What's wrong with the BBC today ...

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The Independent Online
The Today programme is the flagship of the BBC, the bearer of its standards and so the slot that politicians fight to dominate. It speaks with the voice of the BBC, often setting the national news agenda and yesterday it featured the Director General himself.

For that reason, if we wish to analyse the state of the BBC's soul, this is the place to shine the torch into its eye. What better time to probe the BBC than in the week it has secured almost all it expected in its new licence fee deal? As it happens, yesterday's Today programme presented an uncomfortable snapshot of some of the ideological problems that now face the BBC.

As a former employee, I have many close friends in News and Current Affairs and I know how wearisome outside carping can be. I supported John Birt's reforms: he saved the BBC from bankruptcy, which would have delivered it into the hands of its many political foes. It is difficult to criticise the BBC even mildly without risking joining the ranks of those enemies.

So what was wrong with yesterday's Today programme? First there was the calamitous Personality of the Year vote, which should have been abandoned long ago. The Blair vote-rigging debacle exposed what everyone always knew: this farrago only tests which interest groups have the fastest fingers on their telephone buttons. The list of candidates is long on victims, short on sense. John Major? Anne Atkins (the air-head right-wing evangelical actress currently the Telegraph's agony aunt)? Apart from the Burmese opposition leader, the rest are all crime victims or their representatives, a sympathy vote.

You could say this was just unlucky foolishness. But solemnly allowing this charade to proceed speaks to a deeper malaise. The BBC, as national broadcaster has to be neutral, it thinks. To be sure it must treat each political party fairly, but that does not mean it has to be neutral on everything else that moves and breathes. It should not be neutral between absurd arguments and serious ones. It is not "fairness" to give nonsense equal airtime in the name of balance. The dreadful "Thought for the Day" slot was at its worst yesterday, with Cristina Odone, Catholicism's answer to Anne Atkins, pontificating on the sins of a film she hadn't seen - the remake of Lolita.

In its lead story, the Today programme failed to play a single clip of the ducal gaffes and the court correspondent was as pompous as a palace apologist: if the Duke is out of touch, the BBC is sometimes not far behind. While the rest of the world spluttered with indignation or laughter (a good 40 per cent of Britons are now of republican bent), the sonorous BBC said gravely: "Damage has been done ... Being the man he is, he just gave a straight answer ... He feels, by the way, the press are only interested when he causes controversy, and all his good work is usually forgotten." Where was the spontaneous ribaldry to be found everywhere else?

The lack of either spontaneity or comment stands out in the BBC's reporting, as journalism elsewhere these days offers lively interpretation. Bland statement of fact accompanied by two brief opposing soundbites of contradictory positions is not enough. In the great cacophany of voices and opinions all around us, the BBC house style is so safe as to be virtually silent - a non-player. It is a deadening, colourless habit of mind that will not sustain its reporting for much longer. Asked for a view, BBC staff clamp their hands over their mouths and claim intellectual castration. And it shows in the output. Intelligent reporters are reduced to empty ciphers, wasting their talents, patronising the audience and exuding caution.

It would take bold leadership to dare to discard a straightjacket that has become as outdated as the radio announcers' dinner jackets. The BBC needs the self-confidence to breathe the fresh air of controversy with a voice of its own. It is time to tell the politicians and the interest groups to go hang. Be brave. Otherwise the licence fee becomes an albatross, obliging the BBC to offend no one and say nothing.

In recent years the BBC has been preoccupied with its own survival. Cannons on the left blasted Birt as a destroyer of old BBC traditions (often thinly disguised self-indulgences). More dangerous cannons on the right tried to dismantle the BBC altogether, sell off bits and keep only a tiny specialist subscription service. Over past years (but quieter of late) the Murdoch press has bayed loudest for BBC blood, pursuing Murdoch's television interests.

The Director General on yesterday's Today programme was in Cheshire Cat mode. He was pleased with the licence fee outcome, not all he wanted, but enough. He was also reasonably pleased with this week's revised DTI regulations governing Rupert Murdoch's digital set-top box. Not all he wanted, but considerably better than was proposed two months ago before all the public fuss. Try as he might James Naughtie could not get John Birt to say the words "Rupert Murdoch", let alone express alarm at the tycoon's burgeoning media power.

But now the licence fee is won, the BBC is secure, whoever wins the election. Now is the time for the BBC to forget the politicians and take up its mantle as defender of our cultural life. That means confronting the power of Murdoch, as the greatest cultural threat. For even if (which remains deeply in doubt) Oftel successfully regulates fair access to the digital future, Murdoch's overwhelming dominance in sport and movies, what he calls his "battering-ram", will increasingly batter the BBC in the coming years.

Only the BBC, free of commercial interest, can take on this role convincingly. The political parties are paralysed by Murdoch's command of 40 per cent of the press. Who else is to take up cudgels against Murdoch's predatory newspaper price war, financed by a cross-media ownership that would have been banned in the United States? If the BBC marches into controversy on issues like these, so much the better. For what is the point of the BBC's new hard-earned political independence if it does not have the confidence to use it bravely for the good of the nation?