Please sir, can I have some more?

It wasn't a nice week to be at the BBC. But Alan Yentob insists that if we love the Beeb we must pay for it
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The Independent Culture
Every morning, in a cubby-hole off one of the drab corridors that snake through the BBC Television Centre in White City, a heavy slab of paper is placed on the glass desk in Alan Yentob's office. It's a digest of the day's press cuttings, and it lands with a thud that would make most chief executives quiver with envy. Until they read the contents. If no news is good news, then this much news must be bad news. These days a BBC chief must feel a bit like the last coconut in the shy. The papers take aim on contrary grounds. One day the BBC is stuffy and elitist; the next it has been hi-jacked by vulgarians. One minute it is full of establishment clots; the next it is in the hot grip of wannabe populists; first it's run by pinko idlers, then it's under the thumb of ruthless bottom-line thugs; one day they're fat-cats, at other times they're weeds. Even at the best of times the BBC can't win; and this is not the best of times.

Last week's file made for especially bitter reading. Channel 4 had carried off Test cricket (boo); Sky had swooped on the Oscar ceremonies and handed them to the former BBC luminary Barry Norman (hiss); and a Blue Peter presenter had been lynched for drug-taking (Gotcha!) by people who had likely taken the occasional fun-enhancer themselves. There were noisy rumblings from Radio 4 (what is radio for?). And there were strikes by BBC staff, which sabotaged schedules and contributed to the general air of disarray. A busy week.

Front page headlines denounced the BBC as "arrogant and lazy"; editors got on the phone to their cartoonists. Most went along with the idea that it was ludicrous to withhold pounds 10m from cricket when the BBC was spending pounds 30m on an "obscure" news channel nobody watched. Most felt that the BBC was a silly old buffer on its last legs. The Sun called it "Beeb's darkest day" and asked: "Is the corporation doomed in its current form?"

We hardly need to have our attention drawn yet again to the sharpness of the vested interest behind such comments. Cricket fans love cricket; but many others fiercely resent the time the BBC used to devote to it. And the Sun is only the shrillest of the weapons Rupert Murdoch brings to bear in the tussle to privatise broadcasting. In any case, all these complaints have a classical inevitability: it isn't hard to imagine the whingeing that might have followed a BBC decision to throw another pounds 10m of "our" precious licence fees at a dwindling, John Majorish game like cricket. If the BBC bid had been accepted, the Sun would probably have called it a typical middle-class stitch-up between MCC types.

So it is not surprising that all these criticisms bring a slightly plaintive rasp to Alan Yentob's voice. He has been Controller of BBC1 and BBC2, and is now "Director of Programming" - BBC-speak for a job that presides over the entire output of BBC Television. He is tired of pointing out that a subscription to the BBC through the licence fee costs no more, say, than a subscription to the Times.

"Yes, the cricket is a sad loss," he said. "But we made a decent bid. And we have to be realistic. Since 1990 the cost of broadcasting cricket has risen by 700 per cent. We were offering a significant increase - 40 per cent - over the previous contract. But the cricket board decided that the grass was greener elsewhere. They want younger, trendier cricket lovers, and if that involves putting off people who liked it the way it was, well.... On Saturdays Channel 4 will put it on digital, which to my mind is absolutely bonkers.''

Is it the case, then, that the licence fee needs to be increased? "Yes. That is something the BBC has been asking for recently."

So far as Yentob is concerned, last week was bad, but not untypical. "I do think that there's a lot of confusion," he said. "It's a very difficult landscape in television at the moment. People are walking past posters promising lots of new channels all over the place, and there's a sense that everything is changing, that this is some kind of Armageddon for broadcasting. People are understandably confused about what's happening. And I think they sometimes underestimate just how much they get out of the BBC, how much they get for their licence fee. People complain, I know. And there are people who are under-served by us. That's why we've put so much emphasis on getting to know the audience better. We've talked about the so-called 'hundred tribes', and that's a way of acknowledging that there are new and different communities of interest out there, which need to be reached in new and different ways."

If this sounds like guff or hot air, then the BBC really is in trouble. Yentob is a Reithian. He admits that the BBC has in the past been stodgy. But in a recent BAFTA Lecture he spoke sentimentally about the role television played in his own Didsbury childhood ("My family's television set opened up the world for me") and he continues to carry a torch for the idea of a universal broadcaster aiming to lift horizons, not lower them.

