Save the BBC from all these cynics

A dangerous combination of factors within government could lead to changes to the charter
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The Independent Online

Public life has not been seen at its best over the past few weeks. Jobsworth civil servants, shifty politicians, bullying publicists, shifty journalists and faceless spymasters have all stepped gingerly into the limelight thanks to the efforts of Lord Hutton and m'learned friends in Court 73. Various influential but obscure backroom types have been flushed from their bunkers to account for themselves.

Because, on this occasion, the messenger is part of the story, attitudes within the BBC, and more interestingly towards it, have also come under an unusual degree of scrutiny. Peculiarly revealing have been the appearances on Newsnight, Today and news programmes of those ferociously on-message backbenchers that government ministers like to send over the top while they lie low behind the trenches. The way these politicians have responded to questions from Paxman, Wark, Esler or Humphrys has uncovered a profoundly cynical attitude towards the BBC.

Invariably, the politicians have suggested that their interviewer is following a pro-BBC agenda, steering the line of questions away from awkward areas of coverage and towards the activities of the Government. In other words, they have made the assumption that employees of the BBC are morally compromised, as eager to cover the backs of their own employers as a cabinet minister would be to present his or department in a favourable light. They have characterised the corporation as just another special interest group prepared to do more or less anything to win a public argument.

Most sane viewers, I imagine, will see that this implied insult to the integrity of public broadcasters is wrong-headed and paranoiac, but, at a time when the department of Culture, Media and Sport is preparing the ground for a major review of the BBC charter due in 2006, it should be taken seriously. A dangerous combination of factors within government, dislike of the BBC and a growing affection for big business, could lead to some dangerous changes to the charter.

The Hutton inquiry has pointed up the difficult balance that the corporation has had to achieve over the past five years. As a revered British institution, it is expected to carry out its business with a degree of correctness and dignity that, in the offices of any other broadcaster or branch of the media, would seem laughable. The BBC benefits from a compulsory license, the argument goes, and should therefore be above any kind of vulgar journalistic behaviour.

According to an article published this week in The New York Times, the organisation that, under Lord Birt, reached "some semblance of fiscal rationality" has, with Greg Dyke and director-general, become obsessed with aggressive reporting, taking its cue from the nasty, cut-throat world of British newspapers.

But while the BBC is accused on one side of being, in the words of Gerald Kaufman, "just another broadcaster, and a shoddy one at that", there is an equally powerful line of attack from another direction. After the Birtian "fiscal rationality", it has been accepted that the BBC cannot remain aloof from the market. It must produce programmes that sell abroad. It should promote its products and its image on air to the point of vulgarity.

In other words, it is in a cleft stick. Urged to follow market imperatives so that, as Tessa Jowell put it recently, "it delivers good value for money" to the license-payers, it is also expected to hold itself haughtily above the teeming throng of its media competition when it comes to the practice of its journalism.

I suspect that most viewers and listeners believe that, given these conflicting pressures, the BBC is not doing too badly. Personally I would like to see more arts documentaries and serious drama on the BBC television, but I recognise that it needs to pay its way against the competition. As for those lippy, sceptical interviewers, they are doing precisely what a public broadcaster should do at time when ruthless self-marketing has become an obsession among politicians.

But those of us who believe that, in spite of its gaffes and occasional spasms of self-importance, the BBC represents something uniquely worthwhile in our public life should not assume that it will remain untouched. The ranks of its enemies are large and swelling. The government hates it, the Conservatives see it as nest of lefties, the Murdoch press is openly out to destroy it, the Daily Mail forever whinges about its political correctness, and recently Lord Black's Telegraph group has joined the campaign against it.

With opposition of that quality, can there be any doubt that the BBC is by and large on the right track and deserves defending against any attempt to change its character or constitution?