Why we are right to expect more from the BBC

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a foul day. A north-westerly hurricane was blasting sleet in from the Sound of Jura as I struggled past the Crinan Hotel, my coat-collar round my ears. From inside the hotel, somebody I knew waved urgently at me through

the window, pointing past me and

downwards.

I peered over the sea-wall. There below me, on an extremity of rock, stood a huge, bare-headed old man in a black oilskin. He was facing directly into the storm, leaning forward to keep his balance. Icy water was pouring across his bald scalp, gathering in the fringe of curls around it and then - as if from a full gutter - overflowing in streams down his shoulders.

For a minute or so, I watched this performance. Every time the wind flung the old man's body backwards, he bunched his shoulders and thrust his head back into the onslaught - as if he were confronting another person determined to break his will. But for whom was he acting out this drama of challenge and overcoming? For himself alone?

The friend from the hotel appeared beside me, gasping and brushing water off his eyebrows. He grinned, pointed at the figure on the rock and shouted: 'That's Lord Reith]'

Since then, we have all learned more about images and self-projection. I see now that I was watching Lord Reith laying on a performance of 'Reith' - a theatrical part made up out of all the cliches and caricatures that composed his identity to the outside world. This sort of guising, which is also a disguising, has been called a particularly Scottish form of behaviour. Whether that is true or not, it makes a biographer's job difficult and makes the journalist's quick invocation - 'Lord Reith would be rolling in his grave if he knew . . .' - very dangerous indeed.

In the present BBC convulsions, there can be no question that 'Reith' would have been appalled at John Birt's appointment as Director-General on a freelance tax basis. 'Reith' would have conspued all the Birtean ideas about 'producer choice' and 'the free internal programme market'. But what would John Reith himself have thought, that subtle, ambitious man who was neither immune to snobbery nor unable to change his views in changed times? Certainly he would have been furious at the bungling of Birt's terms of engagement, and nothing would have reconciled him to a chairman who made himself mightier than the director-general. But Birt's reforms, responding to new times, might well have won his approval.

Unfortunately, Britain has become the sort of place where 'Reith' matters more than Reith. Images continue to be worshipped long after realities have changed. The behaviour of British Airways towards its competitors, for example, has been disgusting by any normal standards, but the great outcry against Lord King and his 'dirty tricks' campaign against Virgin arose because the public still think of BA as 'the national airline' - a special, almost royal institution which carries the Union Jack across the world. The fact that BA is now just one commercial airline among many, a private company whose methods are no cleaner than those of any other, is simply not being accepted.

In the same way, the British have come to expect - if not to admire - phoney freelance deals for top executives in the engineering industry or a computer firm or in a commercial television company. But they feel injured when it happens in the BBC. The Beeb is different, and somehow should be above all that. Why? There are good arguments why, but nobody is presenting them.

This opens the way for a discordant howl about hypocrisy. Paul Johnson in the Spectator and Jaci Stephens in the New Statesman, an interesting pair to find singing duets, think that the attacks on John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey are no more than the envy of nasty little under-achievers. Johnson, screeching over the top like an old Congreve rocket, awards this newspaper 'the Joe McCarthy Prize for Services to Smear, Innuendo, Humbug &c' for publishing the facts about Birt's pay status. He blames 'the coalition of the left, the envious, the hypocrites and the time-serving failures and nonentities'. Jaci Stephens calls the protests 'a typically British . . . tale of hypocrisy and envy - envy of power, money and position', only to be expected from 'this pathetic, small-minded, psychopathically envious country'.

This sounds more like the reaction of pathetic, small-minded, psychopathically servile journalism. But the Stephens-Johnson duet is not just about the naughtiness of criticising top people with lots of money. It is also, inevitably, about the importance of kicking the BBC in the guts. Jaci Stephens sings of 'an overmanned, over-bureaucratic institution packed with whingeing men in suits, whose tongues couldn't be prised from each others' backsides'. Under her soprano rumbles Paul Johnson's bass: 'a musty, wasteful, memo-circulating, buck- passing, over-staffed, bureaucratic, time-honoured nationalised industry.'

This is an old song, and an ugly one. But the BBC seems unable to say why it is wrong. The Board of Governors, by adopting this Government's never- resign, never-explain policy, is acting up to the Stephens-Johnson stereotype and in effect behaving as the BBC's worst enemy.

The BBC has won a reputation as the most truthful source of information in the world and has been a model for public-service communications. It has also invented the unified 'culture-nation' of Britain. That function is now out of date, and it is time that the BBC lost its priestly self-importance on that score. But the other two things - the truth-telling and the structure which enshrines the sense that broadcasting and communicating are more than just a cluster of private profit-centres - have to be defended tooth and nail.

Not all the Birt reforms are bad. Costs must be cut and complacency punctured. But the 'internal market' idea threatens to reduce BBC television to a mere commissioning centre, without a creative spirit of its own. And, like Thatcherism itself, the so- called free market conceals a sharp centralisation of real power. The new Resource, Engineering and Services Directorate, for instance, means that the whole technical skills base of BBC- Scotland will now be controlled from London - which will in effect acquire a veto over programme strategies. Changes like this, if they run their course, will deeply injure the two virtues of the corporation. They will undermine and set off the collapse of public-service broadcasting as an institution, and constrict, if not strangle, that voice which tells the truth.

What about Birt and Hussey? To wish one or both of them out of the BBC is nothing to do with envy or hypocrisy. Those who are campaigning on their behalf know that, really, and so do the governors. That wish arises from fear for future of the BBC, of which the British are so inarticulately, obstinately but rightly proud. Much more important, their remaining in office must

be judged only on whether it will continue to wreak further damage on the BBC, which matters more than either of them.

I think that Hussey must go, now, but that Birt should stay subject to an austere judgement on his performance in a year's time. Reith could afford to spit into the wind. They cannot.

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