Leading Article: Tensions explode at the BBC

IT IS always a bad idea to criticise someone for being the wrong age or sex. Sir Michael Checkland, the BBC's outgoing director-general, should have chosen his words better on Tuesday, when he attacked his chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, for being too old. Better still, given his position, he should have kept quiet. Nevertheless, few would argue with his basic point that Mr Hussey should not have been given another five-year term in April 1991.

The fact that such a restrained, disciplined person as Sir Michael was driven to explode in public is evidence enough of the damaging tensions afflicting the BBC. Mr Hussey must bear some of the responsibility because of the interventionist manner in which he has performed his duties and his acceptance of the absurd transition period of 21 months before the new director-general, John Birt, takes over. Mr Hussey is also widely seen as a more overtly political appointee than is appropriate for the BBC.

Yet the root of the trouble is not personal. It lies in the problem of finding an appropriate structure and role for the BBC as it approaches the renewal of its charter amid a proliferation of commercial channels. If it competes head-on with the commercial channels it will become indistinguishable from them and thereby destroy its case for a licence fee. If it retreats into a public service ghetto it will shed viewers fast and thereby further diminish public willingness to pay the fee. Somewhere between these extremes it must carve out a distinctive role that will command enough public support to ensure its viability.

In doing so it must also evolve a constitution that ensures effective management, public accountability and independence from the Government. To the governors' credit, they now realise that one of the things they must do is withdraw from involvement in day-to- day management. One governor, Lord Nicholas Gordon Lennox, spoke wisely in August about the need to clarify and codify - for the first time - how the governors regulate the BBC in the public interest. 'The basis of our thinking,' he said, 'is that effective stewardship of the public interest is best achieved through the clear separation of powers between an executive management on the one hand and a regulatory body on the other, with the latter having powers to hold management to account.' If the governors are to be convincing trustees of the public interest, they must be sufficiently representative of, or anyway sympathetic to, the nation's political and cultural diversity. At the moment they are appointed by the Queen in Council on the advice of the Government. This procedure should be among the many aspects of the BBC to receive fresh scrutiny.

More broadly, the BBC should set up an outside body on the lines of a Royal Commission to look into its problems. The corporation is manifestly tearing itself apart by trying to cope with these very large and difficult issues internally. Its own consultation exercise has not produced consensus. An outside body could not only distance itself from the personality clashes involved but also insert powerful considerations of public interest between the political concerns of the Government and the interest of the BBC in its own preservation. The primary function of the BBC is to serve the public. The public interest must now be forcefully asserted.