Some time this week the Government is likely to publish its Green Paper on the future of the BBC and will outline its position on the two most controversial issues surrounding the renewal of the BBC charter - the way the corporation is governed after 2007 and whether or not the licence fee should be available to fund other broadcasters.
These decisions are important to the whole future of broadcasting in this country so it's sad that a serious debate has been brought down to an issue of personalities, with certain journalists setting it up as a battle between, in the red corner, Michael Grade, the current chairman of the BBC, and, in the blue corner, his long-term enemy John Birt, the former director general and currently senior advisor to Tony Blair.
Grade is fighting both for the BBC to retain its current governance system - a system he believes he has strengthened since taking over as chairman, although others inside the BBC believe he is neutering the organisation - and for the BBC to continue to receive the whole of the licence fee. Birt has been reported as trying to persuade the Government to do the opposite.
If I had a suspicious mind I would think this looks a bit like a story planted by one of Michael Grade's PR men. By suggesting that Birt is the person who is secretly responsible for the recommendations of the Government-commissioned Burns report - a report Grade disagrees with - it's an easy way of getting the world on his side because Birt is not popular with media people.
Grade's problem is that he hasn't got many supporters, with both Ofcom and Burns coming out strongly against his position. However, it appears he has one important backer; the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, is on Grade's side, having been convinced that the changes he has made to the existing governance system are adequate.
Having the support of the Secretary of State should mean that Grade wins the battle, but history tells us that he shouldn't be too confident. Go back to 2000 when the then Secretary of State, Chris Smith, decided that Ofcom, the proposed new super regulator, should regulate the BBC lock, stock and barrel. The proposal met real opposition from the then BBC chairman Christopher Bland, ably assisted by Patricia Hodgson, then the BBC's director of policy and planning.
They went round Smith and lobbied Downing Street, with the result that Smith was overruled by Blair. So having the Secretary of State on side doesn't necessarily mean that you win, although in this case the Green Paper might support the Grade position. Quite why Tessa Jowell has supported Grade's position so strongly is difficult to fathom, after all she asked Burns and his committee to do their report on the future of the BBC in the first place, and she asked Ofcom to do a study on public service broadcasting. If she is now going to reject their most important findings out of hand it makes a mockery of her earlier decisions. It is reported that Grade has told her he will resign if he doesn't get his way, and that has influenced her position. I don't believe the resignation story but if it's true she should let him go - getting the future of the BBC right is more important than who is the chairman.
The way out of the current row is for the Prime Minister to support Burns and Ofcom on governance and set up a small outside body, an OfBeeb, to take on the role of regulating the organisation while at the same time bolstering Grade by stating that the whole of the licence fee will continue to go directly to the BBC to be spent by a new BBC board. That way both sides can claim a victory and the BBC can get on with being an outstanding broadcaster.
However, it seems that isn't going to happen and Jowell will produce a Green Paper which looks very white, offering no alternative on BBC governance to Grade's entrenched position. But that won't be the end of the matter. Just as on casinos, she will hit problems in both the Commons and particularly in the Lords, and as a result might well have to do another U-turn.
This latest saga is a familiar one in broadcasting. Governments commission all the intellectual analysis and then politicians take over and the analysis is largely ignored. It happened in 2000 when the government completely ignored the recommendations of the Davies report on BBC funding, largely because they had upset Rupert Murdoch. It is no way to run a railway let alone one of Britain's most precious assets. As a society we ought to find a better way of dealing with the future of the BBC than let it be kicked around by the politicians who happen to make up the government of the day - people who the public increasingly don't trust.
The real danger is that one day a government will get elected which will do real and lasting damage to the BBC, and Britain will be poorer as a result.
Heggessey made her own luck at BBC One
It's been interesting to read the assessments of Lorraine Heggessey's time as controller of BBC One now that she's announced she's leaving. When she was appointed in 2000, three of us - Mark Thompson, the BBC's then director of television, Lorraine and I - opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate her appointment and we all agreed that all three of us would be judged by the success or failure of BBC One. We would sink or swim together.
So how did she do in her five years? She was certainly helped by the extra £120m a year she got to spend, plus a further £60m which Peter Salmon, the BBC's director of sport, used cleverly to help the BBC regain some of the sports rights it had lost in the Nineties. This largely benefited BBC One. She was also helped by some inept leadership at ITV and was lucky that advertising revenue collapsed in the early part of this decade.
But you make your own luck and overall she did a really good job with BBC One. While she didn't spend all the money as wisely as she could - everyone in that job makes mistakes, it goes with the territory - Conor Dignam, the editor of Broadcast magazine, got it right when he said that she leaves BBC One much stronger than she found it. Not a bad epitaph.Reuse content