The decisive moment in his own career came in 1982. He was knocking around America with a film crew for several weeks in search of Orson Welles. One day they heard a familiar voice on the phone telling them to fly to Las Vegas immediately. They did so. Then they settled in for what they expected would be a long and perhaps fruitless wait. Yentob went to the suite Welles had instructed them to hire and drew the curtains. Behind him he heard a noise. "I turned. I almost heard the zither music from The Third Man. There - sitting by a small bar, swapping magic tricks with the bell-boy - was Orson Welles. And for the next ten hours he generously and spell-bindingly told us the story of his life."

Yentob has always been quick to attribute his good fortune back then (and this film has turned out to be his own Rosebud) to the BBC's roomy and flexible approach to production at that time. "I don't think any other broadcaster in the world," he told the BAFTA audience, "would have indulged us to this extent. Nor, at a few weeks notice, would they have cleared three hours in the schedule to put the film on." But he is happy now to assert that this was a double-edged blessing. "A producer had the right to fail," he says now, "but also, I'm sorry to say, the right to be a failure. There were huge freedoms, but we were remarkably complacent. We had to start finding out how much programmes actually cost to make. Don't forget, Match of the Day costs as much as Pride and Prejudice, and the whole point of the BBC is that we need to do both."

But could a film like that Orson Welles interview be made today? Would Yentob himself, as a controller of programmes and budgets, tolerate the thought of two cocky young would-be intellectuals flying round America and booking suites in Las Vegas hotels on the off chance of an interview with an out-of-fashion actor? Would he sign their expenses? It doesn't seem too likely, but Yentob is quick to insist that excellence remains the heart of the BBC's endeavour and purpose.

"Look," he said. "When people talk about things not being what they were, I have to say: who else would spend three years making Attenborough's new series on birds? Or The Cold War? Or The Death of Yugoslavia? That was a brave response to an incredibly complicated situation. And you may say that only a million people watched it, but that means there were a million people in this country better informed. Who else would have risked the audience on Radio One because we wanted to try something new. We can do these things because we are independent; our loyalty is to viewers, not shareholders. We have a duty to be complained about."

Yentob can sound militant in his defence of the idea of the BBC's traditional ideology. "There's no doubt that in the Thatcher years there was an antagonistic atmosphere. She was never a fan of the BBC, to put it mildly, and she underestimated the value of broadcasting and how important it has been for British life. But look. Musical life in Britain would be different if the BBC wasn't there. The life of theatre would be different. Popular music wouldn't be the same, either. There are so many areas of life where the BBC has contributed."

This is true. But the problem at the moment - the challenge, if you prefer - is fragmentation. It takes several forms. There is the digital revolution, which will dilute the BBC's automatic claim on our eyes and ears. There is the tussle over the electronic gateway into our homes (if the BBC is not there to open the door, then it may slam shut in its face). And there is the rush to devolve power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Is there a West Lothian question for the BBC? Will it one day be the EBC? Can the BBC remain a universal player in people's lives, or will it become just the snooker room, a dusty place to listen to a Prom in peace?

Yentob believes that it can remain a vigorous and central force. He is enthusiastic about digital channels ("they're the nursery slopes - they expand the pool of talent") and insists that everything is geared to enhancing the quality of BBC programming. But banging the drum he sounds almost cautious. "It's not enough any more to say, although I think it was a brilliant phrase, that we're there to educate, entertain and inform. But clearly what we're all about - the pursuit of excellence, you know... and not just paying lip service to innovation but making innovation part of everything we do - is having a commitment to the creative life of Britain. Safeguarding the national culture. It all sounds so pompous when you say it. But the BBC's aspiration has to have something to do with enriching people's experience and improving the quality of life. And that means everybody."

Sentiments like these can easily be caricatured as head-in-the-clouds foolishness. So Yentob laces his more idealistic remarks with focus-group chatter about "core services", "managing the asset" and "developing the brand". It's a pity. But it takes nerve to carry on talking like this at a time when everyone is sniggering about a drug-bust on Blue Peter, or at a rancid one-liner by Chris Evans. The bottom-line, as Yentob knows as well as anyone, is that the BBC could keep the cricket and whatever else it wanted if we, the licence-fee payers, coughed up more money. Is that what we want? Which politicians will support it? We sneer at the BBC for lacking the funds to win arm-wrestling matches over games. But just imagine the sport we'll have when they have the temerity to ask, please sir, for more.