Friday, January 21, 2005

Jerry Springer - The Opera

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News:

Banning the Beeb

There's nothing like imminent retirement to make a politician talk sense. Invited on Monday to condemn the BBC for showing Jerry Springer - The Opera, Estelle Morris robustly refused.

"I would rather have free speech than try to legislate against people being offended," she said. "What is broadcast or printed is not and never should be a matter for the government."

Quite right too. This is the sort of programme - taking something enjoyed by the metropolitan elite and making it available to everyone - that justifies public service broadcasting.

It's different from the early days of this administration. Then Stephen Byers was so ambitious he demanded a Teletubbies video to allow him to judge whether it was suitable viewing for children.

As ever, it was Tory MPs who were keen to attack the BBC. In part it was their native philistinism: it is always high art which annoys them. There were similar rows in over Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective and Tony Harrison's poem V.

But there was more to it than that. Some Tories, having seen George W. Bush win twice with the votes of the religious right, fancy they can appeal to its British equivalent. It is doubtful that such a thing exists, and their attack on the BBC raises the question of what it is the Tories want to conserve.

For most of us, Auntie is central to our idea of what it means to be British. Think Alvar Liddell. In Town Tonight. Muffin the Mule. Mrs Dale's Diary. Franklin Engelmann. The Clitheroe Kid. David Jacobs. Listen with Mother. Raymond Baxter. Gardeners' Question Time. Valerie Singleton. Dr Who. Richard Dimbleby and all his children.

Do they want to abolish all that? Do they believe the commercial sector has higher standards? Or do they want the state to censor the BBC's programmes? That is precisely the sort of society we used to congratulate ourselves on not having.

Elsewhere on Monday, two Tories had a more promising idea. They demanded to know what progress was being made with encouraging Britons living abroad to register to vote here.

This is an important intellectual breakthrough. They have grasped that the people most likely to vote for a Tory government are those who will not have to live under it.

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