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We need a change of climate at the BBC

Wearing its title of the nation’s public service broadcaster like a badge of virtue and honour, the BBC likes to clear its schedules now and then for an exciting celebrity-strewn day of concern, comedy and music. At first, children in need were the great cause, then Third World poverty. Now climate change is the latest focus of the Corporation’s caring attentions.

On the face of it, to object to any of these great on-air festivals of niceness, as the editor of Newsnight, Peter Barron, has just done in Edinburgh, is to take grumpiness to a new extreme. What harm can possibly be done by a Red Nose Day, a Feed the World extravaganza, or an all-day Live Earth concert? Awareness is raised, money made for good causes, the famous have a chance to “give something back” in a gratifyingly public way, politicians are called to account in a gentle and generalised way, and members of the audience are offered the harmless illusion that the very act of laughing at Ricky Gervais, or singing along with Madonna, expresses their concern for the less fortunate. Spreading magical caring dust everywhere, BBC executives doubtless feel they have proved that television has a heart and a conscience.

But in arguing that “it is absolutely not the BBC’s job to save the planet”, Barron is making an important point. The truth is that, while they may be good for the Corporation’s image and even for ratings, these orgies of public conscience are not raising awareness at all. They are raising emotion. Mass expressions of analysis-free caring, they are essentially mass expressions of faith.

In a democracy, it is dangerous when a country’s dominant broadcasting institution spends millions of pounds on an all-day revival meeting which takes an issue of political complexity and turns it into an object of mindless religious yearning. When faith replaces thought and T-shirt slogans take the place of discussion, then people quite soon are only prepared to hear the message in which they already believe. Any talk of the more difficult issues is regarded as a disguise for apathy, yet another game that cynical politicians like to play.

Climate change, thanks in part to the BBC’s efforts, has become a thought-free zone for many people. Discussing renewable energy with them can be as illuminating as talking about the Day of Judgement with a religious fundamentalist. To take an obvious recent example of self-imposed blindness, there is the question of the huge profits being made in the City by investors in energy companies which, to quote a recent report from Reuters, “are making billions of euros in excess profits”, paid for by consumers, under the EU’s emissions trading scheme.

The companies are making “free money”, according to the Carbon Trust’s chief economist Michael Grubb. “It’s how you’d expect companies to behave, but politically and morally it is going to be hard to justify making so much money out of a scheme designed to reduce emissions.”

This practice, says the report, has caused huge controversy in German and Holland but “barely a ripple” in Britain. To be fair, Radio Four, the one part of the BBC which has not been infected by sentimental populism on the great issues of the day, seems to be taking a cool look at the energy business in this Thursday evening’s Costing the Earth, but it is an exception within the corporation. The great Save-the-Earth extravaganzas may play well with audiences and politicians but with them the BBC is exploiting the environment for its own ends as surely and cynically as the so-called “green barons” of the City.

Addicted to causing misery

There is something genuinely unattractive about the British press as it latches on to an exciting new celebrity victim, as it has in recent weeks with Amy Winehouse. Journalists have followed her stumbling downward progress through multiple drug use and now what seems to be domestic violence. Members of her family have been open about her problems with drugs and her father has speculated that the relationship with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, must have “issues” if it involves their cutting one another. Winehouse is young and talented. The media could play a small part in her rehabilitation simply by leaving her alone, as they occasionally do with politicians. Not much hope of that, of course.

* Is some kind of wrinkly conspiracy afoot? Hardly a day goes by without news of the growing dynamism of our senior citizens.

Last week, a survey told us everything to know, and more, about the sexual habits of those between 64 and 85. They are the golden years of erotic intimacy, according to a new survey, although it was noted, rather sadly, that women were doing less well than men on account of so many of their husbands being dead.

Now another insight into the private lives of pensioners has been published. We have entered the age of the “Saga Lout”, says a consultant psychiatrist, Dr Peter Rice. More than a million people over 65 are drinking at unsafe levels, an increase of 75 per cent in women since the early Nineties and 31 per cent in men.

For some, the idea of having to fret about Saga Louts will be a worry too far. Sexed-up and gently sozzled, they may even be setting a fine example in self-reliance to the younger generation.

  • Chris Rust

    It’s not a trivial issue that the researchers here don’t seem to have any notion of irony or context. If McCartney is saying old people are unloveable how come so many oldies belt that song out at their 64th birthday parties? It’s an affectionate song about love persisting despite the inevitable effects of getting older, what could be more positive?

    But there’s something quite sinister here, the conclusions of the article say:
    “It is imagined that the negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting and confidence and esteem lowering for older people and that more scrutiny of these texts by censorship boards should be exercised.”

    In other words it’s a manifesto for the thought police to start telling artists what to do, based on a particularly numb piece of research. Decidedly chilling.