I try to steer away from politics. No, let’s be honest; some years working in the House of Commons exacerbated a natural distaste for the egregious, the smarmy and the downright dishonest. Despite a sensibility that would gnaw off its own arm rather than vote Conservative (the legacy of That Woman apart from anything else), I am happy to live amicably and without comment with my head tucked quietly below the parapet. But when the government (I use the term loosely) of the day casts its glazed and lifeless eye around the sea of Things To Do and chooses instead to mount an all-out attack on the BBC – well, bring me my Bow of burning gold is all I can say.
Let me count the ways. First, there is the cultural truth that the BBC isn’t the government’s plaything; it’s ours. I neither know nor care what the statutes, rules, regulations, terms and conditions say: the BBC belongs to the people and is part of us. Next, the whole point of the BBC is that it is not under the thumb of political despotism. Across the world, journalists put themselves in peril in the struggle to report what is happening rather than what Beloved Leaders would like us to believe. The very fact that political parties of all colours regularly whine that it’s not fair, Miss, the BBC hates us, is shining testament to its clear-eyed impartiality. Fourthly, kneecapping the BBC so that your chums in commercial broadcasting can make huge profits without fear of competition is not cricket. Fifthly, obsessing, year in, year out, about something that has a far better reputation than you do smacks of petty-minded, mean-spirited, pathetic inadequacy. If a government is at a loose end and simply longing to take something over and regulate it, try the banks.
So here are some books for this week’s shelf to strengthen our sinews as we gear up to fight for the BBC and show it that we care. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices reminds us of the war years and the BBC’s vital role as the embodiment of life free from dictatorship (and the BBC dramatised Fitzgerald’s novel earlier this year). Charlotte Higgins’s This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC exactly captures the way the corporation has come to be so much part of our social, emotional and cultural fabric.
Some BBC broadcasters have themselves become instantly recognisable voices and part of the collage of sounds, pictures and memories that go towards making us feel like a people. David Attenborough, of course – and I join the nation in wishing Sir David the happiest of happy birthdays; generations of Dimblebys; James Naughtie, Eddie Mair and John Humphrys (if politicians fear you, Mr Humphrys – and they do – you’re getting it right); Jeremy Paxman (ditto); Kirsty Young, Sue MacGregor and Jenni Murray; we each have our favourites and our special memories and the list could stretch out to the end of time if the government would only keep its greedy little paws off.
Remember, too, the part the BBC has played and still plays in bringing a trusted voice to people who are not free. The cuts to the World Service has been a hushed-up scandal that we should be ashamed of ourselves for not having taken to the streets to protest about. As Mr Putin closes in on what he seems to regard as his lost colonies in Eastern Europe, how the people there might come to rue the decision that was made a decade or so ago to close down the World Service broadcasts in their languages.
But let our bookshelf also celebrate the astonishing contribution to our collective imagination made by BBC dramatisations. Hurray that Hilary Mantel’s fabulous Wolf Hall (and Bring Up the Bodies) won deserved glory at the BAFTAs this year. It can take its place among legends of sublime television alongside Pride and Prejudice, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People (and now we can add The Night Manager to the BBC tick-list of a job well done), Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth brought heart-breakingly to life in Cheryl Campbell’s luminous performance, Middlemarch, Bleak House and Little Dorrit: it turns out that the great Victorian novelists were just waiting for television to be invented.
And then there’s radio. Alan Bennett – Wind in the Willows just edging it from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – will have to be the one recording I save from the waves for Kirsty’s desert island. So many books, from the iconic to the obscure, have come to life and lodged in the heart thanks to Radio 4’s readings and dramatisations. Try this week’s Radio 4 Book of the Week, which I think might well turn out to be the NorthernReader Book of the Year, Chris Packham’s searing autobiography, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, a blistering, glittering kaleidoscope of shards of memory. And then go straight out and buy the book, because you’ll want to read it again, and again.
So now is the time to assert ourselves as readers and audience. Tell your MP that you will not stand by and watch the annexation of the BBC. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.