University Challenged

‘Newspapers’ like the Daily Mail and the Express get savaged on a routine basis by bloggers, but almost as bad, because of its perceived respectability, is that once-great newspaper The Times. Over the decades since it was bought up by Rupert Murdoch, a paper that is synonymous with quality the world over has become merely a ventriloquist’s dummy, mouthing whatever its owner thinks will best benefit his business.

In particular, it joins in the regular attacks on the BBC, an institution that ‘media’ figures such as Murdoch can’t stand, and it does it more cleverly than the tabloids, and as such more dangerously. Take this article as an example. There are no actual factual errors in it (with one possible exception to be mentioned later) but the impression given, which can be gauged from the readers’ comments at the bottom, is a wholly misleading one.

For those of you who don’t know, University Challenge is a TV program which has been going for over forty-five years (with a break of a few years in the late 80s/early 90s) in which teams of four people, representing universities or colleges (due to an historical quirk Oxford and Cambridge universities are allowed to submit a team for each of their colleges, of which there are several) answer general knowledge questions (older USians may remember a show called College Bowl, with the same format). These questions tend to be on the hard side – I appeared on the show myself, and remember questions on orbital mechanics coming up, as an example – although the students appearing aren’t *quite* as knowledgeable as they appear (long stretches where no-one answers a question are routinely cut from the show as transmitted). In fact it’s probably the most difficult quiz show on TV, by some considerable margin.

I don’t have a TV myself, so can’t vouch for the next bit, but apparently this year one of the teams from Oxford university – the team that went on to win the competition, in fact – had someone who knew rather a lot of the answers on it. As we are, for the first time in history, living in a time with no wars, no imminent environmental danger, no economic crises and no draconian laws being passed, the fact that someone at one of the two or three best universities in the world, who was appearing on a quiz show for people who know quite a lot of things, knew some of the answers was the biggest news story of the last few weeks. Even more amazingly, this student was a woman in her twenties and, by all accounts, looked like a rather pleasant-looking young woman. As this is clearly the most momentous event in human history (second only to the story that someone who was once on a ‘reality TV’ show has cancer, anyway) it has received a lot of coverage in the newspapers.

(It may even have received so much coverage that the documentary first broadcast as Forty Years of University Challenge and later as Forty-Five Years Of University Challenge may be rebroadcast under some pretext as they occasionally do, in which case those of you in the UK who want to know what I look like can watch out for the bearded one impersonating David Aaronovitch in the reconstructions).

However, after the last episode was broadcast, even more momentous news broke. It turned out that one of the people on the team had actually left the university between the start of the contest and the end! Calumnity! Capostrophe! Catachresisclysm! Surely this was the crime of the millennium? The BBC, who broadcast (but, crucially for what follows, do not produce) the show leapt into action, and ‘stripped them of their title’ (whatever that means in this context, given that you win nothing but the satisfaction of winning on this show).

But now, in a daring act of investigative journalism, the Times has exclusively revealed that this has happened in the past – that some teams have had members leave the university in the middle of the series. Now, as it happens, several of the cases involve people who went on to a different university, which as Jennie points out in a slightly different context here is perfectly within the rules, but at least one is a genuine case of the rules being broken.

Now, look at the comments again, and what do you see? A lot of people saying what the BBC should do, or talking about how the BBC should have done something or other differently. They’re doing this because they got the clear impression that the BBC had something to do with the making of the programme.

They didn’t.

University Challenge is, and always has been, made by Granada TV, a commercial broadcaster, part of the ITV network. It was originally an ITV show, and Bamber Gascoigne, quoted in the article, presented it on ITV for 25 years. The BBC don’t make the programme, and never have. They broadcast it, after it’s produced by the independent company. Now, in the article, they do state that Granada produce the programme, but they mention it once, in passing. On the other hand, the BBC are mentioned four times, in the context of ‘responsibility’ and ‘decisions’, including being the last two words in the article.

So a quiz team tell Granada they’re eligible when they’re not. Then Granada don’t bother to check this. But it’s the BBC, who merely broadcast the finished product, who are at fault – to the extent that anyone’s ‘at fault’ given that no-one would have cared in the slightest (as can be proved by the other examples in the Times article) had a *different* member of the team not been extremely good.

I look forward to next week’s story about how the BBC cause cancer.

(Incidentally, I was planning to write another post today, as well, about Watchmen, but this took *four hours* to post, thanks to TalkTalk’s incredibly crappy ‘broadband’ ‘service’. See Andrew Rilstone’s most recent post – does anyone know of a *good* broadband/phone provider (ie not BT (and see today’s Daily Mash for more on them), TalkTalk or Virgin) in the UK? Don’t expect much from me until TalkTalk manage to get a) my ‘phone line and b) their DNS servers sorted out…)

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1 Response to University Challenged

  1. Jennie says:

    Your choices are Virgin or BT, really, given that all the others are using BT as a carrier, and therefore are subject to the vagaries of the BT system. I’d go with Virgin myself.

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