Media: Cheers, Auntie! We knew you'd look after us ...

The story of how classic Peter Cook and `Doctor Who' tapes were wiped in the Seventies has passed into BBC legend. It couldn't happen again ... could it? The problem is that old recordings don't make money and the archive service must balance its books. Something has to go: 95 jobs for starters. By Paul McCann
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It is a story to chill the blood of any self-respecting comedy fan. Earlier this year it was revealed that in the late Sixties and early Seventies the BBC had wiped its tapes of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Sixties show Not Only ... But Also to make room for tapes of local news programmes in its archives. The death and near-deification of Cook, inventor of British satire, made the tapes important historical documents and they are lost forever.

This story has echoed in the corridors of the BBC over the past months and in the pages of Private Eye and the corporation's in-house magazine Ariel, where a debate is raging about a planned restructuring of the libraries and archives department that will cost 95 jobs and cut even further into the contents of Auntie's archive.

The debate has been given added piquancy by reports that an early "weeding out" has already meant that the scores for 200 Bach cantatas from the music archive were found in a skip.

The BBC's archive is little less than a national treasure. It contains 1.5 million items of film and video, 750,000 audio recordings, 1.2 million records and CDs, 23 million newspaper cuttings and 160,000 books.

The problem is that national treasures don't make any money within the BBC's efficiency-minded internal market.

The various libraries have to pay their own overheads - which include rent for the space that the archives take up. The size of these overheads puts the libraries in a tight Catch-22. To try to cover its costs, the library service charges BBC staff pounds 25 a throw for a search or to borrow material. This can be pounds 15 for simple queries, but the costs are still forcing departments with a lot of research needs - such as the news department - to avoid the libraries. Indeed, it emerged in the pages of Ariel last month that news researchers were buying CDs from HMV in Oxford Street because it was cheaper than borrowing them internally.

For the Information and Archive Department, this boycott means, according to the broadcasting union Bectu, that it faces a loss of pounds 2m to pounds 3m this year - hence the planned restructuring and redundancies.

"Our fear is that under the idiosyncrasies - and idiocy - of the BBC's internal market, the priceless stuff that the archives contain won't have any worth and will be thrown out," says Brian Marsh of the union.

Bectu has been opposing the restructuring, which will see the corporation's nine libraries merged into one major site at Television Centre with smaller reference libraries left at Bush House and Broadcasting House.

"Of course we are concerned for our staff, but we are also interested in preserving a national asset that is needed for public service broadcasting. There will only be room for 30,000 books in the new archive. That means 120,000 will need to be `weeded out'," says Mr Marsh.

Peter Cox, head of the Information and Archive division, disputes the Bectu figures on books and makes the point that books are not the main business of his division: "The primary collections are the programme material libraries with TV and audio archives. Then there are the music collections and the 23 million newspaper cuttings. They are the strategic assets and they are very carefully looked after."

The books, on the other hand, can be weeded out, he says. No reference books will go, but the loan books - often novels borrowed for employees' personal reading - will be cut back.

Moreover, Mr Cox denies that making savings is the only motivation for the restructuring: "There is a gap in the amount of money we get in and what we spend. And we need to close that gap. But we are trying to do it in a way that fits in with the direction we should be taking them anyway."

Mr Cox believes that the new channels at the BBC, the on-line services and the new bi-media nature of correspondents, means moving the libraries to fewer sites can make them more flexible to meet programme-makers' needs.

He also claims that the wiping of the Peter Cook tapes and classic episodes of Dr Who were the result of a short period in the late Sixties when engineers wiped expensive early video tapes so that they could be re-used. "We are constantly reminded of the value of the archives because of that episode. It is terribly difficult to predict the future use the archives will be put to. For example, chunks of soap operas are being put into documentaries to illustrate a particular social issue, such as drug-taking. None of us could foresee that, and we are now indexing parts of soap operas."

Keeping a tight hold on the archives is in the BBC's long-term interests. Its new joint venture channels with Flextech in the UK and the Discovery Channel in the rest of the world are based to a large extent on BBC library material being reused in new formats. The only cable channel to turn a decent profit in recent years has been UK Gold, the library channel that used BBC and Thames TV libraries. The hunger of the multi-channel age for material should make the archives a very valuable asset.

Which is exactly what worries Bectu. "As part of Birt's reforms, the BBC began to define what is core and non-core business. As soon as it decided that transmission was non-core business, they were at risk and were subsequently privatised," says Brian Marsh. "Nothing would surprise us about the management's plans and privatisation cannot be ruled out. BBC Resources, the BBC directorate that controls the libraries, is already thinking about becoming a semi-detached part of the BBC."