As the debate over the future of the licence fee gets under way, the question is what the BBC is for

Old guardians spoke of previous golden ages and the need to reform the current system

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A quartet of esteemed former chairmen and directors general of the BBC appeared before MPs on Tuesday to give their views on how the Corporation should proceed.

It has been a turbulent 18 months at the BBC, with the organisation still struggling to right itself after a succession of calamities that began with the Savile affair and have run on through the executive pay scandal and the wasting of £100m on a disastrous computer project. Tony Hall, who has been the boss for less than a year, has found it hard to implement his plans.

So it cannot have been easy for him listening to the old guardians talking of previous golden ages and the need to reform the current system. The most outspoken was Lord Grade, who furnished members of the House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport committee with a radical vision for the BBC’s future.

Having been Chairman of the BBC, Executive Chairman of  ITV, and Chief Executive of Channel 4, he has perfect public service broadcasting credentials. Staff at the BBC, facing £700m cuts by 2017, would regard him as an ally.

But Lord Grade’s plan was for an even more drastic reduction in scale. He told MPs that the BBC had “become far too big”. He presented the Committee with a treatise on the BBC – reproduced in this paper today – in which he argued that an organisation with “a default territorial agenda” must hand over great swathes of its empire to the private sector. There was no need, he said, for the BBC to be making dramas and documentaries when they could be commissioned from independents.

This cry for outsourcing should not be dismissed as crude lobbying from the chairman of the Pinewood and Shepperton studios. Lord Grade knows the value to British cultural life of both the BBC and Channel 4, suggesting they should share the licence fee to safeguard their futures. “I count myself as a firm believer in the idea of the BBC,” he stresses.

The other former BBC grandees who gave evidence went to great lengths to explain the Corporation’s value, as it positions itself to negotiate for a new licence-fee settlement beyond 2016.

Lord Birt, who was disliked by many staff for austerity measures during his time as Director-General, described the last settlement – which forced the BBC to make 16 per cent savings – as “skulduggery in the middle of the night”.

Former BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies argued that, despite its travails, the organisation has had “a good decade”. Mr Davies appeared at the Committee alongside Greg Dyke and they are well-placed to judge the recent fallout, having both lost their jobs in the tumult of the David Kelly affair in 2004. As Mr Dyke pointed out, when the BBC received its 10-year Royal Charter in 1996, there was no mention of the internet. On Tuesday he and Mr Davies reflected on the impact of the iPlayer.

The BBC exists in a fast-changing world and it is right that its future is the subject of intense debate, even if Lord Grade’s provocative proposals for emergency surgery are a step too far. The broadcaster’s 92-year history has been a long process of evolution as well as growth and, as MPs heard, it is a unique concept that no one would consider launching today.

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