Last month, I went to the launch of a report, Brave New World Service. It had been commissioned by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association to consider the future of the BBC World Service when, as is planned, it comes under the auspices of the domestic BBC. It was a delightful occasion; I encountered many old friends. But for anyone who, like me, was once on the payroll of the Corporation, it was also infuriating.
The mood was one of reminiscence and cosy self-congratulation, the notion that anything at all positive might come of the funding shift – from a Foreign Office grant (with strings) to the licence fee – or indeed that money could not be found to keep the very special World Service uncontaminated by the domestic services elicited personal affront, mixed with angry lamentation.
Much of the same spirit was abroad yesterday, after the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, announced the sacrifices needed to keep the licence fee pegged at £145 a year. Even though he presented the sort of exercise generally described as salami-slicing, the furious mourners were in full voice even before he had uttered his first words.
What was not heard was anything much about the way the BBC had expanded into the multimedia empire that it is today and how the number of jobs and services had been able to multiply to embrace a host of functions increasingly remote from national broadcasting. If the BBC is now acknowledging that it must draw in its horns, such enlightenment is welcome.
Slimmer management should improve decision-making. It makes practical, as well as financial, sense for local stations to pool resources regionally, with local opt-outs at peak times. With two major new buildings, much other property can be dispensed with. The BBC would also do well to compare its own staffing at, say, party conferences, rock festivals, international summits and the like, with that of its commercial rivals, and ask whether the vast disparity is really reflected in superior coverage.
To the extent that the shared-pain approach has the desired effect, however, it will only postpone the day when the bigger questions have to be asked about the purpose of the BBC, its cost in relation to its benefits, and its place in our fast-changing media landscape. In time, though, the BBC will face an even harsher commercial reality and a cash-strapped public with only fading memories of the Corporation's glory days. It will then be forced to do far more painfully what it should already be doing gradually and voluntarily: stripping away all functions extraneous to its role as the national public service broadcaster.
This does not mean that it is doomed to a marginal future along the lines of the US National Public Radio. It does mean, though, that local radio should be transferred to a commercial basis; that the website should derive exclusively from the BBC's broadcasting; that all book and magazine publishing should be spun off; and that the Corporation should revert to being an unashamedly national service – and the envy once again of the world.Reuse content