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Can the BBC go back to its country roots?

Friday 21 November 2003

This week, the BBC pledged to improve its rural coverage. Our countryside commentator John Sheard wonders if it is capable of keeping its promise

TIME WAS when the BBC was this country's greatest unifier. Pledged as it was in it original charter to inform and entertain the country as a whole, it recognised that for those in remote rural areas where even newspaper deliveries were scarce, radio was the ideal means of communication.

Somewhere along the line, in both radio and television, those charter-enshrined duties got lost in the scramble for commercial viewing and listening figures. And in the new, dumbed-down BBC, the countryside barely exists.

The BBC: Back to it's roots?

The first signs of this came early in the 1990s, when the corporation was anxious to reduce its long-wave radio services, either unknowing or uncaring that in some areas - include much of the Yorkshire Dales - long wave was just about the only wavelength where anyone could get decent reception.

That plan involved scrapping the Farming Today programme, which most farmers I knew treated as some kind of radio bible. I remember writing stories then from rural outreach workers saying that the loss of such a valued service could add to the already worrying increase in farm suicides triggered by feelings of isolation.

The BBC backed down on that one. But in recent years, politically correct, town-based senior executives have slowly been slicing away, not only on the amount of air-time devoted to rural affairs, but also at the content of what is broadcast.

Some time ago, I reported on a major row involving, would you believe, The Archers, Britain's longest running radio serial, which had for many years represented country life in the ears of townies.

Cause: one of its longest-serving script writers, a former agricultural journalist hired to inject real-life rural issues into the programme, had quit because the new producers were refusing to use his ideas in favour of PC themes like race and women's rights. The Archers, he said, now represented suburbia, not the countryside.

Since then, there has been another mega-row at Radio Four, when the editor of the flagship Today programme simple declined to carry reports of the great countryside march in London, which attracted more than 500,000 people (compare that with the non-stop TV and radio coverage this week of demos against President Bush).

Significantly, the same editor also wrote a column in the Guardian and the row over his censorship of the countryside march got so loud even the BBC governors got to hear. He was told: choose between the BBC or the Guardian. Guess where he went?

It so happens that I like John Craven's Country File on a Sunday afternoon but it is shown when I am either in my vegetable patch or the pub. But the rest of BBC's television output, when it comes to rural affairs, is absolute twaddle.

However, this week - see News - the BBC pledged to improve its coverage of rural affairs. It seems to have discovered that a quarter of the people who pay its exorbitant licence fee live in the country (and pay it regularly, whereas most licence dodgers live in towns).

If this turns out to be true - and they find some professional broadcasters who know something about real country life - I shall be delighted. But, as usual, I have my suspicions.

You see, the BBC charter is up for re-negotiation soon and many politicians are asking if it should remain a state-funded organisation. Could this new concern about its service to a quarter of its customers have any connection with the new pro-countryside Beeb?

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