The BBC, like the NHS and other national treasures, wilts under criticism. It does not much like contact sport – which is maybe why it surrendered football to Sky.
James Murdoch would prefer to be clever rather than loved. His attack on the BBC in last year's MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh was nasty and brilliant. He knew the institution could not fight back. Neutrality and balance is in the BBC's DNA as well as its charter. It must accept all views as equally valid, even if the view is nothing more than a kick in the teeth. Mark Thompson, the BBC's director-general, came to Edinburgh on Friday to display the scars on his back. His dry humour about the BBC's whipping-boy status does not mean he cannot bleed. He flinched from mentioning directly the salaries of senior executives, but he alluded to the public distaste for the bureaucracy of the BBC.
Again, like the NHS, all talk these days is of frontline services – the fancier and more opaque the title, the more suspicion it raises. Thompson jauntily shrugged off assaults from newspapers such as the Daily Mail, brandishing polls proving that the BBC remains one of the most highly regarded of British institutions.
All public figures become politicians eventually, and Thompson joins their ranks in his dislike of the hostile press. The relationship between the director-general and newspapers is basically teacher/pupil. We heckle like sink-school kids and are surprised that he might be offended. But the BBC is steeped in a culture of offence aversion . The only thing worse than being culturally insensitive is to be stuffy; hence the uneasy relationship with its comedy wing.
The Royal Court Theatre is previewing a terrific new play at the moment by Bruce Norris about neighbourhood racism. Towards the end of Clybourne Park, the actor Martin Freeman, playing a yuppie father-to-be, tells a brutally racist joke. The young professionals, who protest, voice their own grievances – the joke is also implicitly anti-gay and anti-women. The competitive hurt reminds me of the BBC's liberal difficulty in dealing with a subject such as Islam. It wonders why everyone is so angry and upset. Indeed, Thompson's speech starts with a teasing allusion to the made-to-order rage exhibited by past speakers. I am sympathetic to Thompson on this. I, too, have low reserves of indignation, especially for a journalist, but equilibrium can look very like smugness.
And the reason for the (relative) popularity of Question Time, or the Intelligence Squared debates, is that we like watching an intellectual bust-up. The Daily Mail attacks the BBC because it senses a threat to its deeply held convictions. Where Thompson is absolutely right is that the beating heart of the BBC is its quality programming. It must ignore ratings for crappy popular Saturday night shows. Even X Factor's 10 million ratings are nothing compared with the global audience for the World Service.
The BBC argues that it must please all licence-payers by producing entertainment for everyone. I believe it misunderstands public wishes. Every man I know has a vision of Nirvana, and it is Sky Sport 3D, HD. We know the hunger for gadgets and infinite TV channels is recession-proof. Nobody expects the BBC to provide this. What most people want is trustworthy news, the Proms, University Challenge, first-rate drama. The BBC also provides a contrast to Murdoch with its free news website. It is the world's most middle-class institution. It can do no other, nor should it.