Media: But did Grade get it right?: Last Friday Channel 4's flamboyant chief executive made a detailed attack on the new direction of the BBC. Maggie Brown examines the small print

A PUNCH-DRUNK Michael Grade walked into Edinburgh's cosy Oyster Bar restaurant on Saturday night as the first editions of the Sunday Times hit the streets. At last year's television festival he seemed a haunted figure, battered by criticism of his stewardship as chief executive of Channel 4. But now his passionate defence of the BBC's heritage has re-established him in his favourite role: Britain's Mr Television.

In his Friday night performance, he accused the governors of presiding over a state of terminal decline, and meddling in management; and charged the BBC's leadership with showing disdain for programme-makers and mass-market television.

As the dust settles on his speech, the key question remains: was Grade's attack right? In the heady atmosphere at Edinburgh, it seemed the vast majority of programme-makers at the television festival were with him. But Edinburgh is not Britain. My view is that he was more right than wrong, but only just. He is certainly worth listening to, if only because he is the first person of any stature brave enough to provide an insider's view, however flawed, of the weaknesses of the Checkland-Birt era, 1987 to 1992.

He is right to make the point that the lay bunch of great and good governors has meddled too deeply in BBC managerial and programme matters, and has come from a too-narrow list of government-approved candidates. This is implicitly accepted by the board itself. Lord Nicholas Gordon Lennox, a BBC governor, came to Edinburgh 48 hours after Grade's speech and outlined plans for radical change. In future, governors will be there to guard the public interest, rather than to get too closely involved in management.

However, Grade's conclusion that the board should be abolished and regulation and licensing of the BBC passed to a pumped-up Independent Television Commission is, at this point, high risk. Until the new ITV franchises start in January, no one knows whether arm's-length regulation will work for British television, whether the system of fines to be introduced then will keep commercial broadcasters true to their programme promises, and whether the ITC will itself be free of political intervention.

Grade's second big attack was on the BBC's new policy of inclining towards up-market 'distinctive' programmes, which no one - not even the BBC's own top programme executives - yet knows how to interpret. Grade ridiculed it, for the first time in public. And he was absolutely right to make it an issue. Viewers and listeners should know that the traditional mix of programmes they now see on BBC 1 and BBC 2 (though BBC 2 is less of an urgent case) is under intense internal debate.

In the BBC's July annual report, Marmaduke Hussey, chairman of the board of governors, appeared to cement this commitment to 'distinctiveness'. He said: 'The BBC must ensure its wares are quality wares and are not being sold at the next stall.'

When Grade read this to the audience it was greeted with derisive laughter. To reduce it to the most absurd case, he asked whether it meant that if Survival shows penguins on ITV, penguins should be out of bounds for the BBC?

The flashpoints in the debate about the programme menu seem to be whether the BBC should drop down- market entertainment, or do it in a different way so it somehow ceases to be vulgar. Such is the grip of this appetite for change in the organisation's top policy-making circles that Michael Grade was thinking the unthinkable by daring to suggest that perhaps the current programme mix should continue broadly unchanged, in the formats to which viewers are accustomed.

Take Neighbours. Because it is a cheap Australian import, ideal in theory for the growing satellite market, it is apparently judged to be not a suitable BBC programme in future, once the current rights expire. But what is so wrong with imported soaps, Grade asked? And he has a point. Millions of addicted licence- payers, including my own family, who love Neighbours, would say the same thing. Does the new BBC really wish to incense the public by dropping it?

Grade also made it clear he belonged to the old school that sees the BBC's future survival rooted in and stemming from its long entertainment tradition - he recalled the glories of Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Till Death Us Do Part, and the soon-to-end comedy Only Fools and Horses.

The weakness of this view is that it exposes Grade to the charge of nostalgia. His speech did not show an intellectually convincing way of amalgamating respect for the past with objectives for a long-term future. He also said that in the business-obsessed, efficiency-seeking climate, 'no one at the top of the BBC has much good to say about the programmes'. But just how good are they? The problem is that the BBC's programme portfolio is not especially glorious at the moment. It does have lacklustre and fading shows such as Esther Rantzen's That's Life. It has clung too long to fading formats such as the now defunct Wogan show. Nor is there anything wrong with the BBC demanding ever-higher standards, even from its successes, let alone actors who can act in Eldorado.

Above all, Grade failed to say just how the BBC should adapt its mix in the light of the success of satellite and the breakdown of the old duopoly, as ITV becomes far more commercial and unrestrained in the hunt for big audiences.

It is, on the other hand, chilling to hear what the new orthodoxy envisages: public service broadcasting composed of programmes that would be 'good for' the public, and in which Panorama's low ratings appear perfectly acceptable because it is a serious programme. These people, who think they represent the new BBC, and whose own tastes in viewing lead them to Newsnight and The Late Show, shudder as viewers tastelessly insist on making huge BBC hits out of Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game, and Jim Davidson's Big Break snooker game show.

They regard the BBC's latest ratings triumph, Michael Buerk's rescue show, 999, as a regrettably borderline case. And they say that Eldorado will never be 'a BBC programme', even if 20 million people one day watch it.

This is what the influential BBC executives who are in the ascendant are saying in private. They see satellite as the new provider of mass-market programming. But it is an uncomfortable fact for them, and ammunition for Grade, that so far satellite is offering wall-to-wall sport, films and children's programmes, but no specially made popular entertainment, comedy or drama.

Finally - and here Michael Grade is most seriously wrong - the BBC, whatever happens, has to slim down and become more efficient. The ill-understood policy of producer choice being driven through has few genuine supporters within the organisation; but Grade's view that the production base needs only to be slimmed down a bit is far too relaxed. Nor did he provide any alternative system that would allow the BBC to price and cost individual programmes. This has to be done.

What is correct is his depiction of the disrupted, demoralised workforce and the tragedy of having talented programme-makers distracted from their real jobs. One of the most surprising conversations I had in Edinburgh was with a management consultant earning large fees teaching BBC staff to negotiate business deals with each other - under producer choice, for example, camera crews sell their skills at fixed tariffs to the drama department, and by April next year everybody will be negotiating with everybody else all the time.

This consultant said he had never known an organisation in such a mess, totally lacking leadership, and he had worked in quite a few.

Michael Grade has ended the eerie public silence on Britain's most important cultural institution. He may be wide of the mark, but he has exposed a critical gap in the BBC's defences since he left it in 1987. No one near the top of the corporation has an ounce of Grade's popular touch, or is able to communicate its strategies direct to the public.

There are clever people who think they know how to strike deals with David Mellor and John Major, but there are no real communicators. It is better to be noisily half-right and to stir up debates than to remain cautiously silent.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Arts and Entertainment
(L-R) Amanda Peet as Tina Morris, Melanie Lynskey as Michelle Pierson, Abby Ryder Fortson as Sophie Pierson, Mark Duplass as Brett Pierson and Steve Zissis as Alex Pappas in Togetherness
TV First US networks like HBO shook up drama - now it's comedy's turn
Pool with a view: the mMarina Bay Sands in Singapore
travel From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
The will of Helen Beatrix Heelis, better known as Beatrix Potter, was among those to be archived
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Nigel Farage: 'I don't know anybody in politics as poor as we are'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect