The BBC is spreading itself too thin

How did it ever come to be involved in property? In publishing all manner of books and magazines?
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It is all as infuriatingly familiar as those ghastly red cart-wheelers they use to preface the news: another director general, another period of contemplation and another round of tinkering dressed up as a vision for the future. Braving loud advance squawking about the "slashing" of jobs and the "bloodbath" at the Beeb, Mark Thompson has set about making the BBC fit enough to warrant the continuation of the licence fee for another 10 years.

It is all as infuriatingly familiar as those ghastly red cart-wheelers they use to preface the news: another director general, another period of contemplation and another round of tinkering dressed up as a vision for the future. Braving loud advance squawking about the "slashing" of jobs and the "bloodbath" at the Beeb, Mark Thompson has set about making the BBC fit enough to warrant the continuation of the licence fee for another 10 years.

Outside the corporation his efforts have been politely, though not uncritically, applauded. It is not our jobs he is dispensing with, you see, and there can scarcely be anyone who does not have some sort of proprietorial feeling towards Aunty. Buying a licence gives us the right to think of this institution as at least partly "ours". We boast that we "know" what is wrong with the BBC even more confidently than we set about offering our gratuitous advice to Marks & Spencer or Sainsbury's.

Those - many of us - who spent a part of our career in one or other division of this vast organisation are even more opinionated. We have views drawn from the snippets of our experience, at least some of it frozen in time. We fancy we know exactly what to do with the BBC - and the further away from Beeb reality we are, the more radical our suggestions. Not only are they not our jobs on the line, but we are not the ones who will have to drive through our ideas against a tide of institutional resistance. The benefit of this irresponsibility is that, unlike Mr Thompson, we can afford to have a vision, perchance even a dream.

The drawback of almost everything Mr Thompson is proposing is that it is tailored to its time and to the perceived conditions set by his political masters - those with the power to grant or withhold its funding by licence fee. Thus we have a nice, tidy 10 per cent cut in the payroll - but not quite yet. We have "devolution", to Manchester, of departments that anyone who has worked in any large organisation can see are the departments with less clout but enough political heft to please Whitehall - where, quite coincidentally, devolution of a similar variety is also on the cards.

We also have more than an echo of the Government's stated commitment to boosting the numbers on the "front line", that gritty place where those in the public pay "interface" with the great British public. Thus we have promises to boost "core" functions and trim or even spin off "peripheral" operations; to produce more "quality" programmes, reduce the number of repeats, and to stop signing up new populist "reality" shows just because that is what the most successful commercial competition is doing. The BBC will re-dedicate itself, again, to high culture.

So far, so very politic. The axe falls, in so far as it does, on what is not "core" to producing good programmes. Translate the word "core" as "essential" and the very concept poses a gigantic question. How did the BBC ever come to be involved in so many "non-core" functions? How come it has a diverse property portfolio? How come it is publishing all manner of educational books and magazines? Visit any bookshop in the run-up to Christmas and you will find a host of BBC titles. Yet, of the dozens of BBC magazines now in circulation, it seems that only two are definitely to be sold off.

And how, pray, did 1,000 people come to be employed in "human resources"? That is one for every 27 employees; almost one working day every month for each. Would that our GP surgeries were as well staffed.

All this, though, is no more than snipping at the edges, much of it obvious and overdue. The central message from Mr Thompson's plans is that most of the BBC's current broadcasting is a no-go zone for cuts. This makes the BBC look solid and responsible in Whitehall and may well reconcile staff to the proposed reductions. By protecting this "core", however, Mr Thompson has pre-empted a discussion that the BBC and its interested licence payers should have had long ago - "What is the BBC for?" Although those who administer our school examinations deny it, there is surely a point at which quantity and quality diverge. If the BBC sees itself as representing the gold standard of public broadcasting, as it does and should, it should concentrate on what it is best at and on what others cannot afford to do.

One basic point to be addressed is manning, throughout the corporation. Why are there more correspondents and back-up staff for most subject areas and in most foreign capitals than there were 10 years ago? We are told it is because of the demands of 24-hour news and all the local stations and World Service outlets. But why should dispatches be trimmed to all these different requirements? One, at most two, correspondents, per subject speciality or major city should suffice.

The second thing to be reconsidered is local radio. All of it should go. The national broadcaster has no need to be a presence in every city in the land. There is already plenty of commercial competition and there would be more if the BBC had not tied up some of the markets. In this time of political devolution, the principle of regional broadcasting should also be challenged. Should there be such entities as BBC Scotland and BBC Wales, or just one, national, BBC? Scotland, Wales and the English regions could have their own services if they made this a priority and could fund them.

The exile of the weakest to Manchester is something else that should be ditched. Far from devolving, the BBC should be concentrating its resources. How much is the new Manchester complex to cost? In addition to White City? In addition to the renovation of Broadcasting House? How much would be spent flying people to Manchester from London to appear on the relocated Five Live? How many would want to go? And if you think the transport question can be obviated by modern technology, there is a huge difference between turning up in a studio to take part in a live discussion remotely, "down the line", and actually being there with the presenter and the other contributors. Yes, it is arrogant and metropolitan-minded to think that our public broadcasting should be national and that it should be concentrated in London. But it makes cultural and financial sense. Encourage live relays of concerts or theatre from elsewhere in the country, and peripatetic programmes, such as Question Time. But the "core" should be in London.

Next to be dispensed with should be a good number of the new digital channels. Not because so few people watch them - they are so poorly billed, you often come across the best programmes quite by chance - but because the BBC is spreading itself too thin. The Parliament channel is essential; arguably the History channel, too - and 24-hour news on radio and television. This is where the BBC's authority shows and what makes it so envied around the world. On radio, why not separate news entirely from sport? Why keep both Radios 1 and 2? And what about the internet? The BBC should keep the excellent news website it runs, but almost everything else should be left to commercial providers.

The BBC should stop taking on everyone else and trying to beat them. Give us a minimalist BBC for our licence fee, a national broadcaster to be proud of, and a great deal of the sniping and gratuitous advice will immediately stop.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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