My dear BBC,
“Magical” is a word your correspondents have overused in recent days as they’ve struggled, and most often failed, to contain their excitement at Team GB’s golden streak. “It’s going to be a glorious, glorious win. Oh yes! Oh YES!,” screamed your trackside commentator, as Mo Farah crossed the finish line to clinch the 10,000m race. In the studio, your pundits erupted in joy. At the climax of the sprint cycling finals, one of your reporters, so overwrought his voice crackled with emotion, informed viewers that 24-year-old Jason Kenny, overtaking French rival Grégory Baugé to win, was “quite literally on fire.” And when Team GB bestrode the podium to collect Britain’s first-ever gold medal for dressage, and the opening notes of the national anthem sounded, your man on the scene made the following declaration, his voice strangely choked: “I make no apology; we are going to sing.”
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So it has gone, and so it will go until Sunday’s final events: every British win celebrated extravagantly; every loss mourned like a family bereavement. My colleagues, over from the United States to cover the Games, are puzzled. “And they call Americans jingoistic and sentimental? U.S. journalists would never openly root for the home team,” said one. I don’t know what to tell them. The impartiality that you bring to domestic politics and international affairs seems almost entirely absent from your Olympics reporting, even if a BBC spokeswoman insists “we pride ourselves on our balance and objectivity.” She adds that “as a national broadcaster, we’re trying to reflect the mood of the nation.” These apparently contradictory aims combine, says the spokes, to produce “measured actuality.” I’d call it “love, actually.” And let’s be clear: you aren’t just reflecting the mood of the nation—you’re amplifying it.
Your coverage is all the more engaging for that. In your handling of live events, news or sports, the BBC usually offers a window on events so transparent and unadorned that we look through you, rather than stopping to admire your work. Your critics will of course disagree vigorously on this point; they accuse you of showing us the world through a filter of soupy liberalism. Examine the BBC’s output and you’ll find material to support that view but much more to sustain your claims of balance and objectivity, even if there’s at least a touch of Enlightenment thinking in the Charter that defines your “public purposes” as including “sustaining citizenship and civil society,” “promoting education and learning,” and “stimulating creativity and cultural excellence.” You’re also tasked in the Charter with “representing the U.K., its nations, regions and communities” and “bringing the U.K. to the world and the world to the U.K.” Well, you’re certainly doing that with bells and whistles during London 2012.
And that’s not only in cheerleading for the U.K but because you are one of the U.K.’s core institutions and one of its greatest cultural exports and exporters. National broadcasters in many countries are modeled on you; some of their top staff gained their experience with you. Your programs and formats are enjoyed globally. Like Scotland Yard, you represent an international gold standard for what you do, and controversies at home rarely filter through to your admirers overseas. They just wish they had a service of such high quality to complain about.
During the Games’ opening ceremony, your cameras cut away from the march of the Olympians to catch the Queen unawares, apparently bored and staring at her nails. Brits excoriated you for that. Imagine if they had been forced to put up with the iniquities visited on NBC‘s viewers—delays, cuts, the unintentional comedy that erupted when its presenters failed to recognize World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. And the commercial breaks. All those breaks.
Your performance hasn’t been fault-free. There have been moments of national coitus interruptus, as your editors have withdrawn without warning from scenes of high drama to bestow their affections elsewhere. But you’ve also provided live online coverage for all events after the preliminary stages, with illuminating data and useful commentary. Indeed, when your people aren’t too breathless to speak, they’ve been expert and aimiable guides to the proceedings, and for all their open partiality, are unstinting in their praise for the athletes of competitor nations. (Unless, of course, they suspect someone of unfair tactics directed against a member of Team GB. After cyclist Victoria Pendleton was penalized for straying out of her lane during the sprint, the BBC’s commentator called the decision “very, very unjust,” blaming Pendleton’s fault on her Australian rival Anna Meares. “You have to just elbow your competitor and you win.”)
London 2012 has been the best-ever Olympics for women, the first with female competitors representing all countries but for the world’s smallest republic, Nauru, and women’s contests generating at least as many edge-of-the-seat thrills as the men’s events. This has also been the best-ever Olympics for women at the BBC, with some of your finest women presenters given key roles. Among British women to emerge from the Games as national treasures will be not only sports stars such as Jessica Ennis, Pendleton, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell, but also your very own Clare Balding, never less than informed and informative, the televisual personification of your own affectionate nickname, Auntie Beeb. Your departing Director General Mark Thompson has admitted that there are too few Clare Baldings gracing the BBC or, as he put it in this mea culpa for the Daily Mail, “manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC, especially in iconic roles and on iconic topical programmes.” His (male) successor could do worse than to start his tenure by signing up Balding and the rest of the London 2012 team for Rio 2016.
The Games are drawing to a close and it’s tempting to try to get to as many live events as possible. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have press accreditation that secures ringside seats and a special pink Oyster card that enables free travel to venues. But even as I’ve taken my place in the Olympic Stadium, there’s been a niggling sense that the best views are from my armchair. Dear BBC, you’re even better than the real thing.