BBC must be at centre of national life, argues the Director of the Broadcasting Standards Council
IT WAS on an August weekend six years ago that John Birt, who was still suffering from the discovery that he was selling his services to the BBC rather than being employed as a member of staff, wearily remarked to Greg Dyke: "What would you prefer? pounds 6m [for your London Weekend Television share options] or national vilification?"

Greg Dyke now knows a little of what it is like to have both. The bruising public scrutiny of his appointment was one thing. To have lost Des Lynam before he has even arrived is another. And now there is the unsupported stance of both the print media and many politicians towards the recommendations of the Davies Committee. Even when you discount the fact that many of the newspapers which offer negative comment have their own vested electronic and other media interests to be taken into account, running the BBC is no joke.

But what the coverage reveals is that perhaps we do believe in public service broadcasting after all. The BBC matters. Otherwise why all the fuss? But the question is: for how much longer?

Siren commercial voices argue that in a multi-channel digital universe, offering 300 or more possibilities of choice, the BBC is an irrelevance. The market will provide. The BBC is presented as an irrelevant leviathan caught at the crossroads of history.

It is, of course, true that it will be possible via the new technologies to transform broadcasting and content provision so that in theory every interest can be met. Part of the BBC's problem is that it recognises the shape of the future. It wants a role as trusted guide in the next century similar to the one it has provided in this. But it is, relatively speaking, strapped for cash, is not the giant we like to imagine and is under intense competitive pressure.

So Greg Dyke and the BBC as a whole have a daunting task to convince the rest of us that we should go on paying for the BBC because it offers something of unique value. It's not made easier by the fact that the BBC itself seems to have taken its eye off the domestic ball. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of its programming seems too wide for comfort. And even its traditional friends are asking questions about the way it is run and whether it is efficiently accountable.

But before condemning the BBC to death, there are some factors to take into account.

n First, despite more than 10 years of pay television, giving audiences extended choice through cable and satellite, only 30 per cent of households have so far gone down that route.

n Second, the enthusiasm for digital technology is not yet a rush, except on the part of those who are investing heavily in an uncertain future. At the present rate of take-up it will need at least 10 years to reach 50 per cent penetration.

n Third, the majority of the new channels have neither the cash nor the inclination to invest substantially in original, new, high-quality programmes. The market prefers to make money by raiding the library rather than writing or publishing the book.

n Fourth, for the moment much of the new technology and the skills to use it belong with the haves rather than the have-nots, which raises questions about social exclusion.

In the long run, no doubt some of these questions will resolve themselves. Before they do we should think carefully before accepting the arguments of those who have made a substantial bet on the future and who seek to influence the outcome in their favour. It would be a mistake to jettison public service broadcasting in all its forms for a relative mess of potage. Broadcasting is, by its nature, precisely that: an attempt to engage with the many rather than the few. It has an important democratic, cultural and educational function. It is one of the key means by which we know and make sense of the world, tell our stories, and celebrate our diverse talents.

We have been well served by a broadcasting system which has kept the BBC's public service in tension with commercial television's drive for profit. There is justice in the BBC's claim to be one of the key contributors to the cultural life of Britain and an enabler not just of debate about, but the experience of, citizenship. At its best it seeks to serve the parts as well as the whole, making programmes not because there is a sponsor or advertiser interested in the potential audience, or with the absolute number of those who might watch or listen, but because potentially it is saying something important for society as a whole.

There is an important role for a BBC that concentrates on its traditional strengths: honesty, fairness, impartiality and a commitment to the highest standards of programme-making across the whole spectrum of content. It should be based on the belief that there is still such a thing as society, in which citizens count as much as consumers. We need it for our national health to provide programmes of real ambition which stretch us and challenge us, and bring us to things that we did not realise we might enjoy. As Huw Weldon, the broadcaster, once put it: "It is about making the good popular and the popular good."