Monday, 23 May 2011

Word on The Street

Anyone who reads this blog regularly (anyone?) will be aware that I have in the past, criticised the BBC for bowing to pressure from outside (or even inside) groups to pursue (or not to criticise) one political  line or another. Today, however, I am pleased to be able to defend the Beeb against such a criticism - in this case from the Herald’s TV Critic, Mark Smith.

In Saturday’s Herald, Mark took exception to the Nick Robinson-fronted programme - The Street that Cut Everything. If you didn’t see this it was a bit of an experiment wrapped up in a ‘reality show’ format where a street in Preston had their council services withdrawn for six weeks, and their council tax returned to them. They then had to deal with the sort of problems that council services try to address - cleansing, benefits, school transport, noise pollution, lighting etc. etc. and also decide how to pay for them. After six weeks the relief on a residents face when the bin lorry rumbled back down the road was worth putting up with Nick Robinson’s smirk for!
While there were legitimate criticisms that could be levelled against the programme, the ‘game show’ approach of dumping loads of rubbish, dog poo etc on the street and then saying to the residents - well, what are you going to do about it? - did grate after a while, and no doubt academics and politicians would find plenty to ask about by way of what finances were returned (just council tax, or their proportion of central government grant)? What services were not withdrawn (we knew school.s and emergency services were still there, but what about all the services that no one on the street used? I didn’t see anyone try to go to a library for example. But this debate rather misses the point. What the programme did show, and what Mark Smith took issue with, was that councils provide a lot more services than people realise, that they cost more than they think, and that cutting funding for those services will mean that front line services will go. Mark apparently thought that this was just a publicity stunt for Preston Council (and indeed councils in general) and that as it ‘had an agenda’ shouldn’t have been made by the BBC.
It will not be a surprise that this is exactly why I think that a responsible public service broadcaster SHOULD be making such programmes. If they don’t, who else will? There are plenty of stories about the amount of public money supposedly ‘wasted’ by councils, and plenty of right-wing, big business funded, front organisations like the Tax Dodgers Alliance who very successfully feed these into the media (yes, even to the Beeb). To put the other side - however superficially - is in my view the essence of balance, and raised good solid questions about the received wisdom on public services that the private lobby puts out.
I never thought that I would say this, but well done to Nick Robinson (I’ve not been slow to criticise him before, so this too is a bit of balance!), and to the BBC. Around 18 months ago, UNISON pointed out in one of its Scottish Public Works briefings the actual cost of our public services. We also produced a leaflet showing how much we all use these services. Now the BBC has taken a small section of public services, and a single street and raised those same issues. The fact that many of the street’s residents found this out during the making of this programme, shows why it was in the public interest to do this documentary, and why the BBC should be congratulated for the attempt.
The word on the street, is not Agenda, Mark, it is Balance. Something the BBC should be producing at all times.

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