Sing-along if you know the words
Ray Snoddy wades into the Rule Britannia row, reminding Tim Davie what awaits him as BBC director-general
The Proms, and the Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory row, has been widely criticised for its triviality.
Should the media really be getting so excited about whether or not a song written in 1740 should, or should not be performed with or without lyrics at the Last Night of the Proms?
Is there anything more eccentrically British when the economy is in recession, education policy is in chaos, Brexit talks are deadlocked and the number of new cases of Covid-19 is creeping steadily upwards beyond 1,200 a day?
In fact, the row is illuminating for two reasons. It goes to the heart of a deep divide in British society about identity, race, tradition, how history should be interpreted and what, if any symbols still have the power to unite increasingly fractious communities.
The Last Night of the Proms and its Rule Britannia finale provided not just a punctuation of the year but an emotional sing-along celebrating, perhaps in a jingoistic way, that freedom and democracy are preferable to slavery.
As for the imperialistic tones, as Andrew Neil has pointed out, if the Royal Navy had not ruled the waves it could not have stamped out the slave trade by stopping 1,600 slave ships and thereby freeing 150,000 African slaves.
But in a narrower sense, the Rule Britannia row is an almost perfect parable for the difficulties faced by the BBC in which whatever way it moves, outrage is caused to someone and attempts at compromise tends to annoy everyone.
Persist with the performance of Rule Britannia in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign, complete with "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”, and cue outrage.
Drop the traditional highlight and the outrage is even greater, together with threats from the outraged to stop paying their licence fees.
Opt for a middle way by playing the music but not the song and you please no-one, particularly when the BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall disingenuously explains that the decision was taken for artistic reasons – because there could be no assembled choirs to belt out the anthem. Right.
So it would have been impossible to supplement the performer with images from previous years would it?
“Surrender” was the Daily Mail’s headline on the music without lyrics decision, before Prime Minister Boris Johnson climbed on the bandwagon to attack the BBC for “wetness” and displaying a “cringing embarrassment” about Britain’s history and traditions.
Never mind that Johnson felt unable to say anything during the education U-turns, this time he seems to be in tune with public opinion with 58%, according to YouGov polling, in favour of a performance with lyrics and only 9% behind the BBC fudge.
As for Lord Hall, as he leaves the BBC, the best he could manage was to say he would not be surprised if Rule Britannia returned next year. Then came another pivot. The songs, the BBC later announced, would be performed as normal next time.
So at least that will not have to be added to the long list of things to do for Hall’s successor Tim Davie.
Curiously, hardly anything on the list was mentioned in Lord Hall’s valedictory speech this week at the virtual Edinburgh Television Festival.
Unsurprisingly, Lord Hall emphasised the importance of public service broadcasting and how the Corporation had performed during the Covid crisis.
In March, 94% of the British public used BBC services with 87% of 16-34 year olds doing so. More than 2,000 hours of bitesize curriculum-linked educational programmes were produced, attracting 5 million viewers a week.
The BBC iPlayer is breaking all records and for the first time its growth is making up the loss of viewers suffered by linear broadcasting.
Lord Hall also emphasised that in 2018, the UK’s public service broadcasters produced more than 32,000 hours of UK-made original content, while the big streamers produced 221 hours.
And so it went on.
The BBC is on track to double its global audience to 500 million by 2022 and double that again to 1 billion by the end of the decade, a target surely in line with the Government’s stated aim to become a global trading nation once the final ties are cut with the European Union at the end of the year.
The BBC could actually help trade, Lord Hall noted, in a plaintive appeal to a government that has generally been hostile to the BBC.
All the BBC’s achievements under Lord Hall’s director-generalship are real of course, but in a long speech there was no room for the many headaches – some existential - that Davie will inherit.
There was no mention of the BBC licence fee and the increasing difficulty and cost of collecting it and justifying it, or moves within government to decriminalise the fee, which could have serious and accelerating financial consequences for the Corporation.
There was no mention at all of the row over the hugely controversial ending of free licences for most over-75s, a policy Hall acquiesced in - albeit under huge political duress - as part of an overall Royal Charter settlement.
At the time Hall pronounced the agreement, which included the BBC accepting the poisoned chalice of being responsible for what to do about the over-75s issue, as a good deal for the BBC.
No mention either of what services will almost inevitably have to be cut, not least because of the £150 million a year cost of funding free licence fees for over 75s on income support.
There was fulsome praise for BBC 3 but ominously no mention of BBC 4, which is due to become a shadow of its former self - little more than a repeats channels with some live arts programming thrown in. As a result, the loyalty of some of the BBC’s most loyal supporters could be further stretched.
Lord Hall, a journalist and former head of BBC News, praised the impartiality principles behind BBC journalism and its role in providing trusted information and tackling fake news.
Fair enough but if he was aware of just how controversial a rigid, traditional interpretation of impartiality rules is, in an age of populist leaders with no compunction about lying almost as a form of breathing, he did not show it.
Ironically that too will be left to Tim Davie, who comes from a commercial background, as will righting one of the BBC’s greatest public relations failures – the ability to explain consistently and coherently the full range of BBC services funded by the licence fee to avoid being considered a poor man’s Netflix.
Meanwhile, perhaps the BBC could enhance this year’s Last Night of the Proms by providing the missing words on screen – for those who want them – so that they can sing along at home to the orchestral rendition.