBC, you still have to pay the tax) while being regulated by the government. So people expect it to do everything at once: maintain its traditionally high standards of programming, experiment with innovative new things, and compete with the more watcher-friendly stations that are springing up all over the place, both on the regular dial (now up to five stations), on satellite and cable, and soon on digital television. With all the new stations emerging, the BBC has seen its audience share erode steadily over the years. Because it doesn’t take advertising–and because it has none of the American-style fundraising campaigns that we know and love from PBS–the BBC is stuck in a terrible bind. If it wants to compete, it has to try new things, and indeed is about to launch a bunch of digital stations. But that gives it less money for traditional things, which is why it couldn’t afford to broadcast the cricket match everyone was so fussed about earlier in the week.

BBC Radio, whose budget comes out of the overall BBC budget, has the same problem–it has to modernize to compete with all the popular new stations, while hanging on to its core audience. In the case of Radio 4, which has always been the station of choice for eccentrics who want to listen to programs about sheep trials and the shipping news, it’s had a disastrous run lately. A lot of the people who have defected are the older and most loyal listeners of the oldest and most marginal shows. But, as you point out, they make a large part of the listener-ship, if that is a word.

Check out “Corrections and Clarifications,” the Guardian’s wonderful column (on the obit page in the first section, before the editorials). They correct spelling mistakes.

Talk to you later,