Podium; The BBC has too little influence

From a speech by the former chairman of the BBC in the House of Lords
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The Independent Culture
THE FUTURE of public service broadcasting lies first in the hands of Parliament but also in the conduct of the BBC by its governors and managers.

In my first week, I was challenged to define my objective. I replied that it was to leave the BBC complete with its channels and its licence fee intact. At the time that was thought to be a very unlikely prospect.

The general view was that we would lose several channels. In the event we retained them all and the licence fee and, at the same time, strengthened the power of the governors, though you might not have noticed it.

The BBC is still a marvellous organisation. It still puts out great programmes on radio and television, but I do not think that it has got its strategy right. We face the prospect of 200 or perhaps 500 competitive channels and the onset of digital broadcasting.

I firmly believe that the BBC's response should be not to expand its empire at the licence payers' expense but to concentrate on its mainstream channels and invest in them. When I joined the BBC, Lord Annan told me that the BBC's problem was not that it wanted to do what everyone else did but that it wanted to do more of what everyone else did, and the situation does not seem much to have changed.

Michael Checkland and John Birt, under pressure from the governors, made great administrative reforms, saved large sums of money and radically improved efficiency, for which they both deserve great credit. But there is still a lot of money about.

The licence fee brings in pounds 2bn a year. When I left the BBC (and I have checked this), there was pounds 250m in cash from savings unspent, pounds 200m was given as an uplift to the licence fee for the introduction of digital television and a further pounds 240m from the sale of transmission. That totals pounds 690m pounds, which is a lot of money. What has happened to it?

If there is a shortage of money it is not difficult to see what should be done. There is too much bureaucracy, over-bloated policy units, and too much spent on expansion and management.

The money should go on what the licence payer can see or hear, on those mainstream channels which won for the BBC its acknowledged reputation as the finest broadcaster in the world. It is alleged that "News 24" costs pounds 30m. That is an enormous amount of money, yet no one could find pounds 4m for the Test Matches, now lost, together with the cup final, the grand prix and England at Twickenham.

The BBC is a national broadcaster, where people expect to see and hear the big events. It would be a great mistake to ask for a licence fee increase higher than the cost of living and might incur considerable resentment. So far as I can see, the people have accepted the current system without complaint. Equally, I do not believe in the amalgamation of radio and television. I fear for the future of radio against the monster television.

Much of it is of very high standard, supported by a dedicated and articulate audience.

Anyone seriously interested in the news would listen to Radio 4, The World at One and The World Tonight. BBC television news is excellent, but it has neither the time nor the space to give the coverage that radio does.

The BBC was founded by an engineer - an unusual engineer, with moral and social vision. It has always been at the front of technology and must go digital both on radio and on television. It gives much better reception.

But digital broadcasting is not the message; it is only the messenger. The moral, economic and intellectual argument for a national broad- casting service funded by a poll tax lies in its absolute independence, the quality of its programmes, the breadth of its output and the manner in which it extends the choice of programmes for its audience. If it does not do that, it is a con.

Currently, the BBC is wading into a ratings battle with the toughest, roughest and richest companies in the broadcasting world. That is not a battle that it will win.

It does not have the money or the ruthless competitive streak that the opposition has. The BBC is dedicated to setting high standards for the industry and widening the people's choice, and it is staffed by dedicated men and women who share that motivation but many of whom are now sorely depressed.

The future of the BBC lies in the minds and skills of those programme- makers whose budgets are now being dangerously squeezed. When I arrived at the BBC, I thought it had too much influence; I now think it has too little. I believe that it is time for a change of emphasis and appeal to uplift the hearts and enliven the minds.

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