Leading Article: Excellence in all fields

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS ill-considered of Marmaduke Hussey, chairman of the BBC board of governors, to dismiss the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture given at the Edinburgh Television Festival by Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, as a series of 'wild accusations' about the corporation made by 'a Bourbon in red braces'.

The welcome with which the attack was received by many broadcasters in Edinburgh suggested Mr Grade had landed some painful body blows - not least on John Birt, the director-general designate. It also confirmed the impression that morale at the BBC (and among the increasing number of independent programme makers who look to the corporation for their livelihoods) is poor. This bodes ill for the BBC in the run-up to the review of its charter, which expires in 1996.

Mr Grade is a flamboyant and provocative fellow and, of course, he brought to the rostrum plenty of personal baggage. He was, for example, one of the handful considered for the post of director-general of the BBC when Michael Checkland was appointed in 1987. Also, if the BBC were in future to concentrate on elite broadcasting - a prospect Mr Grade deplores - it would come into fiercer and more direct competition for viewers with Channel 4, which now depends for its survival on the advertising revenue it generates.

Lord Nicholas Gordon Lennox, a governor, showed greater sensitivity than Mr Hussey yesterday when he conceded one crucial part of Mr Grade's case. The governors themselves are apparently unhappy with the way in which their role has evolved and with the BBC's secrecy and lack of accountability. They intend in future to act more as regulators and less as managers, interfering in the day-to-day running of the corporation. This is something the governors can and should do without waiting for changes in the charter.

The governors might also consider how best to signal that Mr Birt will not be allowed to function as a second Lord Reith, attempting to impose an autocratic, ideological agenda on his staff. Finally, the governors should make it clear that the core activity of the BBC is to provide a national broadcasting service able to command the attention of all classes, all abilities and all interests. Its aim should be to set standards of excellence in all the fields it embraces, from news and current affairs, the arts and education through to light entertainment and sport.

Such an approach would challenge the false antithesis between popular and elitist broadcasting. It has sometimes seemed that the BBC came to conceive its duty as being to produce high-minded, minority-appeal programmes, while lightening the mixture with items that outbid the commercial stations in their audience-grabbing vulgarity. This unreal dichotomy has led to the suggestion, deplored by Mr Grade, that the BBC should now abandon the mass market to commercial channels and become an elite, American- style public-service broadcasting network.

To retreat into a such a ghetto would be disastrous for the BBC. Commercial outlets - including satellite and cable - are proliferating. The BBC will find it increasingly difficult to defend the licence fee. If its network comes to be seen as a compulsory subscription service paid for by all, but of relevance only to an elite minority, the licence fee will be doomed.

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