Those three initials BBC have such resonance among Britons, and indeed elsewhere in the world, that it is hard to write about the corporation without triggering all sorts of emotional responses.
For many it is the voice you can trust, a source of reasonably unbiased news and reasonably balanced comment, a beacon of light in an otherwise murky world. For others it is simply the people who bring you David Attenborough and Jane Austen. For still others it is a bloated bureaucracy, where layer upon layer of expensive managers write newspeak memos about trivia to hard-working programme-makers before going home to Hampstead and the prospect of their index-linked pensions. For some it is clever people devising smart-arse programmes to hook the attention of a mass market for which they have private contempt. And for a few people at least it is a conspiracy by what is in effect a state-funded organisation to drive out competition from independent media sources that have to fund themselves the hard way: by getting people to pay for their output.
Given this wall of background noise let's start by picking out some clear signals. Try these three propositions, all of which seem to me to be pretty self-evident. The first is that the BBC is not just one of the great broadcasting organisations but also a way in which this country can have a positive influence on the rest of the world. The second is that its present funding mechanism – in effect a poll tax on UK residents – is not sustainable in the medium term. And the third is that global media have already changed unutterably as a result of the communications revolution and will change even more swiftly in the coming decade.
If you accept this, look at the consequences. We must in some way protect the things the BBC does really well and as far as is possible improve its output and increase its global footprint. Anyone who has any understanding of organisations will recognise that it takes years to build up a culture of excellence and, where it exists, that culture needs to be cherished and supported.
This matters more now than ever before. We live in a world where economic power is shifting away from the present developed world to the new emerging nations. I happen to relish that, for I am inspired to see the BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China – taking their rightful place in global economic governance. But I would be troubled if the influence of the best of Western media were to be pushed aside by this shift in power. I don't weep for the future of some of the media in the UK, US and Europe – or rather I do weep at some of the drivel they produce. The BBC of course has its faults, but it really does bring something special to the world that we tamper with at our peril. Imagine a world without it. Um?
But that clashes with the second point above. A funding system devised in 1946, when there was just one television channel, has become increasingly anachronistic in our multimedia world. It is also seen to be increasingly unfair. In a period when there will be little or no increase in public spending for the next five years it will become impossible to ratchet up the licence fee in line with the retail price index. Moreover all private-sector media have had to cut their costs, often savagely, as their income has been squeezed. Why should one organisation be uniquely protected?
That leads to the third point, the seismic changes taking place to global media. My crystal ball is no better than anyone else's but I think we have to accept that fragmentation will continue for another decade at least. The world of the media will become more chaotic. That may be no bad thing but it does mean that trusted brands become more important, not less.
There is a lot of money out there being used in an effort to manipulate the new media to commercial advantage. And there are masses of people out there, through blogging or whatever, pushing their views and ideas on to an ever more crowded marketplace. So there is a profound need to find ways of helping filter out the rubbish, while still allowing the interesting and counter-intuitive maverick views to get a hearing.
We all need something we can trust. I hope in our small way this newspaper does its bit by punching above its weight. But I would have to acknowledge that an organisation with the massive resources of the BBC helps much more.
So we have three propositions, all in conflict with each other, all pulling the BBC in different ways. Its reaction, up to now, has been one of any large, competent, if overly bureaucratic, entity. It has tried to maintain quality, slipping up occasionally, but with its errors more than offset by its successes. It has tried to increase its revenues, arguing its case with the government of the day, and branching out into all sorts of parallel money-making ventures. And it has responded to the explosion of media by using its resources to spray the waterfront with new products and services.
Thus every media organisation has to have a website but the BBC one has to be huge. Digital radio, the i-Player – all sorts of innovations it grasps and runs with. Unlike any other media organisation in the world it has started each year with a pretty clear idea of the amount of money it will have to spread around not just for the coming months but for the next few years. All other media groups have to watch their monthly revenues like hawks.
The good times came to an end for most media groups when the world economy tanked but for the BBC they have rolled on rather longer. Yesterday's announcement of what are really quite modest cost-cutting measures would have been unremarkable had it come from any other organisation. On Tuesday ABC News in the US announced that it was cutting staff by up to 25 per cent.
So what is to be done?
There is an inevitable temptation to pile on the pressure: to attack the director-general, the senior executives and the BBC Trust chairman and members. I happen to think that the corporation is lucky to have a good director-general (much better than some of the previous incumbents) but unlucky to have a weak chairman and Trust. It probably also has too many jobsworths at a quite senior level. Anyone who recalls the handbagging that PD James, guest-editing the Today programme, gave the director-general over the nonsensical job descriptions of senior staff will say aye to that. But this isn't at its core a problem of people; it is a problem of structure and organisation.
You cannot expect people to do well in their jobs until there are clear objectives. This is a vital issue of public policy so it should not be a party political matter. So the next government will have to think not just about the future of the licence fee but also the size and structure of the whole endeavour. Then, and it is really important, it has to lift this above politics and bring its opponents on side – well, more or less. There has to be leadership but there has to be consensus too.
And in what direction should this debate go? I don't think it is sensible to have a strong prescriptive "solution". The BBC will certainly have to be slimmed down and there is doubtless a lot of fat to be trimmed. The Trust should probably be reformed. There is a case for splitting the public service element away from the showbiz side. But we should tread cautiously, feeling our way, preferring to make a series of small changes that can if necessary be reversed, rather than propounding some radical vision that will seem absurd in another 10 years' time. This is something that is good. It needs to be nudged, not caned.