Last night BBC staff and musicians alike assembled at Portcullis House to back UK Music’s Let it Beeb campaign. As guests including Lord Hall, Sandie Shaw and Anneka Rice raised a glass to the campaign which aims to protect BBC music services from the threat of charter renewal, MPs including Ed Vaizey and Jess Phillips made sure they didn’t miss the chance for a celebrity selfie.
It then fell on organisers to urge everyone in the room to sign their petition calling on the government to ‘protect vital BBC music services from any budgetary cuts during the charter renewal process’. With that in mind, they made sure that John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, was in the audience to hear their pleas. He watched on as Tony Hall spoke about the importance of BBC music, while messages from celebrity supporters flashed up on the screen including a quote from Sir Bob Geldof telling the government to ‘f— off’. Jake Bugg — whose career was boosted by the BBC — then performed a song from his new album.
Feeling suitably invigorated by the speeches, Whittingdale decided to take to the stage to give his own impromptu speech in which he said that that while he hadn’t yet seen the petition, he thought he would be ‘very willing to sign it’. However, he then turned the tables on the corporation, letting it be known that while he supported BBC music — and saw Radio 1, Radio 2, and Radio 3 as vital — he thought that the BBC could actually do more themselves to support the music industry. He said that one of his main criticisms of the BBC ‘is that they don’t do enough for music’:
‘I want the BBC to go on providing services like Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 – all of which cater for tastes which are not served by the commercial sector. In some ways, actually, my criticism of the BBC is that they don’t do enough for music. Radio is very well served but [on] TV, I’d actually like to see a bit more.’
When Mr S spotted Whittingdale after the speech, he was being taken to task by a woman who works at the BBC over his criticism of the lack of music shows. Once she had finished, Whittingdale explained to Steerpike why he had decided to get up on stage:
‘I had no intention of saying anything at all but I hear them saying ‘save music on the BBC’ and nobody is suggesting that we will not. All I can say is I remember that there used to be primetime big music shows on the BBC but there isn’t that now, that showcase that there used to be and I’d like to see that back — shows like Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. I can’t tell them what to do though, that speech was completely off piste.’
With feathers suitably ruffled in the room, shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher couldn’t resist taking a swipe at Whittingdale. He told Mr S that while the Culture Secretary had said he would sign the petition, he was not sure he knew what he had agreed to sign:
‘I’m really pleased that the Culture Secretary might consider signing something that is diametrically opposed to his own policy at the moment. If all it takes is two glasses of white wine and Jake Bugg playing a song off his new album, then I think we should have one of these every week.’
Somehow Mr S suspects Whittingdale will have something to say about that.
The Spectator is holding a discussion ‘Is the BBC really a national treasure?’ at 7.30 p.m. on Wednesday 18 November at Church House, SW1. Chairing the discussion will be Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.