The BBC News at Ten is just part of Mr Dyke's welcome new reforms

Imagine the task of a foreign correspondent in this country, trying to explain the huge fuss over the timing of television news bulletins. It seems absurd that plans to move the BBC's nine o'clock news to 10pm should so dominate the front pages of the newspapers. Politicians have waded into the debate, while most of the attention given to yesterday's big speech by the director general of the BBC about his vision for the corporation's future focused on that one detail of scheduling.

Imagine the task of a foreign correspondent in this country, trying to explain the huge fuss over the timing of television news bulletins. It seems absurd that plans to move the BBC's nine o'clock news to 10pm should so dominate the front pages of the newspapers. Politicians have waded into the debate, while most of the attention given to yesterday's big speech by the director general of the BBC about his vision for the corporation's future focused on that one detail of scheduling.

The timing of the main evening news bulletins is important, however, because it is a symbol of the kind of broadcasting Britain can expect to see over the next decade, in which increasing numbers of people will buy digital boxes that can receive hundreds of channels through existing aerials.

We British retain a folk memory of when there was only one television station in this small island nation, which helped to unite us in a single culture, and in which the BBC had a special responsibility to use mass entertainment as a lure to educate the masses. Technologically, that model has long since ceased to be feasible, and yet there was something valuable in it that is worth trying to preserve, even if the final shape of the multi-channel digital world is not yet clear.

The paternalism and condescension of the old BBC has largely disappeared already, and rightly so, but the idea of a broadcaster guided by an ethos of public service, combining the objectives of education and social inclusion, ought to be adapted to new circumstances.

It is worth continuing to pay a licence fee for the BBC, therefore, so that Britain has one national broadcaster motivated by values other than the pursuit of profit. But there is an important proviso, which is that the corporation should possess the leadership and the ingenuity to find new ways to keep its distinctive ethos fresh.

Against that benchmark, Greg Dyke's lecture in Edinburgh yesterday was a modest success. There is a pleasing plausibility about his plan for a "seven-channel" digital TV service, although the seven channels would really be five, with two of them, BBC 3 (youth) and BBC 4 (arts), doubling up as children's channels during the day; the fifth is BBC News 24, the rolling news channel.

With any technological innovation, the BBC has to strike a balance between leading the way, which, by definition, means being available to only a minority, and keeping abreast of change. We are in a transitional phase, with digital TV and the internet accessible to a minority. So far, the BBC has got the balance about right, and Mr Dyke, with his talent for populism, seems set to keep it that way. His renewed commitment to a universal BBC, free at the point of use, was welcome - although it is also to his credit that he has considered radical alternatives .

Shared national experiences are still important, although they - and television's role in them - have changed. The reach of Big Brother on Channel 4, for example, has been remarkable. Most big sporting events are no longer on the BBC but they are guaranteed by law to be on free TV channels. Even in the United States, the three networks broadcast national news in the same early-evening slot. Established TV and radio programmes are part of the mental furniture of people's lives, and for years News at Ten was the book-end of the day for millions.

The BBC should be able to make the 10pm slot work, and Mr Dyke has committed himself to raising viewing figures between 9pm and 10pm. If he succeeds, he will deserve rich praise.

Comments