Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Memories of the BBC

This is the text of a piece I wrote in the April edition of the BBC News Magazine.

In the end, only memory is left. What Jane Austen called:

“so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient so bewildered and so weak so tyrannic, so beyond control”

Why we remember what we remember and forget what we forget we cannot ever know. Nor whether forgetting is any different from never knowing. 

It is the ‘retentive, serviceable’ memory that creates a collage from a sharp autumn day in 1978. The day I joined the BBC. 

I wanted to be Controller Radio 4 that day and every day since but never was and rightly so. I am too lazy, too unintelligent and hadn’t the temperament ever to sit at the top table. 

I never burned to be a journalist. It was one option. Also policeman, politician and priest.

But I did burn to be BBC. I’ve never been able to imagine any other life not even when, briefly, I worked at ITN.

The BBC co-owns my memory and that is probably quite sad but there you have it.

The memory, in Belfast, of the corpse. A prison officer murdered by the IRA. He could have been asleep at the wheel of his car but for the crimson slashes across his shirt. And the smashed glass and bloodied pockmarks in the seat.

The memory, in Blackburn, of the wet cobbled street where I cried. Deceiving myself that it was frustration that I was lost once again but knowing it was because I had finally understood what it meant to knock on the door of the parents of a murderer’s raped victim.

It is ‘obedient’ memory that tells me I always knew The World at One would be my home and so it became in 1980. Under Julian Holland it was a magical place where, in a tiny office, we would argue the whole morning over the big issues of the day, clothes and skin suffused by the nicotine of Robin Day’s cigars. 

Nature mocked Julian’s journalistic and intellectual vision, giving him darkening physical blindness. He once told me it was a privilege to work at WATO but I already knew it was so.

‘Bewildered’ memory clouds my year at ITN.

I’d left the BBC in a fit of pique - not the first, not the last - at something someone in the boss class had done. But with no real idea about the outside nor much enthusiasm for it.

By chance, I think, it was the year I felt something approaching shame at the inhumanity of our trade. That we - I - could calmly compose careful, precise graphics clerking 193 deaths in the cold North Sea on the Herald of Free Enterprise.

Or of 31 tube travellers who choked out their lives on a burning escalator under Kings Cross station.
People said they made great TV.

When I came back to WATO and the BBC in 1988, one executive wrote ‘welcome home’ in a note to me. 

Yeah. It was still home. For fourteen more years and in spite of the heart infection that tried to kill me, something my consultant said was “worse than cancer”. 

I didn’t die and lived instead to see the most extraordinary experiment in political media management this country has ever seen. New Labour. The age of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, who told the Guardian in 1997 - apparently without irony - that it was his job to “create the truth”.

Those years, that team, the incomparable Nick Clarke at the microphone, seems now like some paused journalistic summer. With a self-possession nudging arrogance, we chased down truth in an exhilarating, thrilling but ultimately futile mission. 

Futile because there seemed to grow in that decade of new Labour an indifference to truth. Some journalists took dictation from Downing Street while others gave up even trying to hold power to account, preferring instead to sulk on the sidelines,  getting up peoples noses.

We tried to challenge power with fact and argument, eschewing the grandstanding and bare-knuckle brawling that seemed the norm elsewhere. 

And then there was Broadcasting House, its title a genteel scream protesting TV’s 1998 coup d’etat and Radio News’ forced exile to a place called Television Centre, a 1970s industrial estate on the outskirts of Slough. 

James Boyle, then the Controller of Radio 4, became a good friend though I don’t think he ever knew how much I coveted his job. He was vilified for ripping up the old R4 schedule and creating a new one that was so flawed it remains almost entirely intact thirteen years later.

His brief for BH ran to a single phrase.

“Not the Today programme”. I knew exactly what he meant but it took time to get it right.

Listeners hated it. It was over-planned, over-rigid and strained to be different. Half a year on, we chilled. Dropped the rigid formats and gave Eddie Mair the room to become what he always was – the sharpest interviewer and coolest presenter the BBC has.

Time passes and so do people and it’s the pity of time that so many of those we value, so many of our heroes, become no more than ‘tyrannic’ memory making inexplicable choices. 

Why one of Gordon Cloughs interviews and not them all ? Why one of Bob Williams PMs of the hundreds we did together ? And why is the first - though thankfully not the only - memory of Nick the blazing row over an empty chair? 

And Hutton?

Memory here truly is ‘beyond control’. It could be no other.

At it’s centre, an overwhelming sadness and incredulity that flawed journalism and even more flawed politics could lead to a good man’s death. Perhaps through a shame Dr Kelly felt but could never have deserved.

That’s all that matters. The reality skulking behind the game journalists and politicians play. Who knows if it could ever have been different. 

“Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened” 

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