I hope to learn three things from the statement that Greg Dyke, the new director general of the BBC, is due to make to his staff this morning. I want to know what his vision is for the long- term future of the corporation. I should like to see whether he has devised a management structure that favours creativity. And I do wish to have resolved a conflict of interest that continues to niggle - that the BBC now has an editor- in-chief (the second of Mr Dyke's roles) who has given substantial sums of money to the political party in power.
The "vision thing", as President Bush memorably called it, is the most difficult. For we are rushing towards a world in which we can all be broadcasters. That will happen shortly, when a satisfactory combination of moving images and sound can be transmitted from one home computer to another via the Internet. It is possible to imagine that somebody may create a website that carries a daily episode of a soap opera. If bright young film-makers can create good entertainment much more cheaply than the standard fare - see the box-office success of The Blair Witch Project - we can expect to see the same phenomenon on the Internet.
What that means is that Mr Dyke will be in charge while the last vestiges of the BBC's original monopoly finally disappear. It will have happened in stages over a 50-year period - starting with the creation of commercial TV and including the three advances in delivery systems - satellite, cable and the Internet.
And, of course, when the BBC has become just another broadcaster, large and respected though it may be, with a superb brand image, yet in competition with an infinite number of other suppliers, it will become much more difficult to justify the licence fee. If we don't have a state newspaper and magazine publisher, nor a state book publisher, nor a state film company, why should we have a state broadcaster?
Mr Dyke could choose to ignore all that. If he is conservative by nature, he could argue that until the shape of the new world is apparent, it is best to go on as before. The levying of a licence fee is still uncontroversial - at least for the time being - and the natives aren't getting restless. Frankly, they haven't thought about it, so why arouse them? Let's get on with the world as it is in these, the first 12 months of the new millennium. Such an approach is plausible, though, I think, woefully short-sighted.
Musing about this just a few hours before Mr Dyke makes his speech, I think the more likely outcome is that he will redefine the purpose of the BBC so as to give the licence fee fresh validity. He could use the best parts of Sir John Birt's legacy by placing more and more emphasis on the role of the corporation as an educator, using new media in innovative ways to supplement the work of educational institutions. Even here, though, there is growing competition. Universities are also beginning to harness the Internet to their purposes.
Whatever he decides, Mr Dyke will require a more creative BBC. The best way to engender that precious characteristic is to trust people and to devise a structure that is fluid, so that ideas can bubble up to the surface. Unlike the BBC, some organisations have no great need for creativity except at the level of senior managers. Banks, insurance companies, transport undertakings, for instance, need a conventionally minded staff, because they require certainty in their operations. Rigid, bureaucratic systems are the best ways of achieving that. Unfortunately, the director general's predecessor ran the BBC like a railroad, when it is nothing of the kind. That has to be corrected.
The signs are encouraging. Listen to what Mr Dyke has been saying recently. The BBC is massively over-managed and under-led. "We have too many systems and processes that drive us all nuts... we've made this a more complicated business than it is... So there will be fewer rules, but the rules we have, people will have to follow." He has said that he wants the corporation to be a happier place and for employees to feel that there is management without fear. "Forget the chattering classes, management consultants, MPs and opinion-formers and do what you do best: talk to the audience... stop looking over your shoulders and concentrate on making popular programmes."
One of the key injunctions here is to talk to the audience. A lot of people in print and broadcast journalism and entertainment are not always aware of the necessity of addressing the audience. I know, because I have sometimes forgotten the golden rule myself. As a financial journalist, I would find myself writing for my City editor, or for a few specialists, or even for rival journalists on newspapers with which I was in competition, rather than for the ordinary reader. I hope also that the advice not to look over one's shoulder means that the new director general is going to take the big risk of trusting his staff. On newspapers, editors should trust their writers and trust their reporters until they have good reason not to. That must be the rule in any organisation in which creativity is at a premium.
What, though, about my niggle that the editor-in-chief of the BBC should not be committed to one of the political parties? The corporation is going to be embarrassed during the next general election. For any Tory complaints about unfair coverage are going to have a much sharper edge than usual. If the BBC governors have any role other than to go along with whatever the director general of the day wants, then this is a matter in which they should interest themselves.
In the context of the corporation, the title itself, editor-in-chief, has an archaic feel to it. It is questionable whether the director general should still automatically assume that responsibility. I note that Mr Dyke is expected to appoint a head of factual programming who will report directly to him. It would be better if he or she were also to be editor- in-chief. The appointment would carry the final responsibility for deciding purely editorial questions and for dealing with editorial complaints. If that cannot be done, then the title should not be used at all; it should fall into abeyance. You cannot cosy up to politicians and be editor-in- chief.Reuse content