Go global, but don't forget your strengths: The BBC must take stock before it rushes into the brave new multi-media world, says Marjorie Mowlam

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The Independent Online
DON'T hold your breath, but the Department of National Heritage may be about to produce something. We can never be sure, but we are expecting their proposals for the future of the BBC today. Nearly two months after the BBC confidently launched its global strategy and an international joint venture with Pearson plc, the Government looks certain to follow its lead.

The right wing in the Cabinet may still get their way and force an indefensible sell-off of the BBC's entire transmitter network. Beyond that it seems little will change.

This would be a mistake and far from positive for the future of the BBC. That is not to suggest that the Government should be interfering, but that the BBC management should step back and review where current changes (many of them positive, some not) are leading.

In some senses the future of the corporation is crucial to the future of the UK. It is symbolic of our country in a way that many other institutions once presumed permanent (such as the monarchy) may no longer be. It is a tribute to British industry, has a wonderful trademark in its name, an invaluable asset in using the English language and, I believe, has a great future in the highly competitive, multi-media world that lies ahead.

Even more important is the value of the BBC as a source of information to the public. A democracy flourishes by upholding individuals' rights to information and free expression. The role of institutions such as the BBC is central to this basic tenet.

Programme making has always been at the core of the BBC's activities. The controversy generated by 'Producer Choice' has focused on the increasing involvement of independent companies in making programmes for the BBC. There is a danger that if in-house production at the BBC falls below a critical mass, economic pressures will transform the organisation from a programme maker into a programme publisher and broadcaster. Yet if the BBC ceases to be a large-scale programme maker, neither its domestic obligations nor its great international potential can be fulfilled.

Production is the first area that the BBC should examine, not to introduce yet more changes but to correct existing problems, to offer employees greater security and hope for the future, to reduce reliance on short-term contracts and to make more programmes. Allied to this is the BBC's training role as a skills centre for the audiovisual industries as a whole. It has been suggested that Producer Choice has adversely affected the BBC's training programme. The BBC should monitor training rigorously and offer more of it.

The second area of concern is accountability and user representation in broadcasting. This is a complete shambles. To be sure, the BBC is propagating accountability structures: more than 60 advisory councils, the Broadcasting Standards Council, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, the new Programme Complaints Unit and, of course, the governors, regional meetings, performance indicators and public surveys. This structure clearly needs to be simplified to ensure that the BBC reflects and responds to the full diversity of views.

What is crucial is openness and transparency, right up to government level. The accountability of the board of governors as 'trustees for the public interest' (Extending Choice, BBC 1992) can be enhanced only by the guaranteed independence of the corporation. The current stitch-up under which the Royal Charter is renewed should be replaced by an Act of Parliament, which would allow an open public debate, bring the UK's legislative framework for public broadcasting into line with most other European countries and reduce the threat of future political interference. Moreover, the remit and system of appointment of the governors must be revised to ensure that they are genuinely the trustees of the interests of the licence fee-paying public.

The lifeblood of the corporation is, of course, its funding base. Annual uprating of the licence fee in line with inflation may not keep pace with the rise in production and broadcasting costs. So the BBC will need other sources of income to secure its future growth and development. I accept that it is crucial for the BBC to expand its international services so that it does not become simply a residual public service broadcaster.

Indeed, that expansion is already occurring. The growth of World Service Television and international joint ventures can capitalise on the BBC's technical and creative expertise and the wealth of archive programme material. The merchandising activities of BBC Enterprises is another expanding source of income. However, the growth of the BBC's commercial activities must not be allowed to compromise its domestic public service remit. The licence fee fund must clearly be ring-fenced exclusively for this purpose. This is essential for the BBC's public credibility. Commercial considerations should not intrude upon the BBC's programme scheduling, nor should the public be made to pay twice for the same services.

Of course, the BBC will change as the audiovisual world changes. The impact of growing cable and satellite networks and the availability of subscription and pay-per-view services will inevitably alter people's viewing habits and choices. However the BBC responds, it must not forget its strengths and uniqueness. It is a public service, paid for with public money, reaching more than 90 per cent of the UK audience, and it is a standard-bearer of quality and choice.

Most media analysts and practitioners admit to being unsure about the timing and structure of the media revolution under way. But we do not need to let technology lead us by the nose. Good products and high-quality software are going to be the crucial currency of the future - whatever method of distribution is used to reach the public.

Labour's message to the BBC is this: compete with other broadcasters; yes, expand your international activities; but you neglect at your own peril the value of the BBC as an educational medium - from the Open University to current affairs, as a children's programmer, and as a standard-bearer of quality programming. Above all, do not stop doing what you are being paid pounds 1.5bn of taxpayers' money to do, which is to make and show excellent programmes.

The writer is the Labour Party's national heritage spokeswoman.