Expert View: BBC can't see for broken windows

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The Independent Online

The No 10 adviser had the new boy's enthusiasm for making improvements. The "broken window syndrome" in business is where new members of your team think laterally and identify poor performance that you have put up with for years - the broken windows you have failed to repair. This adviser was in such a mood and threw up the issue of privatisation: was there any- thing left for the Government to consider? This drew a blank until someone said: "How about selling off Auntie?"

That was over a year ago and I hasten to add it met with an immediate rebuttal. After the extraordinary events of the past few weeks, with No 10 in open warfare with the nation's broadcaster, would there now be the same response?

A recent article in a New York paper described with incredulity the UK's licence-fee system - a "medieval survival" of an indirect tax, with the bizarre twist that it was levied whether or not you actually used the service. It then discussed how a nationalised company was controlled by the state, but wasn't controlled by the state, with at best theoretical profit targets and cost controls. Finally, it pointed out, the British public was paying for a broadcasting system so dedicated to impartiality in its news coverage that it seemed often to rubbish Britain, British foreign policy and British interests.

My first reaction to this was: "How dare some American attack a national icon?" But has this outsider in fact found a broken window?

Taking these points in turn, it is difficult to defend the licence fee. The thousands of employees in their infamous detector vans ensure that 12.6 per cent of revenue is swallowed by the cost of collection. Since 97 per cent of households now have a television, this expensive and complicated system is essentially maintained to prevent the 3 per cent being unfairly charged, or maybe as a way to fool people into thinking they are not paying for something.

Assessing the Beeb's performance as if it were a "normal" company, a more impor- tant point, was made possible by the publication of its annual report last week. MP Chris Bryant went too far when he likened this to something produced by Enron. He was quite wrong; the accounting was accurate. It was the figures themselves that were disappointing: an overall deficit of some £314m.

Most companies in this recession are busy trying to get their costs under control, but not the dear old Beeb. Despite promises of job cuts, the staff count actually rose by 1,500 to 27,148. This meant the salary bill was up 7 per cent, while total expenditure rose from £2.6bn to £3bn.

Of course, defenders of the Beeb would dismiss this bean counting as ignoring its crucial role in providing public sector broadcasting. Radio 4 is still remarkably highbrow and influential, as the "sexing- up" row showed. What other developed nation could claim so cerebral a programme that is listened to by a fifth of the electorate? Surely, this must be saved from the privatisers?

But there are other areas of public service broadcasting that the BBC can never seem to get right. From a business point of view, the UK taxpayer should be happy to invest more in PR for UK plc. And yet the World Service and its recent TV cousin are a small part of the Beeb's focus, let alone its budget. Meanwhile, reporting of national news on TV is dumbed down and the biggest bucks go on the game shows. Would it really hurt to have advertising pay for these?

Every three months I get a rude and threatening letter. The licence-fee collectors just can't believe I don't own a TV. After increasing frustration with dumbing down, I joined that 3 per cent who can live without TV. Can the nation ever be persuaded to do the same with Auntie?