Leading Article: What Auntie must do next

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IT HAS NOT been a good week for Auntie. First Des Lynam walked off to the great cheque book of ITV, giving BBC sport a serious headache. Then Gavyn Davies' independent review panel gave them a migraine that could last even longer.

Television channels are increasingly defined by the on-screen talent they command: Channel 4 is Jon Snow, Johnny Vaughan and Chris Evans; ITV boasts John Thaw, Chris Tarrant and - now - Des. Even BBC2 has its stars in Vic Reeves, Jeremy Paxman and Delia Smith. But without Des Lynam or indeed Jill Dando, BBC1 has something of an identity problem. Increasingly the channel relies on harking back to the good old days (a return for Parkinson, The Two Ronnies or yet another repeat of Only Fools and Horses) to justify its own existence.

And it's not only the stars that BBC1 has lost. Des has gone because live football has gone. Rugby, cricket and Formula 1 racing are all now found by pushing a different button. BBC1 has underperformed in other areas too. ITV has been more imaginative with new sitcoms - and has blown the BBC away with the hideously compulsive Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The BBC's lame response is to revamp the National Lottery draw - a programme impossible to justify on public-service grounds.

The justification for a public-service corporation making populist television was always that it added to the social cohesion of the nation. Everyone, we were told, was able to dissect last night's Hancock or Z Cars in the pub. But how many conversations have you had about Jim Davidson's Big Break or Star Secrets? In addition, the populist output of BBC1 isn't even very popular. As the channel's share of viewing dips below 30 per cent, the "social cohesion" argument looks weaker and weaker, when it comes to entertainment at any rate. The BBC used to excel in every area of broadcasting. The suits in White City claim they still do, describing their output as "the benchmark" for broadcasting standards. But when the highlight of your sporting calendar is the Boat Race, that's hard to sustain.

Perhaps the most distinctive remaining jewels in BBC1's crown are in news. But don't assume that even they are unassailable. When in years to come we all have access to the digital News 24, the temptation of BBC1's controller to drop the Six and the Nine will be hard to resist. The digital revolution holds out vast potential opportunities - and pitfalls. By 2010, the BBC could be a world-beater, or a footnote. BBC managers think that money is the key to getting it right, and they were confident that Gavyn Davies' panel would come up with the extra pounds 600m a year they wanted. In the event the panel offered barely a third of that amount - and demanded that in return the BBC should be made accountable to the National Audit Office and should sell off its studios under the logo of BBC Resources.

The Government should think twice about accepting this recommendation. Despite all the hoo-ha in the popular press - led of course by newspapers which have an interest in the success of the BBC's commercial rivals - the pounds 30-plus annual digital supplement originally proposed by the BBC was a reasonable one (most digital viewers pay that in subscriptions in a single month). It makes little sense for Gavyn Davies' committee to complain that the current BBC digital output is "distinctly threadbare" and then to starve the BBC of the cash to improve it.

The days are gone when the BBC could provide a universal service in news, drama, sport and entertainment. Costs have escalated too greatly for it to compete with commercial stations. So the time has come to rethink what are the values which should be at the core of being a public service broadcaster.

What public subsidy should do is enable the BBC to create the benchmarks - of editorial integrity, of scrupulous accuracy and fairness, and of a duty to inform - which set the standards against which the rest of the industry can be judged. Such standards all too easily slip under the pressure of commercial imperatives to maximise audience share.

There is a moral issue at the heart of dumbing down, which is why it is crucial that the BBC should be spared from the unspoken insistence that ratings are all. If it can succeed in this - by reinforcing and rediscovering the values which made it great - its role of promoting social cohesion will follow naturally. The BBC will still be the channel to which people turn at moments of national drama, whether it be a royal wedding, a cardinal's funeral or a sporting triumph. In a world of increasing social fragmentation we would be the poorer without it.