on Birt's Beeb turning tabloid

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The Independent Online
Battles royal within the BBC threatened to overshadow John Birt's first ever MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival at the weekend. Rather than debate the director-general's aggressive call for a higher television licence fee, delegates to the often debauched three-day talk-fest were far more interested in the in-fighting between BBC journalists, particularly the public criticism of the seasoned reporter Kate Adie dished out by BBC Scotland's Colin Cameron. He thought her coverage of the Dunblane tragedy was too forensic, too unemotional, and said so.

Tongues wagged, too, following the swingeing attack on the ever-smiling Esther Rantzen by John Ware, the Panorama journalist, in the Sunday Telegraph. Esther was shocked and reeling, she said, having had no warning that Ware's piece would appear. No one at the BBC would be quoted, but a host of senior producers from the news and current affairs department supported their colleague's diatribe against the Rantzen school of Victim Television. "Absolutely true, and everyone knows it," said one.

Behind the public squabbling lies a crucial issue, however, and one that goes to the heart of Birt's call for more money for the BBC. Rantzen's journalism - popular, sentimental, often simplistic - bears little relation to the great documentaries produced over the years by the BBC, the ones for which we are more than prepared to pay our pounds 89.50 a year. If the BBC instead wants to give us tabloid journalism of the simpering kind, then it should do so without using the proceeds from a compulsory universal licence fee.

Of course, everyone has some pet peeve about the BBC. Some people, indeed, hate Panorama, while others can't abide stodgy costume dramas. My dislike of Esther Rantzen is purely personal. But I can't help thinking the public- service mandate is ill-served by the programmes she makes, and suggest she would be better on a commercial channel, where advertisers can use her big audiences to peddle their products.

Which brings us back to Birt's plea for more money. I can't help remembering Michael Grade's relentless campaign for a change to the funding formula, under which Channel 4 has to pay ITV a portion of any surplus it generates once it hits 14 per cent of advertising. Grade more or less got what he wanted, but at the price of opening the door to the privatisation of Channel 4. So persuasive was his argument about the levy punishing success that many politicians realised the channel could easily survive in the private sector competing head-on with other commercial companies.

There are, indeed, many who believe that Grade was hoping for such an outcome all along, and knew full well that the natural conclusion to be drawn from his rigorous campaign was the change to Channel 4's status.

Can the same be said about Birt? By launching his campaign for a higher licence fee, the DG has focused attention, yet again, on the role of the BBC in a multi-channel environment. He wants more money, he says, to finance the switch to digital, and to compete with all those other channels. It's worth backing, he says, because the BBC is a global brand and a powerhouse of production. Birt wants to trade on that strength, to ensure that the broadcaster is a significant player even when we have 200 channels to choose from. Indeed, some of these new channels will be BBC-owned and -operated (although with private-sector help), including some subscription- only services for which you will have to pay separately.

But if that is the case, then surely the BBC can compete for viewers in the marketplace, financing its capital investment and programming needs through higher commercial revenues. Why ask for more money compulsorily while in the same breath arguing that the BBC will be able to compete in the pay-TV market, gaining its share of the digital pie?

The BBC says it had no choice but to make its plea for more public money now, because the Government is scheduled to review the licence fee this autumn. But surely the review could have been perfunctory, leaving the licence static while the BBC gets on with the task of further cost-cutting and generating more commercial revenues.

There will be more than a few politicians who take the licence fee campaign as an excuse to open up again the whole issue of the BBC's future as a public-service broadcaster. The current charter runs into the next millennium, but a new government could decide to review that decision. Is that what Birt wants?

Certainly a privatised BBC could compete: it already does rather well against ITV. And a government that salivates over the pounds 1.5bn Channel 4 would generate for Treasury coffers would verily rhapsodise over the pounds 7bn that might be raised from selling the BBC.

I for one would prefer a public-service broadcaster, with the mandate to inform, entertain and inspire. Paying pounds 89.50 or even pounds 189.50 looks cheap next to the pounds 324 a year the full package at BSkyB will set you back this autumn. But I suspect Birt's call for more money will be poorly received, not only in Whitehall but in sitting rooms up and down the country.

The trends seem set against the BBC as well. Children with access to cable and satellite do not share the older population's affection for three- or four-channel television. A quarter of British homes have multi- channel services, and the figure could double within five years, particularly as the cable industry rolls out its networks and as digital TV begins to make inroads. At what point in the steady fragmentation of British television does the licence fee become untenable? The debate about the BBC's future status, which has never really ended, looks set to flare up again.