What Director? What General?: By its special status, the BBC is obliged to stand for truth, honesty, accuracy, quality and universality - and so should its leading employee

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L'AFFAIRE Birt is serious, and that is why it is so funny. It is funny because to hear of the suits, secretaries and fiscal shufflings of the director-general of the BBC is like being told that the Archbishop of Canterbury wears string vests under his robes - the demeaning intimacy of the detail undermines, however irrationally, the status of the job. But it can be funny only if the job has status to start with. Learning that an estate agent avoids tax on his Armani threads or that a bus conductor wears string vests would not raise a smile.

There is a barrier here - invisible, unspoken and, at the margin, ill-defined. On the far side, the man and the job cannot so easily be separated. We demand something personal of the Archbishop or the Cabinet Minister that, if undelivered, makes him unfit for the job. The nature of these demands may vary - string vests may not be that serious, though unpaid Access bills are dangerously close if you happen to be Chancellor of the Exchequer - but a number of jobs, broadly covered by the heading Public Service, place symbolic moral demands on those who do them.

In judging Birt, the question becomes: how far into that realm do we place the job of director-general? Your answer to that depends on your valuation of the BBC and its role in the face of the revolutionary changes that are going to take place in the electronic media over the next 20 years. My answer is that Birt is right up there with Dr Carey.

Until the mid- to late-Seventies, the status of the BBC remained roughly but clearly based on its Reithian inheritance. It had enormous national and international credibility and, though it had frequently dabbled with a very un-Reithian anti-establishment dissidence, its essentially moral foundations and justifications were intact. The BBC seemed believable, independent and motivated by higher ideals than commercial broadcasters.

Thatcherism, of course, threatened all that and for more than a decade the BBC struggled to maintain its composure in the face of humiliation or extinction. It survived, though with some loss of dignity, entering the Nineties and the Major administration saddled with the insane mechanism of the Checkland-Birt handover, internal demoralisation, paranoia and a general sense of lurching indirection.

But it also entered the Nineties in better than ever political shape. The Tories are now in no condition to do anything nasty to the BBC. They made an appalling mess of ITV's new franchise arrangements and, anyway, few now think that there is anything to be gained, either electorally or in the real world, by trashing this particular institution. The licence fee will survive. Constitutionally, at least, the BBC is now as safe as it could ever reasonably expect to be.

That safety, however, is worthless and undeserved if the BBC does not know what it should be doing and, unfortunately, it is overwhelmingly obvious that it does not. What it should be doing is simple: it should be fulfilling its role as the institution at the heart of British broadcasting. What that means is equally simple: the BBC is obliged by its special status to stand for truth, honesty, accuracy, quality, universality and, most important but maybe most difficult, the embodiment of the national sense of what the best possible broadcasting organisation should be.

Perhaps that sounds absurdly pompous and perhaps it is. But, in a sceptical, relativistic age, any absolute sounds pompous and, since all institutions require some form of absolute, all institutions are destined to sound pompous. It comes, as John Birt would probably say, with the territory.

That the BBC is failing as such an institution has been acutely and devastatingly pointed out by two of the smartest barons of the commercial sector - Michael Grade of Channel 4 and Bruce Gyngell of the late and increasingly lamented TV-am. Both made specific points about costs and management, but the real charge was the BBC's lack of institutional conviction. Grade memorably summed up the point by saying the BBC 'keeps us all honest'. Exactly. Institutions keep shame alive. Whatever the contingencies of their daily performances, their very existence offers the possibility of a rebuke.

Birt is not the man to understand such things. I first became aware of how far he was from grasping the metaphysics of institutions at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1989. Rupert Murdoch delivered a lecture in which he tore apart the complacency of British television and dismissed the BBC as a political stooge. The occasion demanded - and Murdoch would have expected - a response in kind, a ringing declaration of faith.

Birt, then deputy director-general, rose to his feet and, as I wrote at the time, 'indicated areas of agreement with Murdoch, mumbled for a few moments about programme quality and sat down'. I was stunned. I had never seen a man so completely fail to understand what his place in the world required of him.

Birt's response was that of a manager, a systems man, a functionary, a fixer. There would have been nothing wrong with that if he had been chairman of BP, or even of Granada Television. Such jobs require traders, hustlers, climbers of the greasy pole; not upsetting an industry mogul or dodging and weaving around the Inland Revenue is only to be expected. Those jobs have status, but not the kind of status that leads us to demand much of the man. The job of deputy director- general - still more director-general - requires so much more. It requires an institutional faith. If all the BBC needs is managing, fixing and systemic tinkering, then it may as well be abolished. Those things can be done elsewhere as, indeed, can the production of 'quality' television - Cheers and Roseanne on commercial television are still better than the best British sitcom rivals. Institutional virtue rests on more than what the institution does; it concerns what the institution is.

But, it might reasonably be argued, why worry? Once cable arrives, broadcasting is going to go crazy anyway. Maybe the BBC is politically secure, but industrially it is threatened on every front. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of new channels will arrive, as well as countless new gimmicks of interactivity with your television set. Red Hot Dutch, the porn channel, is just the start. Soon the ether will turn into a babbling swamp. If you don't like it, turn it off, but don't bore us with metaphysics and let Birt and his taxman cook up whatever schemes they like. DG? It's just a job.

Those committed to such a view cannot rationally be answered - waving institutional solidity at future-crazed techno-freaks is a mug's game. But the uncommitted should be facing the fact that the BBC is our last, our very last, chance of holding back the swamp.

Government has now totally destroyed the public service basis of the ITV network. The mad disparities of franchise payments, the open market in corporate takeovers from next January and the decoupling of Channel 4's finances from the network all guarantee that, over the next few years, we shall see a steady degeneration of ITV's output. The Big Breakfast is just the beginning. Isolated rock pools of quality will remain - Morse will always be financially justifiable - but the general tone will sink downmarket and the shows will be cheaper. Many more, up to 40 per cent, will be imported.

Meanwhile, although satellite's impact has so far been weaker than expected, cable is on the way and that will offer, in effect, a limitless supply of new material, 90 per cent of which will be violent, pornographic, mindless, drably functional or dull.

This future is currently very effectively concealed from us by the curiously good phase through which British television is passing. One Foot in the Grave, Morse and a dozen other shows are not only good, but talked about. Even the astoundingly vapid A Year in Provence displays a certain quality and sense of what works specifically for us. But television shows have long lead times, these are programmes that began life years ago. The ITV decline is waiting around the corner and the fruits of Birt's structural and personnel changes at the BBC will not be seen for some time. It is, for the moment, very easy to be complacent, to laugh off the tax dodging and give thanks for One Foot's Victor Meldrew.

But the truth is that British broadcasting is now facing the ultimate choice. This is the cliff edge - either we retain an institutional presence in the approaching swamp or we do not. The BBC must, by its nature, believe in that presence and in all the metaphysics, however pompous, that it entails. It must be, even before it is a programme maker, a genuine and self-justifying institution. And that meansthe DG and the Archbishop are one.

In that light, the tax dodge was madness. Duke Hussey and whichever governors were involved were crazy to pass it, and Birt was equally crazy to accept it. Others do not have access to such schemes and, for controllers of public money, commercial norms are beside the point. It casts yet more doubt on the ability of Hussey, Birt and the governors to grasp their situation and, therefore, on their ability to protect the BBC.