Summer cannot last for the BBC : LEADING ARTICLE

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The Independent Online
Notwithstanding the squall whipped up yesterday by John Redwood, the BBC is enjoying an Indian summer of public and political approval. The demise of Thatcherism has silenced serious critics on the right, and Labour has yet to construct an original position. Last week's Commons debate on the future of the corporation caused barely a stir, offering clear cross-party support for retaining a licence fee and thus securing funds for the short term at least. Meanwhile ITV, satellite and cable broadcasters have been too preoccupied battling with each other to challenge the BBC's privileges.

But there are problems. Audience share is falling as commercial broadcasting expands and tastes grow more diverse. This explains the publication yesterday of the BBC's plans to broaden its appeal. These proposals will prove controversial: like other national institutions, such as the NHS and the Post Office, the BBC cannot change itself without provoking anger. Any alteration, be it closing a hospital or rescheduling Woman's Hour, causes resentment, and conservatives usually have the loudest voices.

But yesterday's proposals, including more regional news, light music, new drama, more entertainment, leisure and educational programmes, are a promising mix. Elitism at the BBC has been tempered to reflect a more democratic age in which the judgement of good quality will rest more with the consumer and less with the programme maker.

After all the effort that has gone into reforming the production process at the BBC, it is welcome that attention is now being focused on what viewers and listeners want. More consideration should also be given to the ways in which the BBC uses its own airwaves to canvas views: formats such as Points of View and Feedback, mediating public criticisms through a presenter, are patronising.

But a bigger concern is that the BBC is still fudging important questions that threaten its long-term future. These do not concern merely adjusting the mix of high- and low-brow programming. The issue is how the BBC will face an explosion in competition that will occur over the next 10 years. International media developments threaten to dwarf a one-time giant of broadcasting.

It is true that BBC executives have taken the first, cautious steps towards meeting this new competition. The corporation has undertaken joint ventures with satellite television to broadcast a limited range of programmes around the world. But becoming a global organisation, which is vital if it is to fight more than a defensive battle, is virtually impossible as long as the BBC maintains its funding from the licence fee, its Foreign Office grant and its unique regulatory relationship with the state.

The BBC will need to be free of these constraints if it is to have a dynamic role in the communications world of the 21st century. It is understandable that the BBC's leaders should prefer to avoid this debate; Indian summers are a pleasant experience.

The likelihood is that the summer's end will come when commercial broadcasters conclude that the BBC's freedom to move between the commercial and the publicly funded represents unfair competition. It would be better for those who believe in public service broadcasting - namely, most of the BBC's audience - if the ground were prepared for that debate now.

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