Last month, I went to Marlborough House in London for the launch of a report, Brave New World Service. It had been commissioned by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association to consider the future of the BBC World Service when, as is planned, it comes under the auspices of the domestic BBC. It was a delightful occasion; I encountered many old friends. But for anyone who, like me, was once on the payroll of the Corporation, it was also infuriating.
The mood was one of reminiscence and cosy self-congratulation. Everyone had their favourite golden days: the Second World War, the Cuban missile stand-off, the Cold War, Middle East hostage crises, Iran's Islamic revolution, now the Arab Spring. But the notion that anything at all positive might come of the funding shift – from a Foreign Office grant (with strings) to the licence fee – or indeed that money could not be found from somewhere to keep the very special World Service uncontaminated by the populist germs assumed to be incubated by the domestic services, elicited personal affront, mixed with angry lamentation.
Much of the same spirit was abroad yesterday, after the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, announced the sacrifices needed to keep the licence fee pegged to its current £145 a year. Having learnt the hard way that closing whole services, however small their audiences, brings forth a torrent of hostility that the BBC top brass are too spineless to resist, Mr Thompson presented the sort of exercise generally described as salami-slicing. Quite fat slices, to give him his due; after all, they are designed to produce a 20 per cent cut in costs. But the furious mourners were in full voice even before he had uttered his first words.
They expressed the usual big complaints – to the effect that the world's most respected broadcaster was being destroyed – along with the usual sectional ones, about drama, music, light entertainment and the rest. Joan Bakewell – a national treasure to rival the BBC itself – leapt to the defence of the "small modest people listening quietly to their local radio" whose stations would, she objected, lose their unique character.
What was not heard – as it rarely is – was anything much about the way the BBC had expanded into the multimedia empire that it is today, how the number of jobs and services had been able to multiply to embrace a host of functions increasingly remote from national broadcasting, and why it needed so many structures not only for broadcasting, but to market itself and communicate its case.
If the BBC is now acknowledging that it must draw in its horns, such enlightenment is welcome, if overdue. Whether it has truly absorbed all the implications, however, must be open to question. At the heart of its thinking remains the easy assumption that greater efficiency and value for money are not compatible with quality. But money does not automatically produce quality; that depends on how the money is spent, which in turn depends on the calibre of managers, as well as producers and editors.
A succession of incidents in recent years has exposed management that is bloated, unaccountable, flat-footed – and pay rates disproportional to actual responsibility. You may be able to buy the best available "talent", as the jargon has it, but you have to know how to use it. And that in turn depends on someone, preferably more than just someone, having an idea of what the organisation as a whole should be about.
While the cutbacks announced yesterday do the job they are supposed to do – paring away that magic 20 per cent – they have been calculated to inflict the least possible "damage" within the present disposition of services. In inside-BBC terms, this is entirely defensible: the harm to staff, programmes and channels is minimised and shared. And some good may come of it.
Slimmer management should improve decision-making. It makes practical, as well as financial, sense for local stations to pool resources regionally, with local opt-outs at peak times. With two major new buildings – at Broadcasting House and Salford Quays – much other property can be dispensed with. The BBC would also do well to compare its own staffing at, say, party conferences, rock festivals, international summits and the like, with that of its commercial rivals, and ask whether the vast disparity in numbers is really reflected in superior coverage.
As for repeats, which have become almost synonymous with cost-cutting, I fail to understand why repeats should be treated as such a dirty word. Why should expensively made programmes – state-of-the-art, gold-standard, best-in-the-world, etc – not be repeated? Why should the BBC not capitalise on what it does best? Why, for example, only last weekend was the BBC broadcasting a concert with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from Singapore, when it holds the rights to its own Promenade concerts in London, the latest season only just concluded, and could repeat them free?
To the extent that the shared-pain approach has the desired effect, however, it will only postpone the day when the bigger questions have to be asked about the purpose of the BBC, its cost in relation to its benefits, and its place in our fast-changing media landscape. Any delay doubtless suits the Corporation's present management, and the Government, neither of which needs any more fights on its hands than it already has.
In time, though, the BBC will face the combination of an even harsher commercial reality and a cash-strapped public with only fading memories of the Corporation's glory days. It will then be forced to do far more painfully what it should have already started doing gradually and voluntarily: stripping away all functions that are extraneous to its role as the national public service broadcaster.
This does not mean that it is doomed to a marginal future along the lines of the US National Public Radio. It does mean, though, that local radio should be transferred to a commercial basis; that the website should derive exclusively from the BBC's broadcasting; that all book and magazine publishing should be spun off; and that the Corporation should revert to being an unashamedly national service – and the envy once again of the world.