The promise by Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, to speed up the Corporation’s internal inquiry into how far the BBC needs to be reshaped to meet the digital age is a welcome dose of reality. More is the pity that the management left it so late -- until the combined forces of James Murdoch and the Conservative Party were on the war path, breathing down the BBC’s neck.
Sir Michael has asked the director general Mark Thompson to conduct ‘a thorough review of what the BBC should concentrate on in the future’. Several questions needed answering: is the BBC the right size? Is it operating within the right boundaries? (Lyons’ open letter to licence fee payers, 9.9.2009) Bearing in mind that the licence fee has only been guaranteed until 2015 – and in view of the Conservatives’ promise to freeze it at the current level – the BBC’s employees, just as much as the public, need to be reassured that the Corporation’s hierarchy does have a strategic vision for the future. The current ten-year agreement for the continuation of the licence fee was agreed by the Blair government just before the 2005 general election and in speeches I made at the time I warned it was only a temporary reprieve.Top slicing of the licence fee was then merely a suggestion; now it has taken effect. What I deplored at the time was that the management appeared to have no real understanding of Britain’s precious inheritance of BBC standards and values and a reputation for news judgement and impartiality which was still widely admired around the world. After a thirty year career with the BBC the one change which I pinpointed – and which I found so depressing – was a sense that the top management did not understand which of the BBC’s services were worth preserving and should be defended at all costs. The legacy of John Birt’s eight years as director general was that he seemed to neuter the BBC as a free spirit; he somehow demolished that great sense of independence and pride in what the BBC did and stood for. What Birt did instil within the BBC was a drive to expand and develop new services. At one of his ‘extending choice’ seminars in 1994 I asked him whether there would come a time when the BBC should defend what it did best rather than continue to spread its resources ever more thinly by opening new services. Birt was adamant: ‘Of course we must, we can’t stand still, we have to embrace each new service, each new channel…we can’t stop’. One undoubted achievement of Birt’s strategy was the development of the BBC’s online services, now a target for James Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, and sympathetic voices on the Conservative front bench. Delivering BBC news and programmes free on the internet has been one of the great innovations of recent years and not surprisingly it is the one area where a future Conservative government, egged on by Murdoch & Co, might well seek to clip the BBC’s wings. The battle lines are clear. What I believe need defending above all else are news, current affairs, sport and original entertainment programming. Let us hope that once again the BBC has the wit to parade its innovation and independence. I know that the argument can be won but it will require the kind of co-ordinated fight back – and defence of the licence fee -- that has been so lacking in recent years.