Media Spotlight: This New Noise, by Charlotte Higgins

Book

The British public’s relationship with the BBC has become strained in recent years under the weight of a wave of scandals within the organisation known affectionately as ‘Auntie’.

That moniker itself illustrates the warmth with which the world’s leading public broadcaster is generally regarded, both in Britain and internationally. However, as one scandal has followed another – plus the current debate over whether the licence fee through which the BBC is funded is justifiable in the modern era – it seems Auntie has become caught up in a family feud.

The Guardian’s chief arts editor, Charlotte Higgins, spent a year investigating the BBC and, following a series of essays based on her findings, the journalist now offers This New Noise – a brief but engaging history of the organisation.

Subtitled ‘The extraordinary birth and troubled life of the BBC’, the book focuses on the series of men who each held the role of director general and attempted to guide the now-mammoth entity in new directions with varying levels of success.

Readers learn of the controversial Lord Reith, who began his reign in 1922 with just three staff and was behind the BBC’s stated mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ – noble ambitions from a man who openly admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini for their “efficiency”.

John Birt, who took on the role of director general 70 years after Lord Reith, states that by then the BBC had become a “vast organisation with no governing brain or nervous system”.

Another recent boss, Michael Grade, notes the near-archaic nature of the BBC’s output today and does not believe such an organisation would be created or approved in the modern era of 24-hour multimedia; a staid, compulsorily paid-for service does not make sense, he says. Birt, too, was an advocate of change to give users more choice.

Yet it has been a series of scandals that have most rocked the organisation in recent times – in particular the shocking case of Jimmy Savile and his years of abuse that many people in the BBC appear to have known about but precious few ever challenged. 

Higgins relates the ‘Newsnight scandal’ – which boiled down to a decision not to air the findings of an investigation into Savile.

She also covers the less-successful DGs, including Greg Dyke, whose reign collapsed amid controversy over the Iraq War and the death of Dr David Kelly.

Higgins casts a judgemental eye over Top Gear – a programme that recently had its own dirty laundry aired and lost its three hugely popular presenters as a result but is the BBC’s most successful commercial operation. Behind the scenes, apparently, many people had concerns about lead presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s increasingly erratic – and autocratic – behaviour.

Overall, Higgins seems to view the BBC in the same way as much of the nation. Although its actions are sometimes called into question, the manner of its funding is the subject of debate, its organisational structure needs a drastic revamp and better controls are clearly required, fundamentally the BBC has become part of the fabric of the UK and grown to be many people’s favourite ‘Auntie’.

And although – as with most other aunts – some people find her a nuisance, this Auntie is seemingly here to stay.