Sir Christopher Bland: A radical change in the Corporation's vision of itself

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This is a watershed moment in the history of the BBC, because it's the first time in the Corporation's long history that it has given anything up. Although the devil will undoubtedly be in the detail, it's a very sensible step, and the general principle is correct: the BBC needs to look at itself and not assume that everything it does is for eternity, and can only be done by the BBC.

I don't listen to BBC 6 Music or the Asian Network, and people who do will no doubt want to argue about their closure. I'm not sure whether they've targeted the right stations, but the fact is that the BBC should review what it does every five years as a matter of course. While the BBC's multi-channel approach to the fragmentation of the market has been sensible, I think it probably did go too far.

However, it's important to point out that this isn't a cutback: the BBC isn't getting any smaller in financial terms by doing this, it's simply redistributing money from one part to another. It's not shrinking its overall offering to licence fee payers; it's simply changing the nature of the offering.

I don't think it's an attempt to appease the Tories either, who have sensibly said they're not going to interfere with the BBC's licence fee settlement or review of its charter. The nature of the pre-election debate will be, as usual, not particularly rational, and the pre-election mode of the parties will not necessarily guide their behaviour towards the BBC once they are in power.

However, the BBC is taking a radical step by stopping some of its services in order to enhance others. In the past it has been like a great white shark, always feeling that it needs to keep on the move to survive and get bigger and bigger – so this is a significant change in the way it sees itself.

Cutting back a bit on aspects of the website won't make it easier for newspapers to take the step of charging for their online offerings, because the BBC is so far ahead already. It was the first media organisation in Europe to take online news seriously, and played a very important role in expanding the use of the internet as a means of getting news.

It's also a perfectly sensible decision to encourage Channel 4 to take the lead in providing public-service television for teenagers. If the BBC thinks that someone else in the marketplace is doing something better, whether it's a commercial or subsidised competitor, then there's a strong case for saying it's not a big enough argument for two people to have.

Those people who hate the BBC whatever it does will call these sacrifices phony pre-election nonsense, but that's because they'd like nothing better than to see the Corporation vanish. I'm not one of them, and I'd say they're missing the point. If Mark Thompson is finding £600m from the BBC's budget to put towards programming, you can't call that phony.

Of course, the Daily Mail and News International are never going to be happy until the head of the director general is served up on a silver plate, but they're wrong. The BBC remains one of the greatest cultural organisations not only in the United Kingdom but the world. It's not perfect and it makes many mistakes, but it is fantastic at what it does, and a licence fee of £142.50 is a small price to pay for it.

The writer was chairman of the BBC Board of Governors from 1996 to 2001