Leading Article: The BBC's challenge is better programmes

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The Independent Online
The BBC will - we fervently hope - live on into 21st-century Britain. It will flourish, in spite of new technology and the multiplication of channels, because in that competitive and challenging world its output will attract viewers and listeners. The BBC will deserve its ratings if its programmes are courageous and exciting and innovative - which they will be if they embody the value of public service and that historic conception of the cultural integrity of this country which the BBC alone expresses and defends. What do this week's BBC events tell us about the likelihood of such a future coming to pass?

Let's start with the celebrated "gay kiss" on Eastenders - and see how quickly a minor soap-opera episode relates to the grand restructuring of BBC resources management disclosed on our front page yesterday. Michael Jackson, incoming controller of BBC1, this week stepped in to order a cut in the length of a kiss between two gay men. Why? It's real life. An awful lot of people have seen it happen on the street or in their local park. Why heavy-handedly cut it?

The BBC's reputation hinges as much on such exhibitions of social cowardice as the number of arrows on its management flow chart - a point John Birt, the director-general, sometimes seems to miss. Eastenders could be made entirely "out of house", bought in from an independent production company. It might be more or less well acted and directed. But the BBC's inescapable role is to ensure that plots are imaginative, that character develops, and that difficult themes such as sexuality, or social politics, or indeed just politics, are taken up with a sense of risk, and of engagement with contemporary life.

BBC2 proposes to have a "black" night once a week. It is an intriguing plan which could turn out to be embarrassing and second-rate, or a convincing destroyer of stereotype and prejudice. That critical judgement will not depend on who makes the programmes or where they are made, but simply on whether they make good television. Contracting-out, in other words, is no substitute for making public service broadcasting work day-to-day. Commissioners, not contractors alone, can ensure that the BBC offers something more than potboilers and spectaculars, sport and imports. In the end, content always matters more than structure. So the question is, does John Birt's proposed new structure secure high-quality content?

Mr Birt, though he may not know it, is a student of the late Nicholas Ridley. As Tory environment secretary in the Eighties, Ridley wrote a pamphlet arguing that public bodies, especially local authorities, need to meet only once a year in order to let a series of contracts, which would cover virtually every service for which they were responsible. All that was needed was a tiny group of super-contract-letters. This way competition for contracts would drive down costs while allowing the inner core (the "virtual corporation", in Birt parlance) to think and act strategically.

It is a theory that has appealed to the Government. It applied a variant in Whitehall, leading to the creation of such "Next Steps" agencies as the Prison Service. Mention that and immediately a problem becomes apparent. Can the centre retain control when operations are flung to the four winds; can a contract ever specify all the details of performance? Applied to television, the question is whether it is possible to create a contract that commits the integrity and flair and the whole-hearted commitment of production people? Mr Birt has never been a BBC programme-maker. He will never know how much producers depend on "resources staff", camera crews, studio managers. He yesterday denied that carving out BBC Resources as a free-standing entity was a preliminary to privatisation. But he knows that is not the point. The question is whether a small central core of contract letters and programme ideas merchants could carry the great weight of BBC standards, aspirations and performance.

Mr Birt's logic carries him much further than he has yet been prepared publicly to admit. The BBC could safely sell Broadcasting House and lease back the suite of offices needed to contain them - in the way that, at long last, HM Treasury says it is going to sell its Westminster headquarters and lease back space. This BBC would, it is true, have no need for all the superstructure of personnel,catering and other basic services which inflate the payroll and make it appear such a behemoth. But such changes are not going to improve the quality of programme ideas or bring viewers flocking to BBC1 on Saturday night. Every argument advanced by Mr Birt stands or falls on programmes.

There is, in Broadcasting House and Television Centre, a Jurassic tendency, people who fear all change. They do not see with John Birt's clarity that the BBC will have to adapt and compete in the brave new world of multi- channel broadcasting if it is to have a hope of commanding public resources, let alone seeing the licence fee raised. Mr Birt has said management change will free resources for programme-makers. There are certain challenges, notably the purchase of big-ticket sport, where money alone seems to talk. But in news and entertainment what matters as much as money is imagination, editorial integrity, commitment to the public good - qualities which money of itself does not buy. The virtual BBC deserves to become real only if it promises more and better real programmes. And that is how Mr Birt has to sell it to us, the people who fund it.