Thomas Sutcliffe: BBC's riches are cheap at the price

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The Independent Online

Connoisseurs of fatuous public statements about the BBC will have recognised Tessa Jowell's announcement of the BBC White Paper as an instant classic - and a perfect example of the no-win situation in which the institution frequently finds itself. On the one hand there was the Minister, with her populist directive that the Corporation "must continue to take fun seriously". On the other there was the announcement that Ofcom would be given the role of assessing the market impact of new services.

That's the catch for the BBC in a nutshell. Be popular enough to get the politicians off the hook when it comes to renewing the licence fee, but not so popular that you irritate the commercial concerns whose favour the Government would prefer to retain. Those of a suspicious nature might have asked themselves who would stand to benefit from an erosion of the BBC's public service remit, until it was just another electro- nic opiate drip, conspicuously undeserving of special status. Others enjoyed the opportunity to depict it as one of the last unregulated fiefdoms. "The corporation," wrote Simon Jenkins in a piece about the White Paper, "is like a pre-Reformation monastery - vast, glorious, well-networked and stupefyingly rich."

I should declare an interest before I continue. As the presenter of a weekly arts programme on Radio Four, I suppose I count as a minor lay member of this ecclesiastical leviathan - tending a carp pond, perhaps, on the outer reaches of the monastery grounds. I also started my working career at the BBC so, in a Jesuit- ical sense, they got me before I was seven. Does this count as a qualification or a disqualification? Well, I imagine that will rather depend on whe- ther you agree with what I've got to say - but I can testify from first-hand experience that the stupendous wealth of the institution isn't trickling down to the basement of Broadcasting House any more. As a senior columnist on a national newspaper I wonder whether Jenkins ever has to think twice about taking a black cab. The radio producers I know do - and almost always the second thought is, "No, I'll go by Tube."

That's as it should be, really. It's public money after all... and I've occasionally thought it might be sobering for all BBC budgets to be calcul- ated in a unit called Old Ladies' Licences. Lunch to discuss a new programme idea? Bang goes .83 of an OLL. Taxi back to BH? Oh hell, there goes the remaining .17 OLL.

On the other hand, I'm still faintly astounded when public discussion of the BBC's financing presents it as a problem - rather than the occasion for a national service of thanksgiving. Sky's cheapest package - without sport or movies - costs signific- antly more per month than a BBC licence, which covers an astonishing range. The BBC costs less per day than any broadsheet newspaper - and you can't sing along in the shower to any of those. And if you can buy a cup of tea for what the BBC costs you daily, you're almost certainly drinking it in a subsidised canteen.

That value-for-money analysis doesn't really get to the core of the issue, though, which is the way that the BBC has embedded itself in the national culture - occasionally infuriatingly so, but overwhelmingly to its benefit. I've sometimes wondered what the world would look like if - in the style of It's A Wonderful Life - you re-ran recent British cultural history without the BBC. This isn't an unthinkable hypothesis, after all. The corporation had its roots in a straightforwardly commercial enterprise - being formed by a consortium of radio manufacturers who simply wanted content for their hardware - and who would have agreed with Tessa Jowell that "entertainment should be engrained into its services". And it was only an accident of history that the first man to run it should have bought with him an almost messianic notion of his social duty to educate and inform as well. So our broadcasting landscape could look utterly different.

Personally, I think it would be immeasurably worse. It's doubtful that the country is large enough to sustain a network like the US's National Public Radio, so on that front it would be pop, shock-jocks and phone-ins. Commercial TV would be with us but it would have looked for all of its life as it looks today - virtually devoid of serious drama, current affairs and arts programming - and that would have had knock-on effects.

Perhaps Britain wouldn't quite be the appalling dystopia that George surveys in Capra's film - but it would be less interesting, less intelligent, less democratic and, yes, much less entertaining. The contribution of the BBC to the fabric of British life has been stupefyingly rich. Perhaps that's what Simon Jenkins meant all along.