Christopher Bland: Review the BBC but don't destroy it

Forcing it to charge for online services would only lead to a switch to other free providers
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The Independent Online

The British media's Seasonal Affective Disorder takes the same form almost every summer: an assault on the BBC that at the time seems life-threatening, but normally peters out into mild grumblings with the onset of winter. This year it began earlier, and may be more serious.

The less than confident handling of the Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs affair, and the row over executive expenses and artists' salaries, created an environment in which the BBC, at least until this week, appeared to be on the back foot. Luckily for the BBC, and arguably for the viewer and listener, the would-be reformers and raiders are muddled and partisan. This undermines their arguments. But it also makes a serious and sensible debate about the future direction of the BBC much more difficult.

The Digital Britain Final Report, the Twitter Blatherwick Report, published in mid-June, got the debate off to a bad start. The report has everything: Digital Unconferences, (presumably followed by Unconclusions), a "new model of Industrial Activism", the kind of wishful tinkering discredited long ago by the old Industrial Reorganisation Corporation; a Champion for Digital Inclusion; a proposal for tax breaks for "culturally British video games", (in which, presumably, men in bowler hats armed with cricket bats take on the worst that Killzone 2 or Resident Evil 5 can throw at them); a National Plan for Digital Participation; a stealth tax ingenuously described as "a small general supplement" on all fixed copper lines; a Digital Britain Twitter Account; and a South London family called Blatherwick who "consider themselves digitally connected". Everything, that is, except sound analysis and logical conclusions.

The report's section on Public Service Broadcasting is fatally flawed. It accepts that the current regime for public service broadcasting is no longer sustainable, and recognises the importance of an independent, stable, well-funded BBC. But it makes no sense to launder part of the BBC licence fee to support ITV's regional, Scottish and Welsh news, or public service programmes on Channel 4.

If the Government want to reduce the BBC's income, they should freeze the licence fee, and reclaim the Digital Switchover money that Ben Bradshaw and ITV are greedily eyeing. Giving Channel 4 a share in BBC Worldwide, a business to which Channel 4 brings almost no international programme rights and no management expertise, is misguided and probably unworkable.

In July Bradshaw, then the recently appointed Secretary of State who was disappointed that the BBC had reservations about the proposal to share part of the licence fee advocated in Digital Britain, launched a fierce attack on the BBC's refusal to toe the line. He also attacked the BBC's leadership. "There are plenty of people within the BBC that do not feel it is a well led organisation" was a hostage to fortune, given the recent history of the Labour Party. His position was rapidly corrected by Number 10, but the legacy of bullying remains.

In August the debate deteriorated further. James Murdoch's MacTaggart Lecture was so intemperate, so partisan and so ill-informed that it was difficult to take seriously. His dissatisfaction with Ofcom is clear, and understandable; it is Ofcom who are threatening, quite rightly, to force Sky to unbundle sports rights, the most important of what Rupert Murdoch described as "the twin battering rams" of subscription television.

But his references to "the expansion of state-sponsored journalism" as "a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision" were extraordinary, and demonstrated a total misunderstanding of the appropriately fractious relationship between the BBC and governments of any hue. It was, we should remember, News International's subsidiaries that kicked the BBC off the Star satellite and refused to publish Chris Patten's book in order to please the Chinese. That really was (to use James Murdoch's adjective) chilling.

This week the debate was raised a level by the unprecedented open letter from the chairman of the BBC Trust to licence-fee payers. At first glance this seems a highly risky stance, and suggests a less than whole-hearted defence of the BBC. In fact, it sensibly recognises that the broadcasting world is changing out of all recognition. A review that examines "whether the BBC is the right size and is operating within the right boundaries" is therefore timely, given the way the balance between the BBC and its commercial rivals has shifted.

The problems in the media market-place are, of course, not mainly of the BBC's making. Nor are they within the BBC's power to change. Forcing it to charge for online services would have only one immediate effect – a massive shift of market share to those providers whose services are still free. As News International knows only too well, charging for online news in New York, where there is no powerful BBC presence, is just as difficult as in London, and a very dangerous step for the first mover. And the problems of ITV and Channel 4 are not going to be solved by a marginal redistribution of licence fee income. Instead of devising elaborate and doomed ways of propping up commercial channels, the Government should return ITV and Channel 4 fully to the market and liberate them from the unsustainable shackles of their remaining public service obligations.

The elephant in the studio is, of course, the Conservative Party. They are understandably cautious about opposing News International's ambitions in an election year. But their early recognition of the need for public service spending cuts extends now to a belief that the BBC must share in the pain, a pain that cannot be deferred until the next licence fee round in 2012.

The Conservatives have been sensibly supportive, in general terms, of the BBC as one of the United Kingdom's few remaining world-class organisations, as has, most of the time, the Labour Government. A BBC review that is constructively radical, and that takes into account the wider broadcasting and media environment, can inform both government and Opposition decisions and preserve the essence of what arguably remains this country's most important cultural and creative institution.

Sir Christopher Bland was chairman of the BBC from 1996 to 2001