What lies behind the Guardian’s BBC classical attack

What lies behind the Guardian’s BBC classical attack


norman lebrecht

July 09, 2019

Chief classical critic Richard Morrison in today’s Times leaps to the defence of the BBC, which the Guardian accused in an editorial of dumbing down and poshing up the Proms.

…it’s hard to feel anything but dismay at the anonymous editorial published last Thursday, and the butt of social-media scorn ever since. Headlined “The Guardian view on classical music”, it trashes almost every current manifestation of the artform. The Proms are apparently “a magnet for conspicuous consumption” for rich people, providing “status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts”. Classical music is lambasted for “rejecting innovation”, its audiences unwilling to “expose themselves to the shock of the new”. Oh, and there’s the obligatory dismissal of “Beethoven and other dead white males”.

Yes, but.

What lies behind the summer tiff is more than just an uprising of Guardian Corbynistas against a Blairite BBC whose classical boss and his radio chief once loyally served a Labour Government.

The background is a little more interesting. Under its previous editor Alan Rusbridger, a capable pianist, the Guardian was the go-to paper for classical news and views. Since his retirement to an Oxford sinecure, the paper has relegated classical music to roughly the same degree of attention it accords to classical archaeology. Although it still employs a classical music editor, it has been aeons since the Guardian last broke a music story or ran an eye-catching feature or interview. The paper has no chief critic and a diminished classical profile.

Againist this backdrop of decline, it is understandable that the paper should publish an uncomprehending editorial decrying the falling standards for classical music at the BBC.

Which is not to say the editorial is entirely wrong. The BBC has dumbed down horribly in a futile pursuit of young listeners for Radio 3, which has lost a fifth of its audience in two years. It has franchised the Proms to all sorts of BBC-brand attractions and it is replacing knowledgeable presenters with unimpartial performers. The BBC, like the Guardian, has drifted way off course. The Guardian, on the other hand, has no moral ground from which to attack it.

This is a skirmish at sea between two sinking skiffs.

It has probably gained the Guardian more classical readers than it has seen all year.


  • Will Duffay says:

    The Guardian is actually doing very well, financially and journalistically. But the new editor definitely has it in for Classical music. There’s all the gender stuff, which is undeniable and very quickly improving.

    But charges of elitism are stupid and wrong, and surely come from somebody who has absolutely no ear for music nor understanding of it.

    It’s the age-old confusion of the music with the traditional audience. Beethoven’s glories should not be conflated with stuffy old audiences in the shires. And of course, the ‘elitism’ stuff is just reinforced when the left prioritises urban and ‘youth’ musics, leaving classical to the market, which means leaving it a preserve of the wealthy.

    • Andy says:

      I’m never quite sure I understand the ‘preserve of the wealthy’ issue…….last time I went to see Guns N Roses it cost £95. I saw Martha Argerich in January for £30 (and could have paid less).

      • Will Duffay says:

        Absolutely true!! Very good point. I guess the big difference is that learning an instrument is very much a middle-class/wealthy activity, once one gets beyond a certain point. There might be some initial all-class tuition for free, followed up by some subsidised lessons, but to get anywhere on an instrument requires cash for lessons and the actual instrument. Plus orchestral courses because school music is so poor. It all adds up.

        • John Sorel says:

          [[ the big difference is that learning an instrument is very much a middle-class/wealthy activity, once one gets beyond a certain point ]]

          Perhaps it is – in Bozo’s Britain, Will. Not everywhere is so mercantile, nor with such mediocre results.


          • Robin Smith says:

            Vast numbers of people aged 18 + incur £10,000 + of debt per year in pursuit of their interests at University………………..

          • John Sorel says:

            In the 1970s-80s, local councils – in London, where I taught for 2 years – provided completely free individual tuition on most orchestral (and non-orchestral) instruments, as well as loaning workable budget-grade instruments to kids. The investment varied – a cheap Chinese violin kit was not a big deal, whereas a decent German bassoon was a lot of money. Parents were obliged to sign a safe-leeping agreement. Lessons were offered on the basis of annual progress-checking. Talented kids could get lessons on two instruments – for example, violin and piano. No means-testing was involved – the lessons were free to all who could show they appreciated them. Two of the peripatetic teachers who visited my school were from the ENO orchestra, another from the ROH.

            ‘El Systema”? The UK had it all, in the 1970s! The young Simon Rattle earned his spurs with the London Schools Sympony Orchestra. The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (aka ‘the other LSSO’) were probably even better?

            ‘Elitist’?? Give me more of this kind of elitism, please. All it takes the will, and the resources. And State School kids from all backgrounds can do this:


            I’ve heard pro orchestras fare worse with the Glinka 😉

      • Dennis says:

        Indeed. I’ve usually paid less for tickets to the local symphony orchestra than I have for rock concerts over the last few years.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          The musicians at pop concerts these days, if they are British, also usually went to public school. Pop music is far more socially exclusive than classical music (check out the audience at Glastonbury compared to the Proms).

    • John Sorel says:

      [[ actually doing very well, financially and journalistically ]]

      Indeed so. Mr Stoltenberg recently sent them the Order of Quisling for unswerving faithfulness in printing NATO Press Releases verbatim, and a ‘Keep Up The Good Work’ message. Timmy Garbage-Trash (apparently now a ‘historian’) was singled-out for special praise.

  • n nescio says:

    Yes, well… the Guardian of BBC is able to provide comical political theatre on every page to those unfortunate enough to still read it. “Please, subscribe”. What a joke. Sad.

  • Nik says:

    “Richard Morrison … leaps to the defence of the BBC”
    I don’t get that from his article at all. He doesn’t even mention the BBC.

    • christopher storey says:

      I should read it again, Nik . You may not know that the Proms are run by the BBC, but rather a lot of other people do know that

      • Nik says:

        Maybe you should read it again, and keep your patronising bilge to yourself.
        Morrison took the Guardian article as an attack on the classical music world in general (which it was), not on the BBC, and responded in that vein.

    • John Sorel says:

      All Brits leap to the defence of the BBC. They are programmed to do so, like Pavlov’s dogs.

    • karen lybia says:

      Surely that is unsurprising – the Times loyally follows the Murdoch line of attacking the BBC whenever possible. Morrison has an employer to beware of.

  • David says:

    ‘Guardian Corbynistas’?

    The Guardian is avowedly anti-Corbyn. I’m surprised you could get this so wrong.

  • laurie says:

    The Guardian – populated by hypocrites. Most of the writers/editors went to public school. See below.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      I thought the difference between the Telegraph and the Guardian is that the Telegraph writers revelled in their superiority arising from their private education while the Guardian writers are ashamed of their superiority. Both like making sure the plebs know their place.

  • Jon says:

    I don’t really see how the Guardian gets to bashing classical events for ‘conspicuous consumption’? I go to a small number of concerts each year and thanks to the generosity of a dear friend go to Glyndebourne as well. I doubt any of that costs as much as a single ticket for the Rolling Stones or Radiohead. Or Manchester United for that matter. Ticket prices will always attract posers, and always have (the premiere of Gloriania for instance).
    Previously, when the Guardian still had an arts function at all, one Paul Morley (an NME firebrand back in the day) made a very true point that ‘rock music’ is now a heritage industry and that the real forefront is classical.
    As for El Corby – well he is not a total philistine, being on record as listening to Beethoven’s 5th. That said I doubt he bops along to the Credo from the B Minor mass while chopping the vegetables for supper.
    Radio 3 is a bit sad – too much blather, too much ‘context’, sadly I can no longer go there at those times when you just want to listen to a string quartet.

  • Robin Smith says:

    For what it’s worth I’ve asked both Tim Ashley and Martin Kettle (both Guardian journalists Norman probably knows) who wrote the editorial “The Guardian view on classical music; art or status symbol”. Neither have responded to date but I’ll post their response when they do. They both have active twitter accounts.

  • Nik says:

    James McMillan’s take. He doesn’t “leap to the defence of the BBC” either, just music in general.