Leading article: Let's turn up support for our national voice

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The BBC's director-general yesterday lodged a bid for an inflation- busting increase in the licence fee. It is the BBC's oxygen as a public service broadcaster. However enterprising it has become in marketing its programmes, that must remain so. The fee rose in April, in line with inflation - it is now pounds 89.50. But the BBC now wants a one-off hike. This will provoke protests, it will be regressive, it will be condemned by lobbyists, MPs and newspapers. But John Birt is right. Any government that cares about the integrity of the United Kingdom, that values the place of Britain in the world, that has any concern for the mind and spirit of this country - especially any government that wears the label Conservative - ought to respond with an enthusiastic affirmative. Where the Tories lead, Labour would have to follow: together they could face down the objections of self-interested BBC knockers in the press. To raise the licence fee need have no electoral downside. It should be done at once.

The BBC's case has two legs. One is that convincing efforts have been made to improve the financial management of this unwieldy but immensely creative corporation. The Government recently accepted this when it agreed the renewal of the BBC's Charter and Licence. Now it needs to ensure that the more effective structure of resource allocation can fulfil its basic corporate purposes in changing cultural and technological circumstances - and if that sounds too much like the puffy corporate-speak John Birt has become synonymous with, it should not dismay a government which has itself spent umpteen millions of pounds of public money on attempting to do in Whitehall and local government what Mr Birt has been about in Portland Place and Wood Lane. A significant increase in the licence fee together with a commitment to maintain its real value is the least the Government can do to reward the BBC's success and prime it for the competition to come.

It is already here. The second part of the BBC's argument looks forward to a new era. The success of the global players, notably Rupert Murdoch, is attested by the profit figures for Sky Broadcasting announced this week. Mr Murdoch's bid to monopolise digital broadcasting by satellite is a tribute to his brilliant gamesmanship with regulatory regimes. It is also a public menace. Mr Birt has seemed at times uncertain - does he fear or admire Murdoch? He needs to be clear. Murdoch is the BBC's enemy; grappling with him is to fight the good fight.

Certainly it is hopelessly fatalistic to say that because there are trends towards concentration and world scale in the way the entertainment and news media operate that national broadcasting is finished. Tell that to the French. The position of the BBC as a player in the English language markets - albeit a marginal one compared with the Americans - can be consolidated. But to prosper abroad the BBC needs to be secure at home. That security does not mean aping Sky. It means carrying on what the BBC does so well, when it can plan ahead and take risks - making exciting programmes capturing life in modern Britain that people will watch. That is expensive, as the recent crazy arithmetic of league football transfers shows.

No one has to endorse all that Mr Birt has been up to as director-general. No one, likewise, can pretend that the search for savings in the BBC's budget can have come to an end (especially in television). Large amounts of money are still wasted and the BBC still does certain things badly (local radio is the most conspicuous example) and should give up. But the particularity and the peculiarity of the BBC deserve praise, not condemnation. Mr Birt needs to see that too much rationalisation may damage its idiosyncratic culture. Name the last good programme an accountant made.

The BBC stands on the narrow, insecure ground of an odd sales tax. Yet the licence fee provokes amazingly little resistance compared with other taxes. A round fee of pounds 100 would represent a once-and-for-all rise of just over pounds 10. Such a sum (about pounds 210m extra) would see the BBC into the new century, and digital broadcasting, with some style. Because the fee is regressive there is concern about its impact on lower-income groups who, heavy television watchers, are not always watching Newsnight. But the BBC's prosperity and creativity of course do not just benefit those watching or listening to its programmes. Sky News is kept honest by the existence of high-grade BBC and, to a lesser extent, ITN bulletins.

Mr Birt was speaking in Edinburgh, yet he made little of the BBC's appeal in an age when the integrity of the United Kingdom is in play. The Six O'Clock News, like Match of the Day and Byker Grove are watched north and south. Entertainment is not by itself social cement but the BBC undoubtedly does provide a general and national frame of reference. Watching the same BBC programmes at the same time is part and parcel of what in a fissiparous world it is to be British. We are, as a nation, bounded and defined by our national conversations; such conversation is unthinkable without the BBC. And that, in the end, is the strongest reason to back Mr Birt in his campaign.