James Murdoch used the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival last year to tear great lumps out of the BBC.
This year, the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, used the same forum to return the favour. Mr Thompson's mischievous suggestion that BSkyB should be required to pay a fee for carrying public service channels such as ITV, Channel 4 and Five (although not the BBC) is unlikely to go down well with the Murdoch media empire. But beyond the tit-for-tat sniping, who has right on their side in this struggle?
It is easy to make the case against the BBC. The sky-high salaries and bonuses of the corporation's senior executives and its layers of apparently useless middle management have been enough to boil the blood of even the corporation's most loyal supporters in recent years. The corporation can be terribly clumsy too. The move into publishing with the notorious acquisition of the Lonely Planet travel guide was foolish and damaging. And local and national private newspapers are still desperately trying to recover some of the ground lost to the BBC after the corporation's headlong internet drive (particularly the expansion of its news site) earlier this decade. There are governance shortcomings too. The BBC Trust is charged with being a regulator and a cheerleader and ends up doing neither effectively.
But it is important to recognise that the BBC's most aggressive opponents, such as Mr Murdoch, are not disinterested commentators concerned only with the public good, but rather vested interests with their own very specific commercial agenda. It has long been the dream of the Murdoch family to see the BBC shrink into a feeble provider of news, documentaries and minority-taste arts programming (leaving the lucrative sports and popular entertainment sectors to them). Mr Thompson is right to fear that the definition of public service broadcasting in such a world would come to mean television and radio that few people want to watch or listen to.
Those who want to shrink and neuter the BBC must not be allowed to get their way. There are two compelling reasons why. The first is that there is wide and deep public support for the BBC model of public service broadcasting. The Murdoch family might see the BBC as a socialist relic with no justifiable place in the modern world. But, as Mr Thompson pointed out in Edinburgh, the British public takes a different view.
The second reason is that the licence fee model works. The news output of the corporation is internationally unrivalled. And the BBC is also one of the foremost global producers of original drama and comedy, as the profits of the corporation's commercial arm, which sells the BBC's output abroad, attests.
Of course, at a time of austerity the BBC needs to make savings along with the rest of the public sector. And the corporation must be careful to avoid damaging a fragile media ecology. The BBC needs to ensure that its output is complementary to that of private media outlets. The impulse towards popularity must always be kept in check by the requirement to uphold quality. But Mr Thompson makes a powerful case for a well-funded and confident BBC in a digital media environment. The war between these two opposed visions of the proper public/private broadcasting balance is not over. But the BBC director general can be said to have won this skirmish.Reuse content