Harris: 'TV book shows could help BBC survive'

Harris: 'TV book shows could help BBC survive'

Novelist Robert Harris has said that developing dedicated TV books programming is one of the ways in which the BBC can fight back against funding cuts.

Harris pronounced the BBC's lack of such a programme a "disgrace" at the Costa Book of the Year award ceremony in January, saying it was failing to support the books industry which fed it so much material, by comparison with the early 1970s when the prize was launched, and BBC TV sported books programmes hosted by Robert Robinson and Melvyn Bragg. His comments attracted a lot of trade support.

Speaking to The Bookseller for an interview in today's issue of the magazine, for Dictator (Hutchinson), the final volume of his trilogy on Cicero, Harris has revealed that he and Penguin Random House UK c.e.o. Tom Weldon were later called by a "jumpy" BBC to a meeting with its director general Tony Hall.

"They said they would like to do something, both some form of dedicated books programme on the digital channels, but perhaps with some link to, or more of a footprint on, popular television, BBC1. As far as I know, they are thinking about that and trying to do something. I thought there was goodwill, that Tony Hall thought it was something the BBC should do," he said.

"It's exactly what's supposed to make the BBC distinct," Harris added. "A public service broadcaster is important to what it means to be British, and books remain the central force [in that]. I profoundly believe that, and I believe the BBC has to do that. One of the ways the BBC can counter the Tory attack – or whatever you want to call it – is to say, 'Well, we do this [TV books programming]'. It needn't be expensive; you just need two chairs, two microphones, two cameras and a room, and by and large authors are quite good talkers."

"My last novel, An Officer and a Spy, was picked up by a Dutch channel, which has a high-profile [TV] programme with a panel of booksellers. It had a huge impact – it sold about 60,000 copies [in the Netherlands]. We need something like that. We don't need it for writers frankly like me, being given a lot more publicity, but for new writers."

Harris, who spent several years in his twenties as a BBC current affairs reporter before writing his first novel Fatherland, explained that he felt so strongly on the issue because of his childhood experiences. Both parents left school at the age of just 14. "The BBC was a very important part of our growing up; it was where my father learned about books, and it put books into our lives – that, and the library. My father was a printer, a self-taught reader of Graham Greene and Joyce and Arnold Bennett, he left school at 14 but nevertheless through these great institutions like the BBC acquired a culture."  

The writer added that he had had "such a good reaction" to his Costas speech that he wondered about mobilising authors to sign an open letter en masse: "Which is still an option if we don't get anywhere."

The government is undertaking a comprehensive review of the BBC's funding and structure as its approaches its next charter renewal date in 2016. In July's budget, chancellor George Osborne announced the shift of the hefty cost of free licenses for the over-75s back onto the BBC.

Earlier this week Hall outlined new plans for the BBC's future, with new partnerships with arts and science organisations and expansion for the World Service, to be offset by cost-cutting.

Hall said: "The BBC faces a very tough financial challenge, so we will have to manage our resources ever more carefully and prioritise what we believe the BBC should offer. We will inevitably have to either close or reduce some services." said Hall.  

It has been reported that BBC4, which has hosted books programmes including "The Review Show", could be in line for closure.

Strategy chief James Purnell has denied a plan for BBC4's closure, but said: "We are not ruling anything in or out."

Author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has accused Osborne and prime minister David Cameron of "cultural vandalism" in seeking to scale back the BBC, according to a Telegraph report. 

The Publishers Association welcomed the BBC pledge to work in partnership with arts organisations.