The BBC's challenge: LEADING ARTICLE

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The Independent Online
Sir Christopher Bland, the new chairman of the BBC, is an accomplished deal-maker who demonstrates - not for the first time in British life - that in rising to the top, who you know is as important as what you know. Politically, he is a Tory trusty. His appointment in the dog days of this government may not be quite partisan enough to demand immediate replacement by a Blair government but it is biased enough to give the country's non- Tory majority grounds for mild anxiety.

Except that Sir Christopher's party allegiances are far less important than his capacity to think imaginatively and strategically about non-profit broadcasting in the multi-media future. For all the policy units and advisers in suites at Broadcasting House, the BBC often produces second- rate futurology. The problem is partly the BBC leadership's almost complete inability to sell (to staff as well as the outside world) a sense of excitement about the opportunities of the rapidly changing media climate. It is also a problem of circle-squaring. The Government demands the BBC both serve this (fissiparous) nation and compete internationally with the Murdochs, CNNs and others. The objectives may be incompatible.

Let us assume Sir Christopher's footwork is nifty enough and he survives the election. His priority should not be the way the BBC is run, beyond deciding who succeeds John Birt as director-general. Sir Christopher must avoid the trivialities of the Marmaduke Hussey era. He must think strategically about the structure and culture of a business which needs both to compete and to serve.

Sir Christopher must watch television, start to listen to music radio, surf the Net and buy programmable CDs. "Broadcasting" is no longer circumscribed by a hard and fast definition. The principal public service broadcaster cannot be held responsible for a national culture pummelled and shaped by global waves of technology and cultural commerce. Nor is it likely to be able to survive as it is. A good chairman of the BBC as the 21st century dawns should have one question constantly on his lips: how much longer can this anachronism persist, so admirable yet so out of date. In his previous job as chairman of London Weekend Television he came up with some very good wheezes to retain talent, motivate managers and win the franchise. He will need that savvy and a lot more to succeed at the BBC.

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