Leading Article: Mr Dyke, the survival of the BBC depends on your success

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The Independent Culture
GREG DYKE starts work as BBC director general designate today. As soon as he has found out where the Gents is, and how to get an outside line, he must begin on one of the biggest tasks in public life: saving the BBC as a public service broadcaster.

But hold on: has John Birt not done that already? He was made the BBC's number two a decade ago, and immediately began a campaign of journalistic invigoration and managerial cost-cutting that held off the ideological threat of privatisation. But by the time he became DG, Margaret Thatcher was gone and his reforms, however sound their rationale, soon lost their way in a pea soup of business-school jargon.

But the fall of Mrs Thatcher was never enough, by itself, to destroy the intellectual case for privatisation. So long as television was dominated by four or five "free-to-receive" channels and, to a lesser extent, a limited number of radio stations, the case for a publicly-owned but independent broadcaster was fairly easy to make.

But, over the next few years with Mr Dyke in charge, everything will change. Indeed change is already well under way, but has yet to work through in various predictable and unpredictable ways. Digital TV effectively will remove the limit on the number of channels the basic TV set can receive, while the Internet gives a wholly new medium of communication. The BBC starts the digital age with a big, but rapidly diminishing, advantage as an existing broadcaster. It has already established itself, with remarkable adriotness for a supposedly sclerotic public corporation, as one of the biggest and most trusted news and information providers on the Net.

But both of these innovations have been funded by licence-payers, most of whom can't (yet) enjoy them. Mr Dyke's first challenge, then, is to sort out future BBC funding - knowing only that a higher digital TV licence fee is a step in the wrong direction.

The BBC can only stay funded throughthe State if it can prove that it can do things that no-one else can. Now's not a bad time for the BBC to make that case. BBC Online, Walking With Dinosaurs and other outstanding recent documentaries testify to the creative spirit that comes and goes in waves, as in any good creative milieu.

But Mr Dyke will be better able to make that case if the Government helps the BBC by changing the structure of the board of governors. What company facing a period of technological change of this scale would choose to meet it with a board of quango-hoppers, trade unionists and disappointed diplomats? The BBC needs people there who know about technology: it should have Howard Stringer from Sony or some of the young Internet entrepreneurs.

There is one further aspect of the Birt legacy that needs to be dealt with first, and that is the lingering presence at the BBC of Mr Birt himself, waiting until March next year till he collects his unjustifiably large, early pension. Of all people, he should understand the stupidity of a hand-over period at the top of an organisation about to enter a phase of challenging change. For two years, he had to share power with Michael Checkland, while he waited to succeed him as DG. No efficient organisation should change its leadership that way. Mr Birt should do the decent thing and bow out now, and let Mr Dyke get on with it.

It is not just Mr Dyke's reputation that hangs on his success, but the proud 77-year tradition of publicly-funded public service broadcasting in this country.

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