Leading Article: No BBC licence for complacency

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The Independent Online
THERE will, no doubt, be sighs of relief at the BBC in response to the conclusion of the Commons National Heritage Committee that the licence fee should continue to be the corporation's main source of funding into the next century. The all-party group says the BBC's charter should be renewed for a further decade from 1996. It thus recommends a breathing space in which the corporation may adapt to market changes and internal reform, the onrush of technology and the broadening of choice.

Skilful presentation and consistent lobbying by the BBC have fended off ideological incursions and the cruder threats of rivals who seek its disintegration. The Secretary of State for National Heritage should take generous account of the committee's recommendations when preparing his White Paper.

None of this is to suggest, however, that the moment has come for the BBC management to retreat into complacency. Nor can the director-general, John Birt, and his supporters assume that this cautiously worded report constitutes a full endorsement of their managerial revolution.

The BBC's task, as ever, is to resolve a peculiarly British paradox demanding that it must win a popular mandate in order that it can continue to produce elite programming. If its share of the national audience declined sharply, the argument for funding by licence fee, itself a regressive tax, would be impaired. The BBC was rightly quick to welcome the committee's suggestion that a way be found to ease its burden upon the less well-off.

There exists, then, a renewed need for Mr Birt's reforms to be examined, tested and, where found wanting, put right. It was folly, for example, to preach the virtue of staff reduction, only to achieve it by forcing valuable employees on to short- term contracts while increasing the weight of administration. Mr Birt now recognises that cost control must be combined with happy and creative talent if quality programmes are to result. Let this issue be a test of his commitment.

There is a danger that MPs and the Establishment may be beguiled by Mr Birt's presentational skills into believing that all is well at the BBC. Not everybody has unbounded faith in the calibre of those managers implementing the new culture. They, too, should not be immune from scrutiny in the period ahead. Before the corporation embarks upon building the 'empires without frontiers' so eloquently evoked by its chairman yesterday, it would do well to remember that empires are best built and preserved when the emperor and his courtiers do not rush unthinkingly to don new clothes.