Britain and America are “two countries divided by a common language,” according to a statement often attributed to George Bernard Shaw. (It was probably Oscar Wilde, who said: “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language”).
That must be the reason for our differing definitions of the word “culture,” as illustrated by statements made by UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale this week.
First of all, the fact that the British have an official government position called “Culture Secretary” probably strikes many Americans as hilarious, since we would never in a million years imagine culture as an area needing supervision. And many Britons would doubtless respond: “What culture?”
Beyond that, if such a post existed in America, this implausible “Culture Secretary” would probably do things like mount an obviously futile campaign to get people to read online news, books, magazines, newspapers the back of a cereal box -- anything really -- to combat the rampant illiteracy, ignorance and philistinism of a country whose inhabitants failed to demand summary capital punishment for the stars of “Jersey Shore.”
In the UK by contrast, the Culture Secretary apparently wants people to read less online news. I repeat, it seems British people are reading too much online news. That’s the only possible explanation for Whittingdale’s statement that the BBC should get out of the business of publishing written news and stick to video.
Okay, technically Whittingdale said the BBC’s publishing of long-form text journalism presented unfair competition to British newspapers, but actually that just makes it even more bizarre.
Is the British government going to actively limit the amount of information available to its citizens out of concern for the well being of a business that includes some of the world’s most regrettable tabloids?
The answer, it seems, is yes.
According to Whittingdale’s interview on BBC 4, “There is a strong case for the BBC to look at online provision and say, ‘Is this simply making available the kind of provision we have traditionally done on the broadcast media – following the viewers online and providing them with the same service? That seems to me entirely sensible. But if they are going to go beyond that and provide news content that looks like newspapers’ – that’s where I think newspapers are entitled to express concern.”
It’s true that the BBC has some unfair advantages, including its position as a government-funded media entity that collects license fees from every TV household in the country.
In fact, the government originally created the BBC (then the British Broadcasting Company) in 1922 to provide an independent source of news besides the powerful British newspapers, which resisted the rise of radio news for obvious commercial reasons.
However, the newspaper publishers soon realized that radio (and later TV) distribution could actually increase demand for their own products as well — and began contributing their content to the BBC voluntarily.
Now things have come full circle, it seems, with the BBC competing with newspapers on their own turf.
But the fact is the boundaries are blurring in both directions: Every major British newspaper is distributing video, once the exclusive domain of the BBC. Last month, local newspapers demanded access to the BBC content to bolster their own online regional news coverage.
In this context, booting the BBC out of text publishing seems a little, how shall we say, unsportsmanlike.