We need the BBC, and Auntie needs her friends

There is enough skimping in broadcasting - let's keep the standard bearer
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The Independent Online
The tone of the Edinburgh International Television Festival was set in the opening words by the chairman, an independent producer: his introduction to the lecture by the BBC's director general was not so much a warm welcome as a char-grilling by blow torch.

At the end of his speech the director-general called for the support of the television industry for the BBC's appeal to the Government for the first real increase in the licence fee for 10 years. In days gone by there might have been a rallying round in such an audience. But now his appeal fell upon stonier ground, certainly no instinctive upsurge of loyalty to Auntie. A new air of lethal and serious competition has entered into this industry that barely existed in the old world of the cosy and somewhat incestuous terrestrial channels. Natural sympathy for the old public service ethos is waning.

Afterwards I found a huddle of ITV producers and executives spluttering and fuming among themselves. Why, they demanded to know, should they support the BBC? Where was the BBC under Michael Checkland, back in 1992, when ITV desperately needed support against the savage selling-off to the highest bidder of ITV franchises in the Broadcasting Act?

The BBC stood aside and said nothing as ITV money was scooped out of programme-making into Treasury coffers. At the time the BBC was keeping its nose clean with the Government to ensure a renewal of its own Charter.

The next day at a session to discuss the speech, a vote was taken on whether the BBC deserved a bigger licence fee or not. It was almost too close to call, though the moderator opined that the ayes had it - just. It is a small sign of the big battle ahead.

But the television festival is not the best testing ground of public opinion. It is the industry's annual forum for networking and bitching, back-scratching and back-stabbing, with burgeoning battalions of independent hopefuls mingling among the Masters of the Networks. The bars burble with deals, pleas and proposals. "It's a winning format, absolutely." "Remember me? I wrote to you a month ago ..." Elbows are tugged, sleeves plucked, a look of frenetic overkeenness gleams in too many eyes.

For this can be a desperate business, where programme ideas and scripts lie in unattended piles on the desks of the powerful while phone calls go unreturned. Last year 32,000 young people entered higher education media courses, God help them, for it is a world growing tougher every year. A Granada executive admitted he was making programmes for Sky for under pounds 5,000 an hour, which drew gasps of incredulity. Squeeze, skimp and cut is the story almost everywhere. That is why it is so important to make sure the BBC gets the money to make high-quality programmes.

But raising the question at all is dangerous, reminding people of the licence fee's curious status as a regressive poll tax. Not surprisingly David Elstein, director of programmes at Rupert Murdoch's Sky, made the running in the debate. People should not have to pay it, he said baldly. It doesn't matter that Sky revenues will outstrip the BBC's this year. Let the BBC offer itself to subscribers. The BBC has no divine right, it must find its natural market. And what (crocodile tears here) of the 750 single mothers who go to prison every year for non-payment of their licence?

At the moment a team of inspectors sent in by the Government is examining the BBC's books. Over the next few months a number of seductive alternatives to the licence fee will emerge again from right-wing think-tanks and disingenuous competitors out to bamboozle those politicians with an itch to mend something that isn't broken.

One idea puts a gleam in every commercial broadcaster's eye - a central public service funding agency should commission good programmes right across the airwaves. The BBC would cease to be this monstrous 24,000-strong institution that is often both hell to work for and hell to manage. (Its morale has been "at an all time low" forever, along with the NHS, universities and schools. It is the fate of institutions employing the extra-intelligent to have a miserable and bolshy workforce: they could all run it better themselves). Instead of the BBC networks putting out good but uncommercial programmes such as Panorama or Our Friends In The North, they might be funded and farmed out to anyone on any network.

Other suggestions abound, but each would quickly lead to a declining quality, as has happened across Europe's public broadcasters where other means of funding have been grafted on.

The BBC's divine right is what gets up the nose of other broadcasters - its sanctimoniousness, its arrogance, its size and power, its dominance. It is well and truly disliked and resented by many broadcasters and politicians. But it is loved and supported by the great majority of the population - and they like it a lot better than they like politicians. It is just about the only thing left that Britain does really well, better than anyone else.

The licence fee may have drawbacks. But, as Churchill said about democracy, no one has come up with a better idea. It is also astonishingly good value. Half of all listening and viewing is to the BBC - all for considerably less than the cost of one packet of cigarettes every week, a week's supply of the Sun, or the pounds 300 it costs for a full Sky subscription. As for the fate of those who end up in prison for non-payment, that is part of the scandal of the way courts deal with debtors - not the BBC's fault. If a future government wants to subsidise television for the poorest that's down to them.

But knives are being sharpened. The Murdoch press, ever eager to promote his real commercial interests in television, is to be watched. (The Times immediately trumpeted gleefully on the front page "Birt's Call For More Money Is Rejected", chortling over apparent instant-negative reaction by both Labour and Tories). Both parties are terrified of offending Murdoch before the election, and probably after it too. The BBC will need those who are essentially its friends, inside and outside the industry, to bury their hatchets and admit that British broadcasting quality has always depended on the BBC acting as its guy rope and standard bearer.