LEADING ARTICLE : The mystery of Auntie's savings

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Spot the odd story out. Planets collide, mountain ranges topple into the sea, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are spotted in a Morecambe boarding house - and there is a row at the BBC. You've got it - only the BBC story is certain to get a headline. As our foremost cultural and newsgathering organisation, it matters what the Beeb does. And at the moment it is having rows.

Under long-term competitive threat, which it knew would push up costs while driving down revenues, the BBC has been cost-cutting for seven years. In fact, so successful was its efficiency drive that last year a fund was set up to distribute the fruits to favoured programme projects around the corporation.

Then, six weeks ago, horror! New commissioning in network television was frozen as the corporation struggled to meet its target for reducing borrowing. Tales were told of savage cuts and massive redundancies. Playwrights peppered the letters pages of newspapers with prognostications of doom.

Yesterday the panic was off. The commissioning moratorium was over. All that was needed was some "rephasing" of programme production and a tighter use of cash. But now the governors are getting cross. They are reported to be galled that from 1993 to 1995, staff numbers at the BBC grew by 0.17 per cent. "It may be fitter, but it certainly isn't slimmer," one anonymous governor opined.

But these are the same governors who have presided over the setting up of Radio 5 Live, have initiated an expensive move of production from London to the regions and have agreed to halt the growth in short-term contracts. For them now to characterise a staff increase of one-tenth of 1 per cent as runaway extravagance is slightly bizarre.

So is the fact that the BBC seems to find and lose large sums of money in the way other people mislay and recover their car keys or sunglasses. Which is not wonderfully reassuring for those of us who would like to see the corporation as a serious player in the cut-throat global media market of the 21st century.

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