Is this what we'll be paying for?

The point of digital is to enhance consumer choice; so why should the BBC receive special subsidy?
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THE NATION'S foremost smoothiechops, Des Lynam, could not have timed his departure from the BBC better for maximum disruption. To judge by the outcry, you would think that the entire stock of ravens had left the Tower of London. "No individual is bigger than the BBC," said a spokesman, with the routine pomposity we expect from the outfit's public pronouncements. Des was wickedly caricatured by Rory Bremner for being self-regarding. He is a mere amateur in the smug stakes compared with the Corporation's senior management, whose claims of the BBC's superiority bear only tenuous connection to the reality of what it puts on our screens night after night.

What is the BBC, or rather, what is it becoming? It has shed its sports coverage like confetti: first live football, then the Formula One, the FA cup and test cricket. Des's taking his diamond-patterned jumpers and Gin-and-Jag pre-match sex appeal off to ITV is the coup de grace. They think it's all over - it soon will be at this rate.

Never mind: there's the public -service broadcaster role, the provision of "excellence in all areas", as the Head of Corporate Affairs reminds us at the slightest provocation. Er, yes, well. Last night's excellence in all areas included scheduling Vets in Practice on BBC1 at exactly the same time as a BBC2 programme about an RSPCA inspector. A deadening homogenization has transformed documentaries into docusoaps. Their defenders tell us that the study of everyday life is just as important as explaining quantum theory. But this stuff contributes little of anything to our understanding of the way we live now. Docusoaps are the equivalent of the budgie's mirror - the creature stares and stares at itself, yet learns nothing. .

Programme-makers themselves are increasingly fed up with the drive to come up with another six-parter on fat girls getting drunk and snogging boys on a night out in northern towns. When I talk to friends in the business, they sigh and say longing things like, "the wheel will turn back again - they'll go back to programmes which tell people how the world really works".

Wishful thinking. The concentration on the banal is overwhelming. Were it not for the fact that the patients are less furry, you'd be hard pushed to tell the difference between Maternity - the BBC2 fly-on-the-wall about having babies - and Vets in Practice. Both treat their subject matter with a bland and rosy hue, accentuating the cute and cheerful at the expense of any real engagement with the harsher dilemmas. The direction is flat and the commentaries seem to have been written for slightly dull eight year olds.

Before last night's watershed, BBC1 offered yet another documentary about getting married (you'd think people would have it the hang of it by now), while BBC2 gave us the parody of a cookery programme with that berk Ainsley Harriott flambe-ing something on a mountain side. Meanwhile, BBC1 launched a new series - Soldiers to Be. Is it just me, or have we all watched enough 16-year-olds struggling with assault courses, being bawled at by Sergeant Majors, and missing their mums not to urgently need another batch? A single informative offering - Tobacco Wars, on the battles about smoking - merited the description of quality public-service broadcasting. Everything else was pappy, ratings-driven fare which might just as well have been on commercial television. That leaves the Nine O'clock News and Newsnight as the remaining raisons d'etre for the licence fee. It is beginning to look like an expensive deal. Political programming is in abject shape, shunted to the graveyard shift with tired agenda and no obvious central impetus to invent new formulae or make the existing ones any more appealing. The amount of scrutiny we accord the powerful is diminishing.

This week Gavyn Davies and his Government committee report on the future of the BBC's funding. The plan is to impose an extra flat digital fee of up to pounds 30 for digital subscribers in order to allow the BBC to keep pace with the "broadcasting revolution". Mr Davies and his committee were asked by the Government to redress the anomaly by which existing licence payers help fund the BBC's expansion into cable channels like BBC Choice and News 24, which the majority of them do not watch. Mr Davies rightly started from the "user pays" principle and recommended that only digital users should pay the top-up. But this state of affairs is only likely to last some five years, since the wholesale transition from analogue to digital delivery is expected to come in the next decade.

The very point of digital is to enhance consumer choice. So why should the BBC receive special subsidy? News 24 competes directly with Sky News. Why should one be funded by levy and the other not? Let the BBC privatize its non-core services and raise money to pursue its market aims like any other commercial outfit. If the Government accepts the recommendations - and the signs are that it will - it is conniving in a back-door increase to the licence fee without devoting enough critical attention to what we are paying for.

The Corporation is behaving like an ungainly hybrid. It affects the language of the market and the private sector's desire to expand. At the same time, it demands protection from the harsher winds of competition, with too few questions asked about what it delivers that the market would not readily provide elsewhere. For an institution supp- osedly free of advertising, it plugs itself remorselessly, its glutinous self-recommendations overlaid with the spurious message, "You make it what it is", which suggests that our contribution is voluntary. It is not. If we refuse to fork out our pounds 101 towards making it what it is, we end up in court. Some bargain.

Neither is it above using the airwaves to lobby in its own interests. For the second time in some six months, Newsnight last week devoted the whole programme to a mind-numbing discussion on the future of digital. Naturally, a couple of dissenters from the commercial sector were allowed to put their objection. Equally naturally, the net message of the programme was that the licence-fee hike for digital investment was a good thing. Why else was the programme allowed to be hijacked in this way? I don't think it is what the Friday-night viewers were clamouring for.

The pervasive unreality of this debate stems from the fact that everyone knows the times are a-changing, and that this is the last throw for the current model of BBC funding. Greg Dyke, with his broad private-sector experience, surely realises that. He must end the Corporation's reluctance to adapt to changing conditions. Pretty soon, people will ask why, in the digital age, they are paying for channels they don't watch, while paying subscriptions for the channels they do. The main advantage of the licence fee is to exempt a quality broadcaster from the pressures of competition and enable it to provide services the unfettered market would not sustain alone. To let go of that principle would impoverish, not expand, our viewing horizons.

"What kind of BBC does the country want and deserve?" the BBC Chairman Christopher Bland has asked: "What kind of BBC should it be funding?"

My short answer is that a civilized country can and should be prepared to subsidize a public-service broadcaster committed to providing high- quality core coverage of news, current affairs, the arts and documentaries.

It should be an archive of the nation and a vital part of our identity and our memory. To uphold these aims demands an intellectual self-confidence, immune to the whims of fashion and the markets. Unless enough people who share this vision of the BBC's future make their voices heard, we will lose the remnants of a great service. It is scant compensation to be left with a forum on which we watch ourselves washing the car and taking the cat to be spayed.