Author Robert Harris’ intervention into the thorny subject of the BBC’s books coverage at this week’s Costa Book Awards is a welcome one. It is three months since the Beeb’s disastrous coverage of the Man
Booker Prize ceremony and almost a year since the organisation axed its one remaining TV books criticism/discussion slot, “The Review Show”.
Harris said the lack of a “dedicated books programme on the BBC” was a “disgrace”, making a direct plea to director-general Tony Hall to fulfil the organisation’s “charter remit”. Naturally, he received cheers from the bookish crowd, pointing out that 40 years ago—when there were just three TV channels—there were two book shows; but now there are 300 channels (eight of which are BBC-run) but no discussion or review show for books.
The BBC is not unaware of the criticism. In March last year, Hall announced “the strongest commitment to the arts in a generation”. Jonty Claypole, director of arts, said: “We don’t have a bespoke books show, and I don’t think that we should. You have to look holistically across the BBC and when you do you can see how completely unrivalled and unprecedented the support we give to new writers and authors is.”
The case for the defence is easy to make. Anyone who is watching the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, or follows Nick Higham’s “Meet the Author”series, or listens to Simon Mayo’s “Radio 2 Book Club”, Radio 4’s “Book of the Week” or “Open Book” cannot claim that the BBC does not support the trade. Similarly, much of the intellectual property business that is so essential to children’s publishers is underpinned by the BBC’s children’s channels, CBBC and CBeebies. Equally, references to 1970s TV obscure a wider point: the media landscape has changed irrevocably, with YouTube giving everyone the chance to become a broadcaster. Books are hardly starved of exposure.
Nevertheless, Harris’ dart still sticks. The lack of a prominent place on the Beeb to discuss authors, writing, and the creative sector from which they come is glaring. While the BBC “does” books there is often a sense that it doesn’t “get” readers, with much of its coverage sidelined on fringe channels, oblivious to reading tastes and condescending towards commercial genres.
In other areas the BBC is more surefooted. Its “Film 2015” series has broadcast continually since 1972—finding the kind of sweet spot between popular culture and serious discussion that is often missing in book shows. And here’s a statistic: there were fewer tickets sold at UK cinemas last year than there were physical books bought through book stores. The BBC is right to say that no broadcaster does more to promote reading, but wrong to use this as an excuse not to change course. It is time for the Beeb to have a rethink.