Media: More fireworks to come for a fragile BBC: The governors have in their care a great national institution. But even without the Birt affair, it would not take much to lose legitimacy, warns Maggie Brown

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, while the fury over John Birt's inappropriate tax and pay arrangements was at its peak, the British Film Institute held an inquiry into the future of the BBC.

One unexpectedly touching part was when Sir David Attenborough screened a selection of classic moments in the corporation's past: fireworks marking the start of BBC 2, Richard Dimbleby commentating on the funeral of Winston Churchill.

Wasn't this too nostalgic, inquired the superbright Baroness Blackstone, who chaired the BBC's general advisory council from 1987 to 1991. Not a bit of it, replied Sir David stoutly. 'The fact it (the BBC) produced good results is a pretty good reason for it to be defended, not attacked.'

It was a timely reminder of the place that the BBC has held - and still holds - in our national life. Its very invention, the channelling of an explosive communications system into something of public benefit, remains one of this country's great 20th-century achievements. You have only to travel in the Far East (as the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, did recently) or India to experience the respect it commands.

But the BBC at home is far more fragile than this hold on our collective consciousness suggests. It exists thanks to the licence fee, a regressive form of poll tax levied without regard to a household's income, the same for a struggling single parent as a Hampstead media professional.

Such a system, guaranteeing the BBC an income in an uncertain world and access to every home with a television set, only works in 1993 because we do not examine the anachronisms too closely. What has saved the BBC from being pulled up by its roots is respect for its range, the programmes and services which delight, inform and educate us.

Even before this crisis, BBC executives handling the charter renewal debate were reporting that local newspapers were publishing a smattering of letters from ordinary viewers complaining about the licence fee. These are not people with the contacts to influence public opinion directly. But this is why Labour MPs, in touch with the grassroots, are some of the licence fee's fiercest critics: they know how much pounds 80 means to poorly paid people.

The BBC is barely 70 years old. Its roots are comparatively shallow. In recent months a far more august institution, one a thousand years old - the monarchy - has been rocked by the way the tide of opinion can swiftly turn in disgust at scandalous conduct.

It does not take all that much, in an age lacking in deference, for the BBC to lose its legitimacy. The current crisis, far worse than previous ones because it is self-inflicted, has struck precisely at the time when the BBC is seeking to update its notions of public service broadcasting, to fulfil a more challenging role in more competitive times. This is something the governors should place uppermost in their minds as they try to defuse the outrage, while chewing their way through the extraordinary dinners they inflict on themselves.

The BBC belongs to the nation: the governors are guardians of the public interest. They have in their care an institution which, like a great university, existed before they arrived and should exist after they have gone.

The question Jeremy Isaacs failed to ask Mr Birt at the BFI was how far he judged his actions in avoiding tax had damaged the BBC's public standing. It seemed obvious, even before the fairly hostile tone struck by most contributors to Radio 4's Call Nick Ross yesterday, that this damage is widespread. Every time Mr Birt stands up to make large claims for the BBC, at least half his audience will be thinking 'ho-hum'. At the very least he needs to retreat from the front line and allow more able, less tarnished communicators to argue the BBC's corner, based on his well-prepared strategic plans and vision.

The larger question is whether his misjudgement, with which he persisted despite high-level warnings, is a one- off. To put it crudely, if he continued tax arrangements suited to a small ITV company when he came to the world's greatest broadcasting organisation, is he deficient in other areas of judgement? Does he have the management skills and understanding to scale up from LWT and bring about the BBC's nitty-gritty modernisation?

This is no small matter, since he is furiously centralising BBC decision-taking. Earlier this year he sprang a complete surprise. Some 10,000 people and all the studios and facilities used to make BBC programmes, whether at local radio stations or the Polo-mint shaped Television Centre, will be put under one central director. At a stroke, he effectively demoted and reduced the responsibilities of all his managers, from Will Wyatt, managing director of BBC Television, downwards.

This may be the hidden message in the board of management's vote of support for him: we extend support, you recognise your vulnerability and start sharing power and decision-taking. Or as Mr Birt might put it, 'introduce a more collegiate system at the BBC'.