This is the text of a talk I was invited by the BBC Trust to give to a seminar on arts programming by the BBC. The seminar was held on June 24 at Broadcasting House, Belfast.
We have a range of arts programmes but they divide into two kinds, one which addresses an audience with a strong interest in the arts and another which melds arts into a more magazine type programming.
Examples of the first kind are much of the BBC Four output, Radio Four’s Front Row, Newsnight Review.
Examples of the second kind are The Culture Show, our news programmes, when arts events feature in them, and our own Arts Extra.
The first is programming which is concerned with evaluating the arts; the second is really a form of magazine journalism about the world in which artists move.
There was a time when, had I sought to locate a demarcator between what network programmes do with the arts and what we do regionally, I would have said that networks do the metropolitan and the events of bigger significance from the regions, including our own. We do the local.
Now that demarcator does not apply. The network does everything it likes, within the limited time available and so does the region, or at least this region. There is no programming on the BBC which concerns itself with Irish Art, Irish publishing, Irish anything. You get that on RTE.
Well, perhaps it is provincial and blinkered to concentrate on something we might regard as local culture.
I don’t think so.
I think local broadcasters should be in an integral relationship with local artists and that regional programming should favour local relevance over work that will be reviewed or discussed on Network – not to the exclusion of it, of course, but why should we pretend to offer what Mark Lawson can do better? When Mark Lawson needs to assess Sinead Morrissey or Micky Doherty, he’ll call us.
I imagine that in Scotland and Wales, people think much the same as I do on this.
Where the local is treated as having value in local programming is in stories about the local boy or girl doing well, and it is the doing well that makes the story, not the nature or character of the work they have done.
In short, we are separating life from art and saying that it is life we are more interested in and that art, being something else, a specialism, is a minority interest, held dear by those incomprehensible few who have read Ulysses.
When actor Jim Norton wins a Tony award, the first question he is asked on Arts Extra is, how did you feel? When Leontia Flynn gets the Rooney award she is invited to agree with the proposition: your mother must be proud. We are always asking of ourselves, how much of this story would be intelligible to Uncle Joe, and we are probably always getting that wrong anyway.
Go to the arts festivals and listen to the questions that come from the audience. Often they are those simple human questions — where do your ideas come from? How do you find the time to write?
And they are the people who should be our audience, aren’t they?
They are the demographic we have always had with us.
Look around at those audiences, at the summer schools and arts festivals, the John Hewitt, Aspects, and who do you see? You see people who are mostly over 50 and mostly women. Radio Ulster doesn’t trust that audience but wants a different audience. It wants younger people.
And, in ignorance of the energy and concerns of this generation ,we get a review of Coldplay in Brixton but not of Leonard Cohen playing in Dublin.
And the tension between catering for the audience we have and grasping for an audience we want, creates a strain that shows.
We get young reviewers speaking glib slang: check it out, check it out.
Women of 50 do not ‘check it out’.
On RTE there is a round table arts review programme every Tuesday night, like nothing we have on radio or television.
RTE has run several night time documentary series, including, in the last year, deeply personal profiles of Nuala ni Dhomnail, Paul Durcan and John Banville.
The result was films about the most disturbing experiences and deepest feelings of some of our greatest writers. That is, they met the criterion of great film making in any field.
Compare these with the BBC’s effort to make a documentary about Michael Longley, guided by the principle that no one would know him unless he was authenticated as a sensitive soul by somebody more famous for fine feeling, Feargal Keane. Here we learnt little about Longley, he even came across as tight lipped and obscure.
Taking him on his own terms, as RTE had taken the others, might have been as productive.
The decision that arts programming would not enter an elitist field is defended with the argument that arts coverage pervades our other programming. Not only do we make arts popular, we talk more about the arts in our other popular programming. See what a big story the rebuilding of the Lyric is.
Your new book might not get reviewed on Arts Extra — but it might be discussed on Talkback or Sunday Sequence. This argument sinks because nowhere will the book be seriously evaluated. Sunday Sequence will discuss issues arising from your book, not where you might go next as a developing writer.
On Radio Ulster we have six hours of dedicated book programming – every year. Did anyone seriously think I was going to say every week? No, that would be Radio Five Live you’re thinking about, the station that we nicknamed Radio Bloke. Radio Five Live has shared a discovery with Richard and Judy that audiences talk intelligently about the books they read.
Much of the BBC does not accept that principle and thinks you’d prefer to hear them talk glibly.
I argue that if the station is to be parsimonious with books discussion it must privilege Irish publishing. We can be cosmopolitan when we have the time.
When other broadcasters have upgraded their coverage of books, more books have sold. If it can be shown that Irish publishing is on the floor because of the reduced evaluation of books on Radio Ulster – how would we feel about that?
I think the death of reading would be a bad thing, don’t you?
If we are to have a renewed relationship with our audiences and with the arts world, we can do it by structural changes, improving the programmes we have, but we actually need to consider the underlying ethos governing arts programming across the BBC and particularly here. This ethos was seen, at its inception, as a move away from elitism and therefore a good thing.
The consequence is that we have lost the ability on much programming to distinguish between talking about art and about the people in the arts world. They are famous because they are artists, but we are not interested in the art; we are only interested in the fame.
We need to change three things.
The devaluation of the local. The local is our expertise and our ticket to the wider discussions.
The devaluation of the audience: We have to stop signalling to our most loyal audience that we would really prefer they were young people and a bit more cool.
The devaluation of the arts: knowledge and understanding of motor racing and gardening are still appreciated in the BBC. Why so much less, then, the arts of the artists?