The BBC is an asset, and the Government is right not to seek radical changes

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The Independent Online

The Government's Green Paper on the BBC acknowledges that there is simply no case for major reform of our national broadcaster. Unveiling the consultation paper in the Commons yesterday, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, rejected some of the more extreme proposals regarding the corporation that have been floated in recent months. The suggestion of the recent Burns report that some of the BBC's revenue should be funnelled off to other broadcasters - a move also apparently favoured by the influential former director general Lord Birt - was not acted upon. Nor was the idea that the BBC should be monitored and audited by an external watchdog.

The Government's Green Paper on the BBC acknowledges that there is simply no case for major reform of our national broadcaster. Unveiling the consultation paper in the Commons yesterday, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, rejected some of the more extreme proposals regarding the corporation that have been floated in recent months. The suggestion of the recent Burns report that some of the BBC's revenue should be funnelled off to other broadcasters - a move also apparently favoured by the influential former director general Lord Birt - was not acted upon. Nor was the idea that the BBC should be monitored and audited by an external watchdog.

The most significant announcement was that the BBC's royal charter will be renewed for another 10 years and that the corporation will continue to be funded by the licence fee. The BBC will continue to be Britain's national broadcaster for the foreseeable future.

But this was not a simple rubber stamping exercise. The paper demands that the existing system of governors - which has existed since the BBC was founded in 1927 - be scrapped and replaced with two bodies: a BBC trust and an executive board. The trust will ensure that the broadcaster fulfils its public service role. The executive board will carry out the day-to-day management of the organisation.

Giving powers over the corporation's budget to the trust, as suggested, could pose a problem. It is unlikely that the members of the trust - despite that fact that they will be led by the BBC chairman, Michael Grade - will be best placed to appreciate the commercial pressures on commissioning editors. Nevertheless, the principle of separating the powers of governance from those of management is to be welcomed. The verdict of the Hutton inquiry last year on the performance of the BBC governors in the Kelly affair was grossly unfair. But it did serve to highlight the problem of asking the same set of individuals to be both watchdogs and champions of the corporation at the same time.

Also, while the licence fee is confirmed for the next 10 years, its long-term future is left open. The Green Paper states that, in seven years, alternative ways of funding the BBC - such as subscriptions - ought to be examined. But, again, this is sensible. The landscape of broadcasting has changed enormously in the past five years. Where most households used to be restricted to five terrestrial channels, many now have dozens. When the great "switchover" from analogue to digital occurs in 2012, the public will have even more to choose from. This will inevitably raise legitimate questions about the licence fee, and it would be futile to attempt to shut down debate in advance.

Some have argued the Green Paper's instruction that the BBC must concentrate in future on "public service broadcasting" is a firm warning against attempts to compete with rival broadcasters for audience ratings. But there is no reason why this should act as any such impediment. The BBC often makes expensive, popular programmes that can be classified as being "public service broadcasting". If anything, this is a warning against producing expensive, derivative and low-quality TV - something that the BBC is much less guilty of than other broadcasters.

The leadership of the BBC gave the Green Paper a lukewarm reception yesterday. Mr Grade was frustrated that the Government did not give his own governance reforms a chance to demonstrate their effectiveness. But the truth is that, as Mr Grade must know, this Green Paper is a recognition of how well the BBC has recovered from the aftermath of the Hutton report, when the entire future of the corporation was called in doubt. The vicious anti-BBC lobby that was in the ascendant in those months after Hutton has been successfully seen off - for now.

The BBC is not perfect, but it provides an invaluable educational, cultural and information service to this country and, indeed, the world. As this Green Paper recognises, it must be allowed to continue its good work with the minimum of interference.

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