John Dugdale’s blog for The Guardian this week about the decline of proper arts coverage and critical review on the BBC was thought-provoking. His observation that there is virtually no adequate quality television programming by the BBC on the arts, in particular books, was a chilling reminder of how the emphasis in so many parts of the media has moved away from in-depth discussion and towards the visual and the superficial. Although the BBC’s radio channels still give quite a lot of coverage to books, it seems that in a world of ever-increasing headlines, we lack feature articles. We value pictures over words. His concluding paragraph also cleverly pointed out a startling contradiction in the BBC’s same television programming: its reliance on literary adaptations for so much of its television drama.
The BBC’s mission to educate has long been sublimated to its desire to entertain, and in a generation when education itself has become unfashionable, Dugdale’s point that “the tone increasingly required of presenters, in arts output as in science or history films, is boyish or girlish enthusiasm” suggests that all informative programmes have been given the gloss of celebrity and shallowness. We will be better convinced by what we are told if the teller looks good and sounds cheerful. Certainly, Sky’s The Book Show, while masquerading as ‘serious’ programming on Sky’s Arts channel and with the clearly well-read Mariella Frostrup in the chair, still manages to land only a glancing blow on critical reception, largely because the people it interviews are authors talking about their own books. It is theequivalent of the glossy women’s magazine reading of literature: two column inches summing up a plot and its readability for airport layovers or the beach.
Does it matter that television seems to be opting out of its responsibility to the other arts? Several commenters on Dugdale’s blog noted that the BBC’s radio coverage of books is very good in both scope and depth, and it implies that there is something about the spoken word alone that gives the space for contemplation. People who listen to radio probably have more time to listen and think: it is the same principle that applies to a film and its music – we pick up the significance of a single camera shot immediately, but it takes several seconds to grasp the interpretation the music is providing. One cannot appreciate the depth of a radio discussion in a five second burst, flicking from channel to channel. And so perhaps there is just more room in radio to do justice to proper critical discussion of literature.
The difficulty is that the BBC has set the benchmark for so long for what is possible in television, that when it falls short – when any TV channel falls short – we feel short-changed. This rather casual approach to books is also demonstrated in the BBC News website coverage of literature. Since the new year, two very simplistic pieces of journalism purportedly about indie publishing have been put on their website, neither of which does any justice to the issue at all, and are hardly good advertisements for quality journalism either. The article ‘Do you have the write stuff to be a novelist?’ reported on a self-publishing author who, though surely interesting, is not remotely representative of his indie peers when he describes receiving only “six or eight rejections” from print publishers before turning to self-publishing.
Worse still, the article ‘The authors who are going it alone online – and winning’ was in fact comparing John Locke to Joanna Mallon and Amanda Hocking, the latter two saying just the opposite ofthe title: that indie-publishing was not the right route for them at all. Again, hardly the sort of quality, in-depth journalism that the BBC was once renowned for, and about as utterly unrepresentative of indie publishing as it could be.
The BBC has had plenty of criticism lately, and this blog is not leaping on that bandwagon. But if the web articles are anything to go by, it shows that the BBC’s visually-led presence and pursuit of a strong internet ‘headlines’ brand is not compatible with the in-depth critical engagement required to reflect adequately the longer written form.
In other words, the BBC is not fit to feed the book world, merely to pluck the best of its fruits for reinventing in a form most suited to their aims. Not ours.