Leading Article: Public service that neglects public opinion

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THE BBC has never been properly accountable. Ministers, MPs, the great and the good all have their say about the corporation. But listeners and viewers enjoy little power beyond being able to switch channels. The general principle has been 'Auntie knows best'. Vital decisions about public- service broadcasting have often been taken in private with disdain for public consultation.

Yesterday the BBC governors were asked to rubberstamp plans to abandon children's programmes on Radio 5 - managers wanted their place taken by sport and news. It was a typical ruse. The proposal was announced only last week - yesterday the Board of Management railroaded it through the Board of Governors before anyone could say 'Adrian Mole'.

There are good arguments for reforming Radio 5. Its programming is erratic and audience slight: many children are unaware of the station or dislike the format. Children's radio may be outdated in an age of television, videos and computer games. But Radio 5 is only three years old. Its role in pioneering radio for young people is just taking shape and commercial radio is unlikely to fill the vacuum. Before this innovation was junked there should have been a public debate on its successes and failures.

But who had the job of ensuring that the views of the public were taken seriously? Broadcasting has a regulator to guard against bias and invasion of privacy. Another watchdog monitors sex and violence. The BBC's General Advisory Council, intended by Lord Reith to include 50 of Britain's busiest people, represents the establishment. But there is no body officially charged with expressing the general consumer's views. So when the BBC's Board of Management suggested abandoning much of children's radio broadcasting, the governors had few means to gauge the public interest.

Without proper consultation, the governors are inclined to reflect middle-class pressures. So last year - in the face of listener revolt - they halted the loss of Radio 4's long-wave frequency to a 24-hour rolling news service. Children have less power than middle-class adults. An independent consumer broadcasting council is needed to guarantee a voice both for them and others whose views are often neglected by public broadcasting bureaucrats